A priori, David Goldblatt and Andrew Tshabangu could not be further apart. David Goldblatt, a seventy-year-old white South African, started photography in 1948; the year apartheid was introduced. Andrew Tshabangu, a thirty-four-year-old black South African, took his first shots in 1992, two years after the release of Nelson Mandela. Obsessed with photography very early on, David Goldblatt composes his photos as an architect of the image. He describes himself as « boringly even« , not having fundamentally changed his approach over the years. Since 1994, he has been immortalising the metamorphoses of his town, Johannesburg. « What interests me« , he says, « is the Blacks’ appropriation of the town centre and the now multiracial elite’s foundation of a new zone devoted to consumerism in the northern districts of Sandton. »
Andrew Tshabangu, for his part, randomly chose photography « out of laziness, because it seemed easy« , from the different choices offered by a community centre in the township of Alexandra where he used to go mainly not to succumb to idleness. He takes photos intuitively. The blurs of his subjects’ movements are an integral part of life, of the image. He is seeking an identity and pursues several projects at the same time. One is about a family in a village in the North province, another about spirituality in the black Diasporas in Johannesburg, London, and New York, another about the Alexandra township.
Other than the fact that they both refuse the label « photojournalist » and « artist », something connects these two photographers. In his book before last, The Structure of Things Then (Oxford University Press, 1998, Cape Town), David Goldblatt illustrates the fascism of apartheid through the material organisation of things and buildings. One photograph taken from the ceiling notably shows the exiguity of a maid’s room in the chic districts of Johannesburg. A bed, a box, a chair. Andrew Tshabangu returned from his peregrinations in the rural areas with the same testimony, this time taken from the ground. A bowl on a chair, a few pots of cream on a table in the background. « The bathroom« , he explains.
Heir to a long tradition of reporting, of testifying, of political commitment, South African photography could almost pass for being the least segregated expression that exists. Peter Mc Kenzie does not agree. « I can tell at a glance that one photo was taken by a black person and another by a white« , claims the militant photographer, who belongs to the generation that emerged in the Seventies, which above all used photography as a weapon against apartheid.
Even today, everyone concentrates on photographing his or her own community. The only person to break the rule for a long time was Jürgen Schadeberg, a young German who came to South Africa in the Forties at the age of twenty, at the height of the Drum magazine era. Famous, some of his shots, like the one of Miriam Makeba at a microphone in 1955, have been part of the national heritage for a long time now. As for Roger Ballen, the American geologist who has been living in South Africa since 1982, his approach remains as disturbing as it is unclassifiable. In his latest book, Outland (Phaidon, 2001), the author of Platteland: Images of Rural South Africa remains fascinated by the degeneracy of young country Boers. He shows marked faces and deformed bodies, without actually formulating a political discourse about his subjects.
As a talented press photographer, Alf Kumlo, who accompanied Nelson Mandela on all of his official trips after 1994, has of course not ignored white people. Nevertheless, ten years after the end of apartheid, very few photographers transgress the racial boundaries to focus on a community other than their own. Peter Mc Kenzie is one of the rare few to have done so, focusing on the Indian ritual of walking on hot coals in his native town of Durban.
Another exception is Jodi Bieber. This young, white woman is one of the only photographers to have worked with the same intensity, the same sensibility in all the communities. She comes from the Market Photo Workshop, a workshop set up by David Goldblatt in the cultural district of Newtown in Johannesburg, along with other young photographers of her generation including Andrew Tshabangu, Motlhalefi Mahlabe, Ruth Motau head of photography for the weekly The Mail & Guardian and Themba Hadebe, the first black South African to have won a World Press prize in 1998, and who is now employed by the Agence France Presse (AFP) offices in Johannesburg.
Whether they like it or not, black professionals hardly have the time to focus on Whites: they have too much to do to rehabilitate the representation of their own kind. In their own very different ways, Peter Magubane and Santu Mofokeng have set about this titanic task. In addition to a book on Soweto which came out in June, Peter Magubane has published two very documentary works, Vanishing Cultures of South Africa (Struik, 1998) and African Renaissance (Struik, 2000), which record the traditions of nine of the main ethnic groups that make up black South Africa, including the Zulus, the Xhosas, the Ndebeles, the Sothos, and the Tswanas. Both a poet and a sociologist, Santu Mofokeng has, for his part, attacked the stereotypes of press photography. He notably rescued early twentieth century family portraits from oblivion with his famous Black Photo Album/Look at Me (1997), taking us back to the image people wanted to give of themselves at that time. One of his first pieces of research in 1986 focused on Train Churches, the religious services held on board the Johannesburg to Soweto suburb trains, illustrating the day-to-day resistance of the black working classes.
Increasingly, however, the question arises of whether one is an art or a press photographer. This fairly recent distinction results from the recognition of South African photography on the international market. It does not stop most photographers from resorting to the press to earn a living. Along with Santu Mofokeng, Zwelethu Mthethwa is one of the rare people not to have sacrificed themselves to the media, taking photography to be a pure art form. But his gaze is not devoid of political meaning. After restoring his compatriots’ dignity by photographing them in colour in their homes in 1999, he has focused on black men in a black and white work entitled Black Masculinity Series. The direct consequence of these choices is that Zwelethu Mthethwas has moved to Amsterdam, whereas Santu Mofokeng spends most of his time abroad where he is in great demand.
On South African photography, see Santu Mofokeng court après les ombres (Santu Mofokeng running after shadows: Africultures 17, p. 93) and see the gallery of portraits of South African writers by Adine Sagalyn in Africultures n°4.///Article N° : 5522