Pro bono

Harriet Pratten went on a two-week visit to Africa – and stayed. Now she runs a media and photographic agency, telling stories about the icons of our age.

By Anneli Knight

Image of Harriet with Cobi, an orphaned lioness

'In Conversation' with Cobi, an orphaned lioness. Photo Adrian Steirn

When Harriet Pratten was 10 years old, she wrote a story about her dream life for a school project. In it, she pictured herself living in Africa working in an elephant orphanage.

Now 34, Pratten might not be nurturing baby elephants, but in the past six years, she has launched a documentary project that brought her in contact with South Africa’s most celebrated leaders, and has built a successful digital media advertising agency in Cape Town. Her travels have taken her through the depths of the African continent.

Pratten first travelled to Africa in 2008 for what was meant to be a two-week working holiday with her partner, wildlife photographer Adrian Steirn, to set up a photo gallery in one of Africa’s most exclusive game parks, Singita Private Game Reserves, in South Africa.

“What was meant to be a two-week trip has now turned into six years. The whole business has been incredibly organic. In some ways I’m as surprised to find myself here as my friends and family [are].”

Image of Harriet with Bono

Harriet with Bono. Photo Adrian Steirn

When two weeks was extended to a month, the couple decided to make a go of living in South Africa, though at the time they weren’t sure what that would mean. Pratten flew into Sydney to pack up her belongings and sell her home in Sydney’s Paddington before returning.

The desire to spend time living an adventurous life overseas dates back to her university days (BCom ’96). After finishing her degree, where she majored in marketing, accounting and commercial law, Pratten enrolled in short courses as diverse as finance at the Securities Institute of Australia and photography at the National Art School.

It was while studying commerce that she decided to begin her career in marketing as a means to venture into more creative roles. Pratten attributes her time at university as a crucial first step in a chain of events she could never have dreamed possible. “Commerce was a good grounding. I think it has been the stepping stone to everything else.”

Once committed to South Africa, Pratten and Steirn “spent the first year in the bush, primarily [taking photographs], and then it kind of grew from there. The next stepping stone was a project we put together called the 21 Icons project, a multimedia project of photography and short films about iconic South African men and women.”

Image of Harriet with an elephant

Harriet with elephant. Photo Adrian Steirn

21 Icons was a passion project for the couple that they initially funded themselves. It involved the creation of 21 three-minute films, each one featuring a living icon who had been involved in the struggle to set up democracy in South Africa. The first series of 21 films has been aired on television throughout 2013 and includes features on Nelson Mandela, Desmond Tutu and FW de Clerk (see below).

We didn’t know a soul when we arrived, but there’s something in not knowing the rules of the game and thinking that anything is possible.

Pratten and Steirn have also been working on a second series featuring 21 emerging icons in South Africa, and a third series of youth icons, which will be screened over 2014-15.

As well as a film dedicated to each subject, the couple also created an official portrait shot, a series of behind-the-scenes reportage photographs and an essay about the individual’s life.

It was through the contacts and networks established during this project that the couple built the foundations of their Cape Town business, The Ginkgo Agency (named after the Ginkgo Biloba tree, which Pratten says has both a left and right brain, a concept that reflects the creative and strategic aspects of the business).

The agency is a hybrid creative content agency and production house that now employs 20 local photographers, videographers, writers, directors, producers and editors to create narrative-based content for clients, predominantly based in Europe and the US.

Image of Harriet, Adrian and Kymi Naidoo, a South African activist

Harriet, Adrian and Kymi Naidoo, a South African activist. Photo Gary van Wyck

There is no typical week for Pratten and Steirn, with their jobs regularly taking them beyond South Africa, including Zimbabwe, Tanzania and Uganda, as well as regular trips to the UK and the US.

Recent projects include a documentary about the endangered Caucasian leopard in the small former Soviet nation of Azerbaijan. “It’s stuff you couldn’t imagine doing: we were dropped into the Hirkan National Park by the Azerbaijan military and spent two weeks there with the military as our hosts, who basically didn’t speak English.”

Other work includes a series of short films for a South African national branding project, a job in the US documenting the American prairie, and the final portrait for the first series of the 21 Icons project.

“It’s definitely not for the faint-hearted, it hasn’t been easy. We didn’t know a soul in South Africa when we arrived, but there’s something in that naivety of not knowing the rules of the game and thinking that anything was possible. When you’re in your home environment you’ve got preconceived ideas of what is possible, what is not possible, whereas here it was carte blanche,” Pratten says.

“When you just go for it, what can happen? It either works or it doesn’t.”

Meeting Mandela

Photographing Nelson Mandela in his home

Photographing Nelson Mandela in his home. Photo Gary van Wyck

Harriet Pratten has been deeply affected by the death of Nelson Mandela (LLD ‘00), who she met on a number of occasions through the creation of the 21 Icons project. “We were there for his 93rd and 94th birthday, and a number of occasions in between when we collected the portraits that he’d signed.
Pratten says she secured the interview with Mandela after establishing the project through interviews with several of his contemporaries. “He’s a very charismatic person, incredibly welcoming and he puts you at ease – he made jokes with us. To be in his presence is an incredibly humbling experience and despite yourself even if you tell yourself you’re not going to get emotional in front of him, throughout most of the shoot there were tears rolling down my cheeks,” Pratten says.

“When you see his eyes light up and he said he never thought they’d release him from jail, and to be sitting with him in his country home, was something I’ll never forget.”

Pratten says the shoot was one of the most nerve-wracking moments of her life. “He was the initial inspiration [for the 21 Icons project]. It was surreal, we’d been told so many times that it would never happen, he was the most iconic man in the world and to be afforded the opportunity to take a portrait of him was something so many people wanted to do.”

Mandela enjoyed seeing the other portraits that had been completed for the project, Pratten says. “All of these people that we have photographed were his comrades and people that he knew personally. Mandela called Yvonne Chaka Chaka the Princess of Africa when her portrait came up and made very fond comments of her, and Tutu was a good friend of his,” Pratten says.

“He’s always said there were many people involved in the struggle, and part of the idea behind the project was we wanted to showcase the many other men and women of great significance who played a hugely important part in what is the new South Africa today.”

By coincidence the final documentary that encapsulated all the interviews of series one of the 21 Icons project was aired in South Africa in the week of Mandela’s funeral. “It’s just uncanny timing that the first series has come to a close and the driving force for us, his life, has come to an end.”