Timeless memories; at the click of a button

By Theresia Tjihenuna
March 2013
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Local veteran photographer, Gerhard Botha, is a familiar name to at least two Namibian generations who had their first official school pictures snapped by him.

Most middle-aged Namibians recall the nerve-wrecking day when they had to shine their shoes, neatly comb their hair and adjust their uniforms to look presentable for Botha’s flashing camera, wearing their shy Colgate smiles.

Botha’s professional photographic services have made him one of the most renowned commercial photographers in Namibia.

For two decades now, whenever Namibian school photo shoot days are announced, learners queue up in front of the camera and the man behind it, is often yours truly.

He often travels the country on photography assignments of both individuals and on-location functions. Hence, getting hold of him for this interview was not an easy task, considering his tight schedule.

Until recently, his studio - Gerhard Botha Photographers on Independence Avenue - would be so packed with clients that he and his staff would work overtime to accommodate each client. However, he decided to lease it to focus on school shoots and private requests, instead.

Like old wine, Botha’s 27-year career has only got better with time.

Born on 14 August 1958 in the Eastern Cape, South Africa, Botha moved to Namibia with his family in 1964 at the age of six.

“After completing my secondary school at Walvis Bay High School in 1976, I started photography while working at the old Academy. Although I was employed as an accountant there, I would also snap photos of student activities on campus, like sporting events and graduations,” he says.

In 1984, he started working at the [then] Ministry of Information as a trainee photographer under the guidance of renowned cinematographer and photographer, Paul van Schalkwyk. Schalkwyk taught him every aspect of photography as well as photo-journalism.

“I wrote in-house articles and took photographs for the ministry,” he says.

Having met his wife, Vera (also a professional photographer) in 1982 at a rugby tournament that they were both covering at the time, they got married. In 1985, they opened their own photography studio. The couple has a son and five daughters.

Their business covered all types of occasions; from weddings, corporate functions and family portraits, to commercial and advertising photography.

“At the time, I had started specialising in school photography, which is what I still do,” he says, adding, his wife and the other photographers still cover all other types of events.

While Gerhard is mostly known for the traditional school photography around Namibia, his more high-profile project is in taking official photos of top-ranking Government officials as well as managers of big corporate companies.

Not only did Botha capture the events leading to Namibia’s Independence with his expert lens but he was also the official photographer of Namibia’s first Independence celebrations on 21 March 1990.

The same year, Botha became the only Namibian photographer to capture the first moments of former South African President, Nelson Mandela’s release from Robben Island Prison.

Other outstanding events in his line of business include [as one of his career highlights] being the official photographer at the Miss Universe beauty pageant in 1992.

Another historic milestone close to his heart is the capturing of former Minister of Prisons and permanent member of the Swapo central committee, Andimba Toivo ya Toivo in 1984.

“I was the only photographer who snapped pictures of him leaving prison,” he recalls.

Since closing down his studio, Botha now owns a wholesale shop in which he is the official local distributor of all Kodak (an American multi-national imaging and photography company that specialises in photographic equipment) products.

“We also distribute Nikon and Pentax equipment as well as Klarus light products. We sell frames, albums and other photographic accessories,” he says.

He currently employs six people who assist him with printing, marketing, framing and the distribution of his photos: “My staff has played an integral role in the business agenda while maintaining the service delivery level our clients are used to.”

When he is not busy with his business, Botha winds down at his Gobabis farm in the Omaheke Region where he owns livestock. He also enjoys angling and hunting during his free time.

Although he is a conventional photographer who once specialised in developing photograph films, Botha keeps up with the latest trends in the industry.

“The transition from analogue to digital photography has taken the photographic industry by surprise, so far as development of digital media has accelerated. Photographic and printing shops have had to invest in digital printing machines and sharpen up their general knowledge regarding digital media,” he says, adding, traditional film photography has become virtually non-existent.

“Indeed, digital photography has made it possible for everybody to take a picture but a lot of traditional photography businesses specialising in developing and printing films have lost out with the introduction and expansion of digital photography,” he laments.

But Botha has not just enjoyed his own limelight, as he has also nurtured the careers of local photographers [among them] well-known northern-based photographers; Olavi Negonga and Joe Archer.

His priceless piece of advice to budding photographers in the industry is; good communication is key to becoming a professional photographer, “To start up a photography business in the present economic climate does have certain financial restraints. It requires extensive capital regarding fixtures, fittings and stock. On the other hand, establishing yourself as a photographer only requires the purchase of a good quality camera and sound knowledge of what you’re doing as well as language eloquence.”

With a well-established business, Botha does not plan to retire any time soon. Who knows; he might still snap official pictures of the next generation! PF