South African Photography Today:

A Shattered Glass Sphere

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The complex South African socio-political landscape has long stimulated a socially and politically committed photographic production. Patricia Hayes observes how documentary photography in South Africa received a first impulse to development in the 1950s, when a group of black photographers began gravitating around the magazine Drum (1). The magazine was the fulcrum of intense visual activity, aimed at exposing how deeply apartheid had infiltrated all aspects of daily life; furthermore, Drum succeeded in documenting without prejudice the black community, its idols and its glamour, offering a counterpoint to the official white iconography and the propaganda of the regime.

As apartheid’s structures became increasingly rigid and repressive, culminating in the uprisings of Sharpeville and Soweto and in the banning of political activities, photojournalism that did not kowtow to the government’s agenda became a dangerous activity. Several committed operators, among them Ernest Cole, chose exile to avoid persecution; many among those who stayed were forced to keep their activities clandestine.
The 1980s marked a resurgence of political activism through camera work as the situation in the country became explosive. The photographic collective Afrapix, founded in 1982, brought together most of the accomplished and active photographers of that generation; as « struggle » photographers, they played an important role in denouncing the regime’s escalating inhumanity. We owe to them the extensive visual coverage of marches, illegal meetings, forced removals and bloody clashes between the police and the activists.
These conflicts were captured in photographs largely marked by intense contrast and drama. This imagery had a clear, urgent message directed mainly to foreign media and the world; it was a product of resistance, a cry of dissent. It has to be acknowledged, though, that these were also the kind of images most requested by the international news agencies; the rules of the market contributed to a somewhat uni-dimensional vision of South Africa beyond its borders, with little awareness of what else the life of South Africans included.
Nonetheless, the images that circulated abroad were not everything that was being photographed: the work of some of the women photographers members of Afrapix, such as Gille de Vlieg, Lesley Lawson, Jenny Gordon or Giselle Wulfsohn looked at the social and personal conditions during those difficult years. Not all « struggle » photography took place on the frontline.

In his Art at the End of Apartheid John Peffer mentions Paul Alberts’ portraits of rural women, Chris Ledochowski’s hand-coloured portraits and Santu Mofokeng’s work focused on daily life as instances of « images that contested the spatial and social vision of apartheid in more oblique ways » (2). Another example is David Goldblatt’s South Africa, the Structure of Things Then; the book contains images of monuments, structures, houses and churches which were an expression of the values, concerns and priorities of that portion of society in a position of power. Urban plans and architecture reflected the politics of segregation and control exerted by the Government. Neville Dubow, in the introductory essay to the book, wrote: « Goldblatt’s work is, in part, about actual structures (…) but it is also about ideological structuring: about the mental constructs that underpinned the structures of South Africa in its colonial era and more specifically, the apartheid years ». (3)
Similarly, Jo Ractliffe’s series Nadir, realized between 1986 and 1988 during the States of Emergency, employs a visual language not conforming to the struggle iconography that was prominent in that period. The sophisticated montages, depicting feral dogs in apocalyptic landscapes, are closer to the symbolic and metaphorical realm than to the mainstream documentary one, with its clarity of narrative, coherence and sharp tonal contrasts. Yet the images are not deprived of political intensity; on the contrary, the ghostly animal figures roaming in barren surroundings, rubbish dumps or abandoned industrial areas convey a sense of profound dread and displacement, evoking the trauma sweeping the country at the time.

It is undeniable that apartheid shaped the terrain on which the new South Africa has had to negotiate its first steps, and that the understanding of South African photography has been generally conditioned by how it served the « struggle ». Yet, as the country is not a monolithic, inert product of its past, it would be reductive to limit the scope of South African photographic practice to the response to social and political issues derived from 40 years of regime.
Furthermore, in the past twenty years the distinctions in society have become even more permeable and the contradictions have multiplied; the unresolved issues inherited by the democratic state such as HIV/AIDS, education, land redistribution and crime are now pervasive. The euphoria and optimism following the first democratic elections are subdued, giving way to an increasing social tension. Poverty is still a plague for the majority of the black population and for an increasing number of whites. Frailty and power have assumed new forms and there are no declared public culprits. South Africa can be compared to a glass sphere shattered into hundreds of pieces; each of them reflects its own reality.
« Post anti-apartheid photography » (4) is as diverse and complex as the state of ambiguity that has created the premises for its development. A wide range of voices and languages are manifest in the practice of young photographers, regardless of their subject matter. Social commentary – often linked to first-hand experience – overlaps with a more intimate use of the medium; boundaries between the supposedly neutral documentary approach and the art practice are extremely fluid. Enquiries on class, race, identity, are imbued with irony and lyricism.
Reflection and critical engagement have largely replaced the more dramatic narrative of the past as the acute emergency has been replaced by a more contemplative space (5). This shift is mirrored in the realm of the distribution channels: the press is no longer the platform of visibility of choice, as the photographic book and the art gallery seem to be offering a more desirable context for the iconography of the past ten years. This desire is intensified by the absence of local publications dedicated to photography in its various forms, on the model of Aperture, British Journal of Photography, Ojo de Pez, Portfolio, or magazines on current affairs allocating significant space to photography, as Time, Newsweek dofor example. This gap in the local press scene was temporarily filled by Snapped, a quarterly published by Bell-Roberts, which survived for three issues between 2007 and 2008 and provided a much needed platform of exposure for photographic essays by local practitioners, together with critical engagement with local and international critics and trends. Today, images appearing in the South African press are mostly poorly printed news photographs in newspapers or fashion features in women magazines.

Interestingly, some of the best-known contemporary South African photographers can be situated on the edge between different contexts of circulation: the art gallery, the photographic book, the international press, specialized or not, giving further evidence of how difficult it is to place the medium exclusively in the realm of documentary, social or artistic practice.
A photographic image speaks through its form, its composition and colours. These are concepts derived from painting, inherited by photography from the artistic realm. The difficulty in placing photography exclusively in one or the other category lies in the fact that from private photographs to photojournalism, to advertising images, to art photography, its processing rituals are substantially unchanged. Images can be read aesthetically regardless of the intent that has activated them. Recognizing the inner aesthetic nature of the visual language makes the debate situating aesthetic versus politic irrelevant.
Zanele Muholi’s work is a case in point. Through the use of traditional portrait conventions, Muholi challenges the perceptions of masculinity and femininity and engages the viewer to question what an African woman, an African lesbian or an African gay man looks like. Her work pays homage to the difficult life of black queer communities in a country liberal on paper, but whose progressive Constitution is not able to secure the actual respect of sanctioned rights. Homosexuality is labelled « un-African » and lesbians are persecuted, raped, beaten, and sometimes murdered. Muholi practices visual activism, presenting her sitters as icons, seeing them as « more than victims ». She comfortably shifts from black and white to colour, nullifying the traditional rule that places black and white as the first choice for serious and dry issues while colour is reserved for decoration. She makes a conscious political use of the aesthetic to document, in her own words, « what it means to be female, lesbian and black today ».
Pieter Hugo’s most recent body of work, Permanent Error, is a stark and rigorous essay on the people and landscape of an expansive dump of obsolete technology in Ghana. Almost hieratic in their posture, the subjects inhabit this wasteland of motherboards, monitors and discarded hard drives with the grace of characters from pastoral paintings. The community survives largely by burning discarded electronic devices to extract copper and other metals out of the plastic used in their manufacture. The palette is de-saturated, the ashen light accentuates the contrast with the smoke emanating from the burnt plastic. Images from the series are regularly shown (and sold) in galleries and public cultural spaces and at the same time have often been requested by environmental non-profit organizations to illustrate their websites and publications.

Jodi Bieber is the author of a shocking image featured on the cover of Time magazine on 29 July 2010. A young Afghan woman with the calm gaze of a Renaissance Madonna stares back from the page, her delicate features distorted by the mutilation inflicted on her after she had tried to flee her abusive husband and in-laws. Bieber is well known for both her editorial and « white cube » exposure; the beauty transpiring from the dramatic cover recalls another body of work in which Bieber engages with the common idea of attractiveness. Real Beauty is a gallery of portraits of women posing in their underwear. Their body shapes and ages change, but the direct gaze conveys a sense of comfort with their skin, and with the camera. The photographer plays with the tradition of the studio portrait, carefully selecting the background for each pose, including the setting into the protagonist’s personal narrative. There is no compromise on the reality of imperfections, no post-production retouching as fantasies are enacted with self-irony, boldness and tenderness.
Sabelo Mlangeni’s Men Only and Marc Shoul’s Flatlands investigate aspects of Johannesburg through very different visual languages. In Flatlands Shoul aims to convey the hyperactivity and the mix of people and cultures squeezed into the city. Johannesburg is in constant expansion, with an influx of people from other African countries in particular, but still struggles to contain all the varieties of energy and flows that sweep through its streets. Shoul sees it as’a space of transience, on the way to something better, be it in South Africa or back at home’. His city scenes, depicted in black and white medium-format prints, embody well these multiple personalities: close-ups, stolen snapshots, portraits and wider angled photographs coexist, all carefully composed and balanced in forms and grade. Shoul wants to be a spectator, he aims to be seen as little as possible, his filter extremely discreet.
Sabelo Mlangeni’s approach in Men Only is more intimate and personal. Built in 1961 to house migrant mineworkers, George Goch hostel today is home to taxi drivers and security guards, among the many who move to Johannesburg to better their lives. Only men are allowed in such hostels, and in the collective imaginary they are places of violence, sexual abuse and illegal trafficking. Mlangeni spent several weeks in the hostel, sharing the daily routines of the tenants as he worked. Some of the photographs allude to harsh living conditions and the ways in which men are forced to adapt. Images that capture daily chores such as cooking and ironing are quiet, even tender. The grade is soft; gestures and shapes are often not in focus and this contributes to the feeling of a place of transit, where boundaries are not sharply defined.
In Mlangeni’s and Shoul’s photo-essays the city and the hostel reveal themselves as transitional spaces. While Flatlands carries the infectious energy of Johannesburg, in Men Only the hostel is a fragile shell in which elements of the public and private realms temporarily coexist.
The younger generation of South African photographers includes obviously a larger number of practitioners than those mentioned here – to name a few more: Mikhael Subotzky, Nontsikelelo « Lolo » Veleko, David Southwood, Nadine Hutton, Samantha Simmons, the twins Hasan and Husain Essop. Their practices are widely different and their images circulate fluidly in various contexts. They exemplify how a binary understanding of what is political and social and what is not is no longer useful. The political angle is supported and expressed by the aesthetic choices, the aesthetic is politic.

Furthermore, photography is no longer the preserve of photographers. The correlation of the medium to performance art is prominent in South Africa: many artists, such as Berni Searle, Steven Cohen and, in the younger generation, Athi-Patra Ruga, have used it to capture salient moments of their performances or have conceived still performances expressly for the camera.
Recently, the art scene has seen emerge an increasing number of young artists who use the potentiality of photography towards forms that have very little to do with the traditional conception of the medium.
For Zander Blom for example, photography goes alongside his painting practice. He uses it to document makeshift installations: the images become the artwork, the only trace of the complex layers of colours, shapes and light that come to life in the corner of his studio and compose his futuristic iconography. In particular, his ongoing photographic project The Black Hole Universe revolves around the idea of making a sci-fi noir space film, building his makeshift installations in different gallery and studio spaces in cities around the world, and employing them as a source of photographic still images. Each installation functions as a set from a film, and each photographic image functions as a still from a specific scene within a particular chapter of the film. Although the project is developed according to a structure mirroring film-making, it lacks the main components of the film, such as plot, screenplay, actors etc. It seems that in Blom’s practice photography loses that contact with reality considered pivotal in the debate about the documentary quality of the medium. His abstract images express a concept, an idea, a vision; they are a document of something highly intangible.
Another instance of photographic images uprooted from the notion of being directly connected with reality can be observed in Dineo Seshee Bopape’s work. Her digital drawings are composed of montages of photographic images; shapes are hardly recognizable and it is difficult to refer the visuals to real objects or situations. Like most of Bopape’s pieces, whether experimental video or installations, they delve into the mysteries of the metaphysical sphere and give a sense of displacement. The viewer is projected into a dreamlike realm, where the common references to time and space are lost and logic seems to have no place.

« Post anti-apartheid photography » encompasses different styles, mutable sensitivities and contrasting visions in service to a variety of concerns and finalities. It could be said that photographers’ practice and position is defined less by a set of visual attributes and more by the contexts of circulation of their work; yet this definition is also porous, as advocacy is not confined to the media or journalism, but can find resonance in commercial galleries and museums alike (6). To resume the metaphor of the shattered glass sphere, each different photographic practice is a splinter: together they recreate the whole in multiple combinations.

David Goldblatt, South Africa: The Structure of Things Then, New York,Monacelli Press, Random House, 1998.
Patricia Hayes, »Power, Secrecy, Proximity: A Short History of South African Photography », in Kronos, vol. 33, 2007.
Darren Newbury, Defiant Images. Photography and Apartheid, South Africa, Pretoria, Unisa Press, 2009.
John Peffer, Art and the End of Apartheid, Minneapolis, London, University of Minnesota Press, 2009.

1. Patricia Hayes, »Power, Secrecy, Proximity: A Short History of South African Photography », in Kronos, vol. 33, 2007.
2. John Peffer, Art and the End of Apartheid, Minneapolis, London: University of Minnesota Press, 2009, p. 259.
3. Neville Dubow, »Constructs: Reflections on a Thinking Eye » in David Goldblatt, South Africa, the Structure of Things Then, New York: Monacelli Press, Random House, 1998, p. 23.
4. I owe the definition to Ciraj Rasool, Bonani Conference, Cape Town, August 2010.
5. Afrapix member Peter McKenzie has defined the aftermath as a contemplative space, a quiet moment spurred from the trauma. Bonani Conference on Documentary Photography, Cape Town, August 2010.
6. From an email exchange with Jo Ractliffe, October 2010.
///Article N° : 10970

Les images de l'article
Zander Blom, 1.14 Untitled, 2010 © Zander Blom. Courtesy Stevenson Cape Town et Johannesburg
Jo Ractliffe, Nadir 3 © Jo Tactliffe, courtesy Stevenson, Cape Town and Johannesburg
Federica Angelucci © Pieter Hugo
Marc Shoul, Brenda, "The Mexican Sports Bar", Hillbrow, 2006, série Flatlands © Marc Shoul
Zanele Muholi, Refilwe Mahlaba, Thokoza, Johannesburg, 2010, série Faces and Phases © Zanele Muholi. Courtesy Stevenson, Cape Town et Johannesburg
Zanele Muholi, Gazi T Zuma, Umlazi, Durban, 2010, série Faces and Phases © Zanele Muholi. Courtesy Stevenson, Cape Town et Johannesburg