Hello everyone, my name is Gareth Pon. I was born in Johannesburg, South Africa and I recently moved to Chicago last August.
How was life growing up in South Africa?
I grew up in Johannesburg. My dad is Chinese and second generation South African and my mom is Mauritian. Growing up in South Africa, cultures are very diverse there. It’s a very interesting place to grow up because there are so many different voices and different cultures that you get intertwined into. There are eleven official languages in South Africa and that could throw you off a bit. South Africa was very interesting, to say the least. In many ways it depends firstly on the environment you’re born into. Luckily I had great parents and friends who raised me. South Africa taught me to see the world in a different way and focus on the details.
When did you begin to witness you had creative talents?
For me, it was at a very young age. I distinctly remember in school the first time I picked up a pencil and the teacher told me to draw something. My grandparents used to breed pigeons and that’s what I drew. I remember my Art teacher walking by and telling me how accurate that looked to a pigeon. I realized that creativity was there, whether it was attributed to registering things at a young age or whether or not I actually had a talent. Since then, I’ve always experimented with different things. There was a distinct shift where I forgot about science and math. Those things came too easy to me and Art became a new challenge, because it was always so confusing.
After high school what was your plan?
After school, my goal was to take a year off and start my clothing brand. My dad told me I couldn’t take time off. He wanted me to study Fashion. At this time in my life, I had a friend that was a fashion designer and I ended up going to the school she attended. After a year and a half of attending school, I started to realize this isn’t what I wanted to do anymore. I was doing well there. They were willing to offer me a bursary and feature my work, but I had to go and tell them I couldn’t do this anymore.
I ended up leaving school and getting involved with retail marketing. That was an easy transition because I was able to use the skills I learned in school. I worked with furnishing windows, setting up designs, and learning how to sell a product in a visual way. Once again, I was in a position where everything was starting to become monotonous. It was only so creative.
I left that and started to work with my Dad. I went into doing architectural animation and 3-d design. I got to a point where I got tired of it and that’s when I decided to go back to study.
While going back to college, you were able to get into Photography. How did that come about?
I decided to attend a college called Open Window to study animation. At this school when you first start you learn everything, ranging from web design, drawing, web layout, photo, and video. The first year is very foundational and in the second or third year, you begin to hone in on your specific major. I took animation and as a contributing major, I took film. When I got into film, I started to not like animation as much. Being in film is where my passion for photography came from. I owned a 5d Mark II for a year and a half and I had not taken a single photo. I figured I had this tool. I should start taking photos too. I started shooting and originally was doing photography to improve my composition for video. Over time, I began to fall in love with taking photos. A lot of the photography skills I have now are branched out of video, so I always go back to that and try to merge the two mediums together.
Lets talk about how you get involved with Instagram
Instagram came about because I started taking a lot of photos and I needed a platform to show them on. It’s funny, I initially I used Instagram to experiment a ton. Instagram was my outlet. With all of the experimentation, I learned to make mistakes and that really made me who I am now. But one time I remember posting a photo and I tagged it with one of the Weekend Hashtag Projects and it got featured. I remember seeing the nine other photographers that got featured and had no idea how my photo was up there with theirs. I didn’t even think the photo was that good. I began to witness the photography community that Instagram had brought together.
After starting and building your personal Instagram, you started Instagramers South Africa. How did that come about?
At that time I was getting more serious with Instagram and meeting up with friends and attending Instameets, but I wanted to build my own community out of this. That’s when I decided to start Instagram South Africa. I reached out to a few guys in various cities and told them lets meet up and form an Instameet. I didn’t care if we got one or twenty guys to attend. The goal was to just do it and show people you can do rad things wherever you are with your phone or your camera. The page started to really kick off. My intentions were never to get ‘famous’. I figured we have an amazing and beautiful country, we should show it off. I’ve also been a very community driven dude and I wanted to build into that. I had an opportunity to bring people together and create cool connections out of it. It started to continue to grow more and more. Instagram started to take notice of what we were doing in South Africa and they were wondering where the community came from. They started featuring our Instameets every second week. We were growing something very unique and it was cool to see so many people appreciate what we were doing.
What was that feeling you felt when you became Africas top Instagram artist? (2014-2016)
A bit of history on that award. It’s run by the African Blogger Awards, which is an independent entity. The awards are given on a very technical and analytical basis. It’s not just about having a lot of followers. It’s a lot more technical than that. The awards are newer and I’ve won it since its inception. Their whole intention is to highlight social people who are doing very cool things. The first year it happened, at first, I didn’t think it was that big of a deal, but I then realized how big of an award it actually is. Then I won the next year and the following year again and it has been amazing. It encourages people to do a lot of cool things with their social clout.
How do you end up in Chicago?
Jason Peterson and I go back to following each other on Swarm (Foursquare), which is a check in app. A while back, I accidentally followed all the people I follow on Twitter on Swarm. I was too lazy to go unfollow everyone, so I just left it. I ended up being in New York in 2015 and I saw Jason check into NYC. I reached out to him and told him we should meet up. We then met up at Central Station and hung out for a bit. The next day we met up again with a few other photographers and went shooting. A few days later we parted ways but kept in touch through Snapchat. Months down the line we ended up meeting back up in Vegas. We got brunch and then ended up going on a Helicopter ride. I started to think that this guy was really connected, but I had no idea who he was. At this point, he kept hinting at things. Jason would ask if I would ever move to the states, if I’ve ever been to Chicago, etc. I finally decided to ask what it is that he does. He told me that there’s a company called Havas, he played it down, and he didn’t say anything else. For lunch we grabbed In-N-Out and I asked if he was serious about me moving to Chicago. Jason started to talk about The Annex, the future of the company, and he tells me he would love for me to come work for him. I was like wait, did he just offer me a job, officially. I had never been offered a job before and the only other job I had before was the retail marketing position. I didn’t know what to say, but I said, yeah I’m keen, what do I do next. Jason got me flown out to Chicago and I interviewed with a bunch of people. A month or two later I got a call saying they wanted me to work at Havas.
How has it been working here at Havas? Did you ever think Advertising was going to be what you would get into?
It’s been awesome. In South Africa, I was running a one man Annex. Smaller scale clients, but I was doing everything that an agency does, on a one-man basis. I felt like I reached the ceiling in South Africa. The hustle was very tiring. Now I’m working in spaces with very rad teams and amazing creatives. Having bosses like Jason and Paul are the best. Those two have done a really good job of cultivating the culture here. In many ways, it has been the best process of learning that I’ve ever been through. I’ve been able to work alongside many amazing people and have learned so much.
One thing I like most about your Instagram is the rocket you hide in your photos
One day after an Instameet, a big group of us were editing our photos while eating. I noticed that nobody ever put his or her phone down. They just kept browsing and double tapping. I started to think about what I can do to my photos that could make people pause and look for more than a second. It wasn’t about me wanting people to look at my photos; it was more so how could I disrupt their constant scrolling. Making someone be conscious of something for more than a second is extremely hard nowadays. I figured I would start to hide my rocket in my photos. Ever since my trip to Berlin a few years ago I’ve put a Rocket in each photo. It’s fun. Every now and then I’ll get a DM saying I’ve spent so much time looking for your rocket. Sometimes I even forget where I placed it.
For every 1 person who makes it as a photographer, there are 99 who won’t. Whether you’re a photographer, filmmaker, or writer, you’ve got to carve a niche for yourself in order to stand out. What made you that 1 who made it?
I think my roots have a big part of that. I personally believe I have a very unique outlook on life. Also, being in South Africa there was less competition. I was offering a unique perspective that I believe a lot of people were looking for at that time. Although that was only a few years ago, people wanted to see the world from my perspective. I also was not just interested in posting a good photo, but posting a photo that looks tells a story. I’m also a very strong community driven dude. A lot of what I’ve done up to nowadays what people call successful is attributed to the people and friends I’ve made along the way. That’s been my strongest point. Being able to link up and create best friends and link with the right people. Sure there’s a visual side to it, but if I could boil it down to one thing, it’s the social aspect.
You often say, “Creativity is found when we are wildly innocent”
At a young age, people are always creating, whether you’re two years old or ten years old. There’s an element of putting a Lego together or drawing with a pencil on your mother’s wall and you don’t even know it. What’s sad is that the more educated we get the more we lose that creativity. We think we can’t draw this because someone is going to laugh at us. I started to ask where does creativity really come from and I personally believe creativity comes from that innate innocence that we all have but gets suppressed the older we get. Creativity in many ways is seeking out that purity and innocence and expressing it in a way that’s relevant to who we are today.
Instagram is “content not created by strategy but instead by authenticity” Do you think there still is a strategy behind social media?
As Instagram continues to grow, it has made people have to start developing strategies. Strategy for me is foresight merged with creativity and figuring out ways you can uniquely express that. You can get as strategic as you want on Instagram. You can plan out posts, time them, use certain hashtags, create series, but at the end of the day if you’re doing all of that and you profile looks like next ten guys next to you, it’s bad. Even with all of that strategy, there still needs to be a level of honesty and strategy that stands out.
If you could pick three spots you would love to shoot, where would they be?
Space – My biggest dream is to get into space.
Russia – I don’t know why I just really want to go there. I feel like Russia is untapped.
Sri Lanka – There’s this weird romantic idea of Sri Lanka in my mind.
When it’s all said and done how would you like to be remembered?
I look to live my life on a quote and it goes, “Live life knowing that if you died, you’ll be missed.” I don’t want people to remember me as the guy who had a lot of followers or that guy who inspired me to travel. I want to be remembered by those personal moments that each individual had with me.
Written by: Nicholas Rud