/ 28 March 2008

Milking the love

It isn’t my usual Wednesday afternoon, but it is a lot of fun. Instead of sweating over pages in the early flush of deadlines, I am perched among the buildings at Santarama miniland in the interesting but arse-end of Jo’burg.

I am in patent-leather stilettos, far removed from my standard Nike sports shoes or Green Cross sensible pumps. Also wearing a tuxedo, I am now literally sweating on this balmy spring day.

It is a photo shoot for Clover and part of a campaign called ‘Spread the Love”. Persuaded into it by the vivacious charm of Grazyna Koscielska and Samantha Adams-Moon who run Stimulii, Clover’s advertising agency, I am now catching some flak for doing the campaign.

What on earth is it about, ask colleagues? It looks like product endorsement, generally a no-no for journalists and editors who take their craft seriously. I’m catching kudos as well, primarily from my mother who surreptitiously shows the ad to family and friends. ‘If only she always dressed that way,” I can hear her thinking.

Some of the discomfort, I guess, is that the images are highly constructed ones, far removed from the documentary style of journalism. It is the style of photographer David Lachapelle, whose work creates surreal confections; he is a pop-art photographer.

Koscielska and Adams-Moon breezed into the Mail & Guardian offices last year, spreading admiring glances from my colleagues as they went. They explained the concept: take 10 interesting South African women, have them photographed by Lachapelle and use that as the basis of a campaign called Spread the Love. The 10 choices include the storyteller Gcina Mhlophe, rocker Karen Zoid, politician Helen Suzman, paediatrician Doctor Glenda Gray, designer Marianne Fassler and singer Miriam Makeba.

It’s not selling milk, but builds on Clover’s heritage brand status, says Adams-Moon. If the message is anything, then it is this: ‘As South Africans we give power to outside influences, when we want to celebrate our internal resources. We didn’t want the women standing with a glass of milk, but we wanted a buoyancy,” she says, adding that ‘we went for ordinary women and not the traditional celebrity images”.

In addition, it’s a campaign timed to counter the black-out pessimism that has seen emigration rising once again. Its ‘stay here!” message is one I don’t mind endorsing.

Besides, I may work for a hardnut, often cynical newspaper, but being the Piscean baby sister of two hippy brothers, I honestly believe in peace and love and spreading both. A survey out this week shows that this is the way of many South Africans; we remain among the worlds’ biggest givers with poor citizens being the most generous of heart.

The women chosen for the campaign are all strong role models — the kind of people I try to fill our pages with every week.

So, I said yes without knowing who Lachapelle was. I read this week that he is described by arts journalist Sean O’Toole as one of the hottest lensmen in the world, and his biography bears testimony to the accolade.

His surreal, pop-art portraits have graced the covers of the world’s best magazines. Colour and digital manipulation are his signatures; Andy Warhol is his mentor and it’s easy to see why. He is tiring of celebrity, though, and so took the assignment when Adams-Moon and Koscielska met him in London last year. His bookings requests reach the ceiling, aides have told newspaper interviewers, and he is muse to Elton John, Madonna, Paris Hilton, Eminem, Kanye West … you name it.

At Santarama, Lachapelle rides about on the choo-choo train while his flunkies prepare the set with lots of smoke, colour and crumpled newspapers. Finally, he appears and is quite the opposite of the prima donna mega-star shooter. He puts me at ease and shows me how to stand on those stilettos, balancing a globe in my left hand.

The globe carries through all the portraits to symbolise the spread of light. In the M&G‘s spirit, it is the spread of truth. And he shows me how to look into the camera. “Smoke, smoke —” he instructs, sending up plumes of white.

The ceramicist Carrol Boyes is photographed next to an elephant bursting through a wall, her hands folded Buddha-style; Suzman holds her globe while sitting on her favourite chair in her garden; Mhlope is fairy-like in Troyeville’s snake park; Fassler rises from a rickshaw in splendid cerise; Zoid’s guitar holds the frame together; while Makeba is regal in a peacock-blue chair.

The end result is a constructed image. Mine looks as if I tower over the buildings. It is not how I see myself, but how I see journalism: as an imposing part of public life. And, yes, I would like the M&G to own its own building in Jozi, one day.

To those who worry about product endorsement, the proof of the pudding is not in the custard used (as Clover may say), but in the journalism. As much as I love custard milk puddings, I don’t think we’re about to start publishing reams of recipes for them.