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Interviews, Originals October 1, 2023October 19th, 2023

In Conversation with Roberto Colombo

Portraits by Luca Vincenzo | Interview by Robin Pailler

The joys of mutual friends.

I’d first heard of a certain Roberto Colombo many months before we actually met. He’s part of what I refer to as, my South African collective of incredibly talented friends.

Having first seen Roberto’s work via Walk Good, a 16mm abstract visual account of a Jamaican experience from a trip he’d embarked on with my good friends, filmmaker Adriaan Louw and photographer extraordinaire Luca Vincenzo – who also kindly contributed to the portraits you see here – we met shortly after in Berlin, and I was immediately struck by Roberto’s incredibly humble demeanour and his inquisitive nature of the world around him.

Since that initial meet several years ago, Roberto’s been grinding away, both in the commercial field and on personal projects. Often working alongside his twin sister, renowned photographer Lea Colombo, the pair share a natural talent for highly stylised, visually striking imagery. Polychromatic, vibrant, and dare I say, a little psychedelic at times.

Since Roberto’s roots stem from surfing Cape Town reefs as a grom, and he most recently shot a piece with our dear friend Mikey February, we felt it necessary to find out a little more about the man.

Hey Roberto, where you at right now?

I’m in Val di Mello, just walking up a valley to a refuge. There’s a bunch of climbing routes and trails out here that I want to check out. But yeah, basically in a valley with some 3000+ metre mountains around me.

For those that don’t know, since you’re a man of many nations, tell us about your roots.

I was born and raised in Cape Town, South Africa. Lived there for pretty much most of my life. Went to school and university there. My first foray of living abroad was after my studies. I took a bit of a gap year and ended up in Berlin for a bit. My Dad’s Italian. Him and his family moved to South Africa shortly after the war, looking for work. So my Dad’s been in South Africa since he was around nine or ten years old. My mom is German, and only moved down once she met my Dad which was a lot later in life. 

And how did you get into surfing? What was the scene like growing up in South Africa?

I mean I grew up in a house overlooking the ocean so naturally as a kid you’re gonna be intrigued by whatever surrounds you. Inspired by it and those in it, so eventually you just get into it. It was kind of the thing to do amongst my friends. 

I’m technically a bodyboarder. In my class we all started bodyboarding together, more due to the fact that the waves that were close to us were mainly attuned to bodyboarding. There were all these little reef spots, which as a grom are fucking exciting because they’re these really hollow, small waves off these reefs. We had Suckers, Sewers, Froggy’s, Exposures. Llandudno was one of my local spots, it was a nice, big wedge in the corner called The Gat. So those spots were really fun on a bodyboard compared to a surf board. 

Those were all reefs I could walk to. In South Africa as a kid, you were always very reliant on your parents dropping you off somewhere. We didn’t have things like Uber or any real decent public transport at the time, so we’d have to walk everywhere or get a lift with someone. And a lot of those spots were within a half an hour walk from me so it was really exciting and fun as as kid. 

Now that I’m no longer living by the ocean, the opportunities to go surfing are more infrequent. But when I’m back there I’ll surf when the waves are a bit smaller and fun. When the waves are bigger and hollow I’ll still bodyboard. Cape Town is ideally situated too. You’ve got the west coast, which is the Atlantic Ocean and cold, and then you have the east coast, closer to the Indian Ocean where it’s warmer. So whichever season, whenever there’s holidays you’re bound to have waves on one of the coasts. 

So yeah, surf trips were what our weekends and holidays revolved around. You’d find someone a bit older with a car and go with them up to Jeffrey’s Bay, Plettenberg Bay, St. Francis. Especially around new years. You’d go up there for parties and then go surfing. And then the west coast, like Elands Baai, which is a bit more desolate, remote. You’d go camping with friends, get some cold water barrels and go exploring up there. 

There’s just so much to explore there. Especially when Google Maps was a new thing, we’d look at satellite imagery and find new waves which was really fun. A lot of those waves have now been discovered and made public. I remember Tand, which is an infamous bodyboarding slab up the west coast. We’d try and get pieces of information from people, try to narrow it down to two or three spots we’d found on Google Maps satellite. I remember we went to two of them, and actually managed to find it! But we got the conditions completely wrong and it was so, so scary. Now it’s obviously all public knowledge and there’s an event there. But it was fun times growing up in South Africa as a kid.

And were you always artistic as a kid or were you more academic in school?

I was luckily always good at school. When the time came at seventeen, eighteen and I was trying to figure out what to do next, I was a bit unsure. But because I was kind of good at academics, I thought I might as well pursue that for a bit longer. Whereas my sister hated school and once she finished, immediately knew she wanted to get into photography and move abroad, to Paris. I feel like I was much more immature than her at that age. She kinda knew what she wanted. I was more like, “ah, let me study something for four years to give me some more time to figure out what I’m going to do.” And that ended up being civil engineering. My Dad’s an architect and I quite like structural engineering. That’s kind of what I was thinking of going into it. But then all that changed from civil engineering to filmmaking, which had always been a hobby of mine.

And what was your relationship like with your twin sister Lea? She’s obviously made quite a name for herself now in the photography world and you work together a lot. Were you always close or was there sibling rivalry? How did it evolve over the years?

I mean, I think like most relationships, especially ones with siblings, it kinda ebbs and flows, y’know? Again I can only speak of my own relationship as I don’t have any other siblings. When you’re younger, you kinda hate each other sometimes, then you love each other. And then because she left right after school, we kinda lived apart for quite a while, which was quite weird after having grown up doing everything in life together; birthdays, school, friends etc. She was in Paris for around seven years and then I decided to move to London after she’d been living there for a while. I think as we get older, we really appreciate one another’s company and our time together a lot more. And now I’ve moved to Milan and she’s gone back to Cape Town. 

And how is life in Milano?

Well I’m only a week into my Milano adventure. I just found a place that I can move into next week, which is why I’m in the mountains right now. Making a mini holiday of it. I’ve been in London for almost five years now. I moved there just before the pandemic so it was quite an interesting time. It had its ups and downs work wise. Sometimes there’s so much work, and then other times it kinda all drops away for a while before it all comes rushing back. But I guess working as a freelancer in our industry it’s something you have to learn to deal with. I had moved there together with my fired and talented wildlife filmmaker Luke and now along with my sister he’s left. I felt there was less of an anchor holding me there. I think I’ve also established myself enough in my career that I’m able to work wherever I want really. To be honest I haven’t had a shoot in the UK for the last two years, so it was kinda like, “ok why am I still here?”

Especially coming from Cape Town, I’m so used to the outdoors, the mountains, the ocean and I think I really started to miss that. All my trips focus or revolve around going outdoors. So I thought, ‘where could I get that balance?’ and Milan came to mind because my Dad’s originally from around here and also since Milan has all the alps surrounding it, as well as the Mediterranean; Good food; and can work on my Italian. So yeah it seemed to be a no brainer. Except for the fact I only know around four or five people in Milan. But so far it’s been really smooth. Been reaching out to people and I couldn’t ask for a better move to Milan so far. So here’s hoping it carries on in the same direction.

Moving on to your filmmaking projects. I think the first time I saw your work was on Walk Good with Adriaan Louw and Luca Vincenzo? How did you originally get into filmmaking?

I’ve been doing video work since I started surfing. It kinda went hand in hand with that. Filming friends and stuff. I think around the Walk Good time, I was starting to think: “ok, let me try and do filmmaking full time. I can do this as a career” So that was relatively recently. Before that, Adriaan was getting me involved on projects, as b-cam kinda stuff, helping out with a couple of things on his projects. Walk Good was on the tail end of a commercial project we all did together in Miami and then we all decided to go to Jamaica and that’s what came out of it.

Was there a certain moment or video project specifically that gave you the confidence to really pursue it as a career?

I mean I consider myself a filmmaker and not purely a director, or a cinematographer. I’m self taught and always had my hands in editing, shooting, directing etc. So when I moved to London I first thought I wanted to become a cinematographer. I suppose the main commercial jobs I was doing at the time were working with Lea. So she’d direct and I’d shoot it and do post production. Similarly with Adriaan Louw, we worked on a few projects where he’d do the stills and the main video and I’d take care of b-roll and extra video content.

So working on those projects under Adriaan and Lea kind of gave me a bit of confidence and I learnt a lot from that.  Then it naturally evolves to getting requests for jobs like, “hey, can you direct this?” And I’m like, “I’m not really a director but why not?” So yeah it kinda naturally progressed like that. I don’t think there was a particular job, it was more a a culmination of work over a stretch of two or so years. Helping my sister at Paris fashion week, projects with Kent Andreasen, and going on trips and commercial shoots with Adriaan Louw . That’s actually where I met Luca for the first time, on a shoot in Cape Town. But yeah I don’t think there was one particular project, even now, I still feel like I’m learning on every project. I still have my doubts. It’s just a continuous journey of testing yourself and taking on bigger projects. 

I think the one that really stood out for me was your piece for Bantu Wax.

Yeah, that’s definitely one of my proudest ones and one of the ones I’m most stoked by. Obviously there’s that infamous thing of earning a Vimeo Staff Pick in our industry haha. It’s like this milestone that everyone aims for. Maybe not so much now anymore, but it definitely has been for a long time, for a lot of filmmakers anyway. That was a moment where I was like, “oh cool, I’ve finally ‘made it’ and received a semblance of recognition.” It gave me a lot of confidence and was definitely a proud moment for me, for sure. Also whenever there’s a project that revolves around surfing, I get really excited. It’s just so much fun to get in the water and do something a bit different compared to the commercial stuff that I do. 

How was it shooting in Dakar?

It was great. I’d been to Dakar before. So I knew a bit about what to expect. Linked up with some local surfers. It was small team. I was directing and shooting, with Lea and then one producer, a fixer and a stylist. So it was easy to move around and shoot freely. We were there for five days and shot it over three or four. It was fun! Having the surfers take you around, going to the local spots. It’s always funny convincing surfers to get in the water at the crack of dawn. As a filmmaker you always want that good light. But sometimes surfers don’t want to get up at 4:30/5am.

But they were great. We had two or three days with the surfers and then one day getting pickup shots round the city with Lea and a local taxi driver that we’d met. So I’d say half of the shots in the video were somewhat planned. You have like a moodboard of what you want and the rest you see and capture on location. I guess that’s what’s nice about working in a small team. You’re a lot more flexible and it’s easier to move around be spontaneous. Very much my style, versus huge sets with big crews, which I’m still adapting to.

And how did you come to work with Mikey Feb for BYREDO? Another beautiful piece may I add.

Yeah that was another one I was really excited about when it came through. It was a bit of a lull period which is why I was in Cape Town all winter and then I got two projects and this one kinda fell right in between the two. And at first I didn’t know if I could manage. I think between them contacting me to shoot it and final delivery it was about three weeks or something. But I didn’t want to pass up on working with Mikey. A great South African surfer in South Africa. The concept was really nice too. I would say some of my best pieces come out when the budget is a bit tighter. So then the creative team and client has to give you a bit more freedom and trust you because there’s no time or budget to do multiple rounds of feedback, styling, storyboards etc.

And I’d met Mikey briefly a month before, helping out Kent Andreasen on a Vans shoot for Mikey’s new range. We went up the west coast for a day and a half to shoot. So we met there and then BYREDO reached out and it was kind of perfect. Originally they wanted to shoot in Ghana, but again, with budget and time constraints, it just seemed quite illogical to go to Ghana. And since we’re both from South Africa, it just made sense to shoot it there. We shot it in two days. It was just me, an assistant, a producer and Mikey, four of us. And you know what surfing’s like. Just trying to get enough surfing in is always tricky, especially within a tight time frame. And I only had a five days window: fly into Cape Town from another job, then to Durban. BYREDO wanted to show good skin tones, being a beauty/perfume brand, so Cape Town is quite tricky to do that because the water’s so cold, so everyone’s wearing a wetsuit. It’s lot warmer and tropical in Durban, especially during winter time. So yeah, was easier to get in the water in boardies. We were based on Kwazulu Natal’s South Coast, just south of Durban. The whole idea was to contribute to Mikey’s non profit Juju Surf Club. BYREDO wanted to make a collection in collaboration with Ghanaian artist Joseph Awuah-Darko, whose tapestry adorns the pieces, with all proceeds going to Juju Surf Club and Surfers Not Street Children. We shot with them for half a day in front of their clubhouse, which was really great. Originally I wanted to avoid cityscapes but Durban beach had great conditions for the kids and it was the perfect day out to be honest.

And now you’re doing Calvin Klein ads?

Oh yeah, that was actually the shoot I did just before flying to Durban to meet Mikey. For this I was approached by a production company in Berlin called Modest Department. Quite stoked I got the job. It was the first time shooting in Berlin, even though I’ve lived there previously, but I was kinda still on a gap year at that time. So it was a really great experience. Great team. The clients were really nice. There was a lot of clients involved because it was for both, Zalando and Calvin Klein. So I was a little worried there’d be too many cooks in the kitchen. But everyone was great and it really went nice and smooth. Really fun working with a German crew. Lea was also involved with the stills. So yeah, overall very fun.

Nice! Before I let you go, I wanted to ask what or who your key influences are?

If I’m being honest, I’m really terrible at remembering names of artists and using references in general. I’ve obviously consumed a lot of media  growing up and it’s definitely all influenced me in some way. But I’d struggle to tell you what came from where. I’m most likely inspired by those closest to me. Definitely my sister’s work. A lot of colour, energy and movement, especially as I was working hand in hand with her when I committed to doing this full time. So I think she’s definitely had the biggest influence on me. Otherwise, I’ve travelled a lot since I was young and been  exposed to many different cultures and different ways of life. I think what most inspires me is the people close to me and the people I surround myself with,

Well thanks for taking the time Roberto. I’ve got to go, Luca’s just made a big pot of coffee. Full la dolce vibes out here. Enjoy your mountain retreat and hopefully catch you soon.

Well don’t miss out on that! Enjoy your time in Puglia with Luca and I’m sure I’ll catch you both soon. Thanks for the call.

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