By his own estimation, Warwick Saint enjoyed a fairly straightforward South African middle class childhood, growing up in Johannesburg in the 70s and 80s, attending an established Johannesburg private school. Then all of a sudden he wasn’t in South Africa anymore, and not much was straightforward. His rise to fashion photography mega-stardom happened with all the speed of a military abduction, and, talking to Saint, one gets the sense that he has yet to catch up, two decades on.
“I’ve just finished shooting Nike’s World Cup football campaign,” he explains. “That took us to Paris, Barcelona, Madrid and Seattle, where I am now.” But then, despite his obvious achievements in a hyper-competitive world, you discover that the bio on Saint’s website is the one written by his mother for a local magazine many years ago, which describes with a mother’s pride how at school “he headed up the Photographic Society and judiciously used his access to the dark room by smuggling in his girlfriends...”
One consequence of the trail Saint has blazed through the world of commercial photography has been near total anonymity at home, in spite of his being, alongside Nadev Kander, one of the country’s greatest photographic exports. And yet South Africa not only nurtured him, but provided a set of skils from which he was able to fashion his big breakthrough.
It’s a little known story that is well worth telling. “Between the ages of five and seven I lived in photographic studio in Sweden. My mother, who was a model, was dating a Swedish photographer,” Saint says.
His father, Kenny Saint, was the creative director of a leading graphic design company, and Saint’s mother Deborah recalls how her son “spent many hours by his father’s side, developing an eye for style, colour and form.” Saint’s father gave him his first camera. “When I was fifteen he took me on this safari in the Kruger Park, and I remember really digging the camera, shooting landscapes and trees through the window, not even animals, really, and it popped into my head that maybe I could do the photographer thing.”
His home life was a perfect environment for these interests, as his mother was then working on Sun International’s advertising campaigns, flying to exotic locations in Sol Kerzner’s jet with her son in tow. When his father died suddenly in a car accident in his last year of school, Saint decided once and for all that he would be a photographer. “That tragedy,” recalls his mother, “strengthened his desire to uphold his father’s reputation as one of South Africa’s leading creatives.”
Roy Giles, the photographer on those Sun International campaigns, provided a firm foothold by asking Saint to work as his assistant on a catalogue shoot in Majorca, loading 120mm film into Hasselblads and taking light readings. From Giles he would learn that interpersonal skills – “keeping the vibe up” – equalled technical proficiency as a requirement for successful fashion photography. He began his degree in philosophy and art history already washed in sun and the company of beautiful women, and upon entering the trenches of the South African advertising industry after graduating he “quickly realised that if I really wanted to get back to the world I’d tasted I needed to go overseas.”
Aged 21 he packed his bags and went to London, where, within three weeks, he had a job assisting one of the busiest catalogue photographers around.
Saint’s nine months with fashion photographer John Bishop took him all over the world, from Bermuda to Miami, Venice, Mexico, Paris... He went on to assist several other photographic heavyweights, including fellow expatriate South Africans Warren du Preez and Nadev Kander, before plotting his own breakthrough. The strategy he hatched was simple but inspired.
“I had plans to spend the British winter in South Africa, and decided to offer the big UK weeklies like the Sunday Times Magazine and Observer Magazine photo shoots in South Africa. I argued they’d be getting so much more than the usual London studio output for their budget, plus I came up with detailed ideas for the shoots I planned to do.”
It was an offer the editors of these publications found easy to accept, and Saint scraped together £15 000 which he spent flying his stylists to Cape Town. But before leaving England he decided to take pot luck, and offered a shoot to Dutch magazine, the international style Bible of its time and showcase for the work of iconic photographers like Mario Testino and Steven Klein.
“I mentioned to editor-in-chief Matthias Vriens that I happened to be in Paris, where the magazine was headquartered. Of course I wasn’t, but when he invited me to drop by I was there soon enough, courtesy of the Eurostar. I said: ‘Look, I’m going over to South Africa and I have an opportunity to work with elephants.’ He was doing an issue all about skin at the time so he commissioned me, which was huge.”
After wrapping up the shoots for the British weeklies, Saint headed to the Knysna Elephant Park with a male model he had flown out from Poland, “and basically hung out there for three days and shot a swimsuit story with African elephants in it.” Vriens was blown away by the result, and gave Saint the cover of Dutch magazine and 24 pages.
“I remember running out of his office into the streets, jumping and shouting, and of course I got into a phone booth and phoned my mum, and that was it, basically. That was the breakthrough, because within a week I was getting calls from doyens like Tom Ford and Karl Lagerfeld, and magazines like Arena and Dazed&Confused were offering me commissions, and then I landed a commission to shoot a Diesel ad campaign, and was being paid $10 000 a day, which was insane, because just a few months before I had been surviving on rice and tomatoes in a tiny room in Hammersmith.”
A commission for Out magazine took Saint to New York – “a place I had always wanted to spend time in” – and when he returned to London he was in the stable of a leading New York agent. For a few years thereafter his life would be lived in no small part 30 000 feet above the Atlantic Ocean.
“I’d been propelled into mega-stardom, which was overwhelming, and there was a lot of luck involved too, because I think my work took a dip as I struggled to come to terms with the pressure.”
In 1999 Saint moved to New York, and found that he had to virtually start over, as his London connections faded. But ultimately the work rolled in: campaigns for Puma, Adidas, Nike, “Gillette with Jennifer Lopez”, Maybelline, Avon… (“there’s been a lot of them”). He has shot innumerable celebrity musicians and actors, including Steven Tyler, Jamie Foxx and Jeff Bridges. He kept the African elephants in business too, for BMW and most recently in early 2013, when he rehashed his original breakout shoot, Elephant Boy, with Jared Leto as the starring human.
In the course of this star-studded life, Saint has drifted further and further from his childhood home, to the extent that he says he tells people, “I was a South African”. He remains “very proud” of his origins, though, and still returns to Cape Town to visit his mother, and occasionally to party in the Tankwa Karoo at AfrikaBurn.
Some South Africans on Saint:
“I’ve known him forever and always mention his achievement as an example to other South Africans of what can be achieved with dedication. Warwick’s obsessed with his work, as you must be not only to make it at that level, but what is more difficult to do in my opinion: to maintain that level of success in the most competitive environment there is, being America.” – Gavin Furlonger, Head Representative of Hurricanes Photographers Agency, Cape Town.
“I’d never heard of the guy before, and now that I’ve checked him out, I hate him.” – Dylan Culhane, photographer and former editor of Vice magazine and One Small Seed, South Africa
Written by Sean Christie for Shimmy Style Magazine South Africa
Images by Warwick Saint