Matthew Willman | Nelson Mandela’s Photographer on the Journey From Poverty To Ballet To Capturing World Leaders
Smart Business Revolution

Matthew Willman is a South African-based photographer. He trained as a ballet dancer and later turned that career into photography. He is also the author of Tripping Over Presidents and Stepping Away. Matthew has worked with Nelson Mandela, Bill Clinton, US and African Presidents, and has been commissioned to work with various world leaders including former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, Desmond Tutu, and 12 Nobel Peace Prize laureates. 

In this episode of the Smart Business Revolution Podcast, John Corcoran interviews Matthew Willman, a South African-based photographer and author, about his experience meeting and working with Nelson Mandela. Matthew also shares his experience living on Robben Island, South Africa, his most memorable moments with world leaders, and his photography career highlights.

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Here’s a Glimpse of What You’ll Hear:

  • Matthew Willman’s transition from ballet dancing to photography
  • The first photography projects Matthew worked on
  • What captivated Matthew about Nelson Mandela?
  • Matthew’s experience living on Robben Island, South Africa
  • How Matthew supported himself as a young photographer
  • The first time Matthew met Nelson Mandela and his most memorable moments
  • Matthew talks about working with other world leaders and celebrities 
  • The peers Matthew acknowledges

Resources Mentioned In This Episode

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Episode Transcript

Intro 0:14

Welcome to the revolution, the Smart Business Revolution Podcast, where we ask today’s most successful entrepreneurs to share the tools and strategies they use to build relationships and connections to grow their revenue. Now, your host for the revolution, John Corcoran.

John Corcoran 0:40

All right, welcome everyone. John Corcoran here, the host of this show. And you know, if you have never listened to this podcast before, I invite you to go check out our archives because we’ve got about 12 years worth of interviews with intelligent CEOs, founders, and entrepreneurs of all kinds of companies or organizations. Some of our recent ones include Redfin and Quicken, we’ve got GrubHub coming up, we also have Netflix, Kinkos’, YPO, EO, Activision Blizzard, and many more. Go check out the archives. And I’m also the Co-founder of Rise25 where we help connect b2b business owners to their ideal prospects. A quick shout out to Cindy Norcott, a past guest on my podcast here at mutual friends with my guests here today. And we’re really privileged to talk to him. His name is Matthew Willman. He’s a South Africa-based photographer and get this, trained as a ballet dancer, turned that career into photography. And because I have had so many different turns of my career, I love to ask people about how they went from A to Z in that fashion. He’s also the Author of Tripping Over Presidents and the new book Stepping Away. And get this, he has done amazing work with Nelson Mandela, Bill Clinton, a number of US presidents and number of African presidents, has been commissioned with a number of world leaders, former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, Desmond Tutu, and 12 Nobel Peace Prize laureates. So just a long list of amazing, interesting world leaders who he’s worked with. And I love to ask people about what that experience is like working with those types of individuals. So we’ll definitely ask about that, as well. 

And of course, this episode is brought to you by Rise25, my company, where help b2b businesses to get clients, referrals, and strategic partnerships with done-for-you podcasts and content marketing. As always, go to our website,, or email us at [email protected] if you want to learn more about it. Alright, Matthew, such a pleasure to have you here. And let’s just start at this transition. You know, I’m a recovering lawyer worked in politics, working in the entertainment industry, I have this weird, roundabout career that maybe says that I can’t do any one thing for a longer period of time. But you went from ballet dancer to photographer, I’d love to know. First of all, did everyone say you were crazy when you did that? And secondly, how did you make that transition? Because that’s, that is not easy to do.

Matthew Willman 2:59

John, thank you. It’s great to chat. And thank you for the platform that you create for us out in the wild. i Yes, it’s been I was always a part of me since I started when I was five, because they needed a Toy soldier for a nutcracker See, sisters banisher. And where she stopped Three years later, I carried on for another 21 years. So it just I was literally born into it and ended up doing my teachers in ballet and educated ballet. And then you know, I live in a country that is that is not conducive to ballet. I mean, when you think of the great ballet stages in the world, none of them are in Africa. We have wonderful ballet schools here. And I always knew that if I was I needed to something else in my life away from ballet, and as a creative was very strong in visual communication and the visual sense. It was a no brainer that photography just fell into my lap. And from I mean, I’m a bit of a mixture of a lot of things. So I grew up in the last throes of apartheid, where it was not easy to separate and ignore what was going on in this country. And well, you know, it was literally a case of in a ballet school when a class doing ballet in 35 degrees 100 degrees burned out. And you’ve got military helicopters flying over huge bomb uprisings in the townships around us. So it was a the juxtaposition between this elitist world of ballet and right outside my door was rioting. And, you know, uprisings against the former Nationalist government. And I think it was It wasn’t so much a of ballet must go out the window and I must now become a photographer. It was a it was a gentle transition of this awakening as a young man. I was 15 years old when Nelson Mandela came to power. And I became so passionate about this, this hope we had this hope for a country that finally was able to feel liberated not only politically but socially and, and we could talk to black people, we could have a, an interaction with them and that the arts could have a voice. And I’ve never looked back. I mean, I had a choice to leave South Africa, I chose to stay. And I just happened to be in a position where I was dancing. And I picked up the camera and ended up studying photography. And then at 23, I ended up with Nelson Mandela it. So yeah, it’s, it was interesting that people always kept to watch me, they were like, What is Matthew doing? Now? You know what? He should be doing X. And but no, he’s with Mandela. So wonderful.

John Corcoran 5:50

I want to ask about that. Strangely, you know, at 23 years old, that’s when I got my job at the White House. And I look back at it now. And I feel it was such a privilege to have that opportunity to be in the presence of world leaders. So I definitely want to dwell on that. But first, going back to the ballet, what was it like as a kid having an interest in this field of the arts that was not at all a big field in your area? You know, you, you’re 13 14 15 years old, and kids want to be all kinds of different things. And you said you wanted to go into ballet. What was that? Like?

Matthew Willman 6:30

It was a I was so privileged because I was moving with the times in South Africa. So if I had grown up doing ballet in 1970s, or 80s, I think I would have been ostracized horribly, because we lived in a in a state of emergency and or a white nationalist government that believed military Well, what was right, and military power was everything. And we live in a very confined conservative world where thtr come 9090 Mandela was released, and I was 11 years old, when he was released. All of a sudden, people wanted to start engaging in things that they deemed as, it’s not right for a boy to do ballet or so. And I actually had a lot of support. If I look back on it already did, schools were opening up to multiracial education, and we were accepting people who had talents and abilities that were frowned upon pre, you know, in the apartheid era. So it was I just happened to be the right place the right time, where the opportunity to dance was, was celebrated. And not everyone of course, I mean, we don’t have country but definitely the community I was in with and around. And I just loved how Africans can can just celebrate through music and dance change too. So it was a great

John Corcoran 7:51

talk to me about the early days of your photography when you start to learn the craft and then start to turn it into something that can generate money for you can support you professionally. Do you remember some of your early Commission’s or your early gigs getting paid to do photography

Matthew Willman 8:09

so America as a as a society as a country has had a huge impact around the world on on developing cultures and developing a lot from fashion to movies, particularly the Hollywood scene everything so we all grew up under this umbrella of what is America producing now how what do we how do we become more American, you know, we were so isolated that we we didn’t have Coca Cola, we didn’t have McDonald’s, we didn’t have anything so everything was given Pizza Hut. So the this whole idea of how I you know, used dance as a as creative, and photography, I wanted to be any Lebowitz. I wanted to be a Richard Avedon, you know, great American photographers, who just showed us so much of what can be achieved through photography. So when I picked up the camera, and I started studying photography, being advertising portraits, all that the high end photography was definitely a major third and fourth year in that space. When I left studies, I got my first commission shoot was documenting Albena and transgender African males who were being slaughtered, literally murdered in these townships being who they were, we I don’t know how much you know about that, you know, as they use them as booty use as medicine in travel traditional fare, which is terrific. So my first shoot was with a British based company, Oxfam, an NGO, which has little pockets around the world. And I did my first shoot with them and something spoke to me and that that the humanity of what I witnessed and how US actually broke through the issues of HIV and AIDS, the issue of transgender equality, you know, equal rights That’s homosexuality, all these things that come into the fray, which is that 19 year old was petrified. Petrified, remember, aids in the early 2000s? was just a no, no, it was it was, you know, we saw at what’s happening in America, Romans, drug addicts and, and homosexual communities and years in Africa, I realized very early on that that pandemic, the issue of AIDS was not what was experienced in America, it was violence against women, it was right. It was poverty, it was just anger amongst the men who, as you know, in Africa, we have huge issues around that the male role and the dominance because we have chiefs, and we have autocratic rulers and you know, that women have had a really, really hard starts in life. Yeah, so But things are changing. So that impacted me hugely. And I found that the decision away from the creativity of what I was giving a dance, I was giving it now to photography, because I had had a voice. And that voice was an image that allowed me to go into places in Africa that, you know, that had a huge impact. And I could take an image, you know, we dealt with issues of river blindness, or short hold whole generations of young adults between 18 and 35 years old, dead because of it. And so we have kids being looked after by grandparents, 12 15 20 children to one, one gobo, we called my boy was a grandmother in Mississippi. And now they live on a government stipend of 10 $15 a month. So the issues are real. And I just left the whole western US style of photography wants to do shoot for Vogue and vanity pay. And I plowed the next 20 years of my career into the NGO sector, but Oxfam, UNICEF, World Health Organization, 53 organizations from Eritrea and the Horn of Africa, right down to Cape Town. So it’s been a beautiful journey. And when I like to share with audiences, because this such richness to what we can learn. That’s

John Corcoran 12:11

fascinating. I’d love to dive a little bit deeper. First of all, you touched on something you reminded me of the movie searching for sugar man, which was a documentary you familiar with it? Yeah. About 10 years ago, yeah, I don’t want to give it away, because it’s kind of done is like a mystery, but really encapsulates what life was like in South Africa for a big chunk of time, what you’re talking about there. I want to ask about, I want to get into how you developed the relationship and got your way into Nelson Mandela into working with Nelson Mandela and his foundation. But first, before they do that, I want to ask about what captivated you about him about his leadership about his rise? What was it initially that that just encapsulate Did you in such a powerful way that you said, I have to find a way to meet this man?