We caught up with Cape Town-based photographer, Justin Sullivan to find out more about his incredible images from the recent wild fires.


Once again, Cape Town and the surrounding areas have been plagued with what seems to be, relentless wild fires lately. Although we are all very aware of the destruction these fires cause and follow the firefighters progress with interest, few of us really know what it’s like up close. That was until local photographer, Justin Sullivan started following the fires. Over the last few weeks Justin’s incredible images from the fires raging in Elgin and the Stellenbosch areas have popped up just about everywhere, and rightly so. We decided to catch up with Justin and take a look at some of the incredible images he has managed to capture…. take a look.

Hi Justin, before we get into the fires, please give us a little background on yourself.
Well, I’m 24 years old and grew up in Kwa-Zulu Natal, South Africa. I moved down to the Western Cape to study at Stellenbosch University, where I completed majors in Geographical Sciences, Public Development Management and a half major in Sociology. I spent a few months after my studies travelling in parts of Europe – ironically taking photos of Parking Lots for an Application Company. I bought my first Nikon D3200 in Germany (July 2014) with a standard 18-55mm lens. It was only on my return to South Africa, I found myself in the thick of the 2015 fires and have since become, I guess a bit of a ‘fire chaser’.

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So what is it about the fires specifically that attract you?
This series of photos depicts the efforts of both full time Firefighters and Volunteer Firefighters. The photos show the extent to which these brave men and woman risk their lives. The general public is rarely exposed to the harsh conditions on the ‘front line’, and with these photos I try to portray the most realistic representation of the experiences of those who battle veld fires. In conjunction with the exposure of the realities within fighting fires, I have aimed to highlight the natural beauty within the disaster.

Well you’ve certainly succeeded in capturing the action and telling their story. How is it that you manage to get so close? Did you have to get specific training and permission from the fire department?
Initially when I started photographing fires I would sneak into the danger zone and try anticipate where the most action would be. After being chased off the mountain a few times and having one too many close encounters, I did my Volunteer Firefighting Training. Since then, I’ve been provided with PPE (personal protective equipment) and have to check into the control room during the bigger fires. I have access to the front lines most of the time and am able to get up close and personal (Still awaiting the day for my ride in a chopper). I try not get in the way, but always manage to stumble over a hose from time to time.

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In terms of your equipment, what do you shoot?
I am a Nikon man through and through. I shoot with a Nikon D750 and own a variety of Tamron lenses. My favourite being the Tamron 24-70 f2.8 vc. I love using this lens to get up close and its sharpness and durability have been incredible!

So you haven’t been shooting that long and you’ve done an incredible job documenting the recent events – what’s next? Will you keep chasing fires or do you have an interest in pursuing other avenues?
I love documenting the veld fires of the Cape and so I’ll keep documenting those as much as possible. In addition to that, I’m also very interested in documenting current affairs of contemporary South Africa, so I’ll also focus on that a bit more in the coming year. On a more personal level I love being outdoors and I enjoy shooting landscapes. I guess the dream is to cover a ground breaking story from a new angle that inspires millions, no limit to success!

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Keep up with more from Justin by visiting his website here. You can also follow him on any of these social channels: TwitterFacebook or Instagram.

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One comment

Shooting Fire with Justin Sullivan

  1. An inspired and somewhat unavoidable post, Michelle – thank you. Last week, you featured Ken van Sickle in ‘What Makes a Photographer when Everyone is Taking Pictures?’

    Interestingly, Van Sickle started his career as a serviceman in the continuing Korean War. War zones, disasters or cataclysm speedily define a photographer’s style and, with respect to our other top wildfire and professional photographers (including the likes of Patrick Ryan, Andrew Hagen and John Murray who shoot from the fire line), Justin epitomises the detached photojournalist in the thick of the action.

    He is a natural-born, stand-out fire chaser.

    Whereas I’ve likened much of Ryan’s work to David Lynch (it frequently conveys a sombre, oft-ominous tone with dark undercurrents), Justin must qualify as our local Kubrick. His camera is persistent, remorseless, always shooting and forever in the thick of the action – think ‘Full Metal Jacket’. Even his quiet shots are full of movement (there are several examples above).

    Having had the privilege of contributing text to a book on wildfire, I’ve studied thousands of wildfire images over the past year. Much as Hougaard Malan fell out of Stellenbosch to bring locals up to speed with international best practices in digital landscape photography a few short years ago, Justin has exploded onto the scene (and into what I believe to be his métier) with a storm of stunning wildfire images.

    That he has no background in art or photography beggars belief. Composition, perspective, angles, depth, lines and light combine at, I assume, high speed to form a startling array of mind-blowing photographs.

    His documentary photographs rank with the best but, given a wildfire, his captures consistently transcend that which is merely good. He allows the camera to speak for itself as he lugs it about with a paradoxically passionate disinterest. It becomes an unconscious tool of self-expression and the results immerse the viewer in the immediacy of reality.

    Van Sickle says it: “What a great photographer does is, they are consistently able to make something in a style that is personal to themselves.”

    Justin Sullivan has his own very definite style. And, over the past two fire seasons, he has proved himself remarkably consistent. A passion for photography? It goes without saying. Who knows? Perhaps he’ll be doing something else next year.

    Note: I don’t believe I’m eulogising these images unduly. If anybody can show me better, please do so. More, I don’t know Justin Sullivan – but I’m willing to bet I could identify one of his shots at a thousand metres.

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