Africa’s top rated Instagrammer, Gareth Pon, unfiltered
Words: Genevieve Putter | Photographs: Chisanga Mubanga
As a freelance writer, I have a confession to make… my shorthand blows. Ironic as interviewing prolific people is a big part of my schtick. Capturing those invaluable sound bites that really give a sense of the personality behind the brand or face is important when weaving the story of someone who's done – or is doing – a lot of cool shit, and in most instances is usually achieved when in conversation face to face. This was not to be one of those instances. To discover these pearls, in this case of Pon, I had to think creatively as we had the issue of distance to overcome – me being in Cape Town and he in Jozi.
Whilst doing my research, I was elated to discover that space-time travel is to him what acing shorthand writing is to me, up there on the bucket list’s top three. So we spent a few hours, he from his home in Bedfordview in the company of his cats, and me from my flat in Sea Point in the company of my dogs, defying the space-time continuum and texting over Skype. He said it was a jol, and I got every morsel. High fives were exchanged, we all won.
But before you read the transcript, a bit of a round-up on the poster boy of SA’s millennial generation, those 35-and-under who’ve got their fingers deep in many digitally flavoured pies. A warning though: He has the potential to make anyone hustling with a few projects on the go feel completely inadequate – this oke’s not just good at everything he does, he’s shit hot at it.
Gareth says his parents did him the courtesy of moving out of Benoni to Hillbrow soon after his birth in 1987. The flat in which he spent the first three years of his life – with his older brother Jason (@cannedbananas), Asian Mauritian mother, Eileen, (@mommypon) and Chinese father who’s fluent in Afrikaans, Leslie (@dadpon) – was next door to Ponte. Bedfordview was where the Pons eventually settled, and has been Gareth’s hood since. After school, he enrolled for a three-year diploma at LISOF but halfway through had that A-ha! moment. Or should that be 'WTF moment'? Either way, he packed in the needles and thread. A few years later he saw an open window, literally, at the Centurion visual communication school called the Open Window where he discovered and honed his love for film and photography.
He’s never looked back and at 28 running brand Gareth Pon – founder of Igers SA, filmmaker, photographer, mobile photography and social media consultant – has seen him travel the world, for Gareth, the next best thing to space-time travel. He’s also been voted Africa’s top Instagrammer for two years in a row, is Samsung’s current official Digital Imaging Ambassador, and has been featured on Instagram’s official blog, Hypebeast, The Huffington Post and The Mail & Guardian among many other local and international publications. Feeling like you need to take stock of your life right about now? Even if the answer is 'no', read on as Gareth shares his Pearls of Pon.
You’re a lover and fantasizer of space travel. Do you think you’ll get there one day and what do you hope to find?
I definitely know I will get to space one day. I think space travel is the ultimate frontier. I want to go by rocket, and I want to appreciate humanity from afar, take some alone time and hopefully find someone crazy enough to experience it all with me before I die.
So like Neytiri aka Zoe Saldana from Avatar?
She'd basically be perfect.
Which brings us to the next question… On your ‘About’ page on your website, you end it with an endearing suggestion that you are single, namely, ‘Looking for a girl whose dreams are as ridiculous as mine.’ How’s that going and when would you find the time for a relationship?
Haha, somehow I knew that that question was coming! At the moment, that bio is still there because I am still single. My friends have told me I'm always too picky, but I've also never been in a rush to get a girlfriend, it'll happen at the right time I guess. And in terms of time, unless she lives the same or similar lifestyle to me I guess it'll be unfair to her unless she's absolutely amazing and we find a way to make it work.
Love will find a way, dude…
I believe that too.
You’ve basically made a career of the second-best option, space and time zone travel here on the blue planet. How have you gone about doing this?
I owe a lot of my career to Instagram coming into existence – but I never started off with the intention of making it my career. I just loved having another creative outlet through which I could meet people, help grow their creativity and also find or create opportunities for others to get together. My activity on Instagram sorta snowballed, Instagram took note, then some amazing international blogs took note and I was being featured amongst some of the greatest photographers around the world. A privilege that any South African would be really grateful for. I've managed to gain a large international audience and this has given me amazing opportunities to travel, but only after I intentionally headed out to Europe and the States last year to build some really important relationships and gain some more exposure. I like to believe my life is a culmination of all the right mistakes.
Some seriously lucky mistakes! Which brings us to a burning question... How do you afford to travel so extensively?
It's a mix of work and personal. Last year a lot of my trips were self-funded. This year they've all either been sponsored, work or trade exchanges. But I will always extend my flights and stay a few days or weeks so I can visit a new city or meet up with some people I know through Instagram, make some international connections or set up time to explore cities solo. Having said this, I also live a very minimal life in terms of debt, commitments, and contracts, so I have the freedom to travel without really needing to ask anyone permission first. This is besides my two cats, Pesto and Pistol Pon, but they're generally quite chilled.
You are the quintessential millennial – fingers mashing up all kinds of pies – but unlike most of our generation who’ve endeavoured to be many things, have different schticks and do various projects, you’re pretty good at all of it. What do you attribute this to?
Quintessential millennial – very well said. I guess the mashing of pies came from my love for learning and all things creative, or maybe it's because I like cooking and pie? I also have a blessing and a curse of getting bored really easily, so I know that the moment I start loving something, I also begin to get bored of it. That mental pressure forces me to do everything as well as I can before I lose interest. My parents are also probably to blame; they’ve always encouraged me to do well at what I do. Whenever I did well, they just encouraged me further, whenever I did better they encouraged me more.
How do you manage brand Gareth Pon – the photographer, storyteller, filmmaker, consultant, founder of Igers SA, most-followed African Instagrammer etc?
Well, firstly I say no to a lot of things. I try be very stubborn with what I take on and what work I drive forward into my brand. I also treat my personal brand as something very personal, ever-changing, and always growing. I believe growth is important in order to stay strong and true. I don't have a PA and I also rarely let anyone do my own admin. I think the biggest thing I've learnt is that time is the biggest commodity, the only thing greater than time is people and being able to prioritise those two really well will get anyone into a good space. I also learnt a few years ago that the best thing anyone can ever do is honour themselves and their medium. Sure there are times when you need to bite the bullet and do stuff purely to make money, but above all there needs to be progress toward honouring your medium. For example, when I left college I was taking on a lot of brainless corporate work purely for money and one weekend I had a nervous breakdown. So I decided to be more stubborn with the kind of work I took on and to be more intentional about the jobs I accepted, purely to honour myself and my medium. At first it was challenging, but gradually it got to the point where honouring myself got me to a place where I was getting approached mainly for work I loved. It’s the dream, but I think it's also a discipline that some people never develop.
Most definitely. But I always factor in a lot of me-time. Quality over quantity, focus over dispersion. Me-time usually involves a mix of working out at gym, traveling solo through extended work trips, reading, driving – I love long drives but hate road trips. Contradictory, I know. I also love to sleep, but doesn't everybody? Sometimes I just do nothing, that's the best. I think it's necessary and often forgotten that we need to pause in life at times.
If you could split up your week in percentages according to all that you do, what would it look like?
That's a good question and depends on what I’m working on at any given time, but generally I’d say photographer = 25%, storyteller = 15%, filmmaker = 15%, consultant = 20%, Instagram = 25%.
So you’re also like a ‘life-slash-business-coach’ but for brands wanting to communicate through imagery. Break it down for us?
I have some brands who I consult with on a regular basis and then I also give guidance around creative concepts and develop unique ideas for various platforms, with a focus on online content and social media. Other times I'll be approached by a brand to create content but then I'll also assist with executing campaigns or consulting on how to do various things on Instagram. Workshops are also a part of what I do, although those are very specific to each brand/agency/business. It's always a mix, conversations are always necessary. I also am privileged enough to have some international agencies bringing me in on various campaigns, which means I get to travel and I also get paid international rates.
As Africa’s top Instagrammer for 2014 and 2015, the pressure must be huge, like every time you post something it has to be amazing whether in story or aesthetic?
I tend to ignore the pressure of the audience. At some point in my Instagram journey I realised that the moment I post something purely for the likes or comments, then that's the point where my account no longer belongs to me. I'll post what I love, stay true and if people dislike that then they can go jump in the abyss because I won't change what I love purely for engagement on social media.
Amen! So how do you deal with haters, or negativity regarding your posts?
I actually rarely get hate luckily, sure people unfollow me but that's fine because it happens to everyone. It's not about followers it's always been about creative content. If I do get haters, I evaluate whether it's worth my time to deal with it. If it's not, I just ignore it or give a single response, it's the internet, people will get over it.
Shit, but you’re well adjusted! So what then are your pet Instagram peeves?
Duplication, getting tagged in photos I'm not in and 365-day projects that aren't interesting. I might get in trouble for saying those things!
Have you ever been on a digi-detox?
Yeah, it's a convoluted topic. I actually digi-detox often. I love it. My phone is also always on silent, I only look at it when I feel like it. It doesn't vibrate, I don't answer phone calls unless I'm not busy with something and my time digital/social media energy is allocated to certain times during the day. Also if I don't have wi-fi, connectivity I don't scramble to get it, I just embrace it.
As the founder of Igers SA what does this actually entail?
So the Igers South Africa community I founded links up to one of the largest and biggest communities in the world. It's the only local Instagram community that has international recognition. We've got managers in most of the local cities who manage Instameets on an ongoing basis and cultivate the local Instagram community first hand. Initially I started off Jozi, then decided to make it national, all for fun and for the good of bringing people together. We'll get between 80-200 people at Instameets in Jozi, slightly less at the Cape Town ones and then smaller groups in the other cities.
The power of Instagram is that it is a channel for narrative, do you think it is having any effect on changing narrow views of Africa. What comes to mind is the recent # phenomenon #ThisIsNotTheAfricaTheMediaShowsYou
I definitely think it is having an effect. I know many people and I see it weekly where people comment that they've seen an angle of Africa that they've never seen before. Media in general loves focusing on the negative, I think Instagram especially has also educated people to see more visually, but also communicate visually and that awareness has added an expectation to a lot of the common consciousness in the educated world. People are searching for honesty nowadays; they want the real, not the well-packaged projections.
We’ve spoken about space travel as your new frontier, what about social media, where do you think it’s going?
Three words. Subconscious continual connectivity. We see some of it coming through in Periscope where you can basically broadcast a live video feed from your phone, people can comment and send likes, its quite creepy actually. Snapchat introduced that idea although they’re more behind the scenes, but their thinking paved the way for Periscope as far as I know.
So who does the most followed African Instagrammer follow?
These are a few who I've met who made me love their photography more. I think being able to actually meet some of my personal favs, and become great friends with most of them, has blown my mind, it happens every time when I meet an Iger who's work I've always loved.
And your parting pearl of wisdom?
When someone is nicer in real life than online it makes their work even more amazing.