Top image: Maria, Real Beauty, Jodi Bieber © 2008
Since it was founded in 1989 by the late South African photographer David Goldblatt, The Market Photo Workshop in Johannesburg has been at the centre of a photographic discourse on South African identity that remains as integral now as it was thirty years ago. Operating as a school of photography, a gallery and project space, this talent incubator has overseen the seismic cultural shifts that followed Apartheid, continually equipping new generations of otherwise marginalised photographers with the tools to interrogate their respective worlds.
With her new course at The Photographers Gallery, freelance curator Julie Bonzon explores the changing landscape of South African photography as a means of activism and protest. From it’s early adoption as a tool of colonial oppression, to the photojournalism that sensationalised racial violence of the late eighties and early nineties, the Afrapix agency and the emancipatory pursuit of contemporary identity, photography shares a unique relationship with the socio-political struggles of the country, acting as mouth-piece for protest and mediator of representational change.
Below, Bonzon talks through the significance of five photographers spanning the last thirty years. Each is responsible for interrogating different elements of South Africa’s past and present, reconstructing historical narrative and feeding critical thought.
Finn Blythe: David Goldblatt founded the Market Photo Workshop in 1989, was the primary focus documentary photography?
Julie Bonzon: It was a way to teach visual literacy to young photographers excluded from previously designated ‘white’ art schools and training institutions, as well as providing them practical skills to find jobs in the photographic industry. At that time, photography as a profession was mainly photojournalism. Once Apartheid ended, the purpose of taking photographs, together with the understanding of photography shifted – some photographers active during the apartheid years said they lost their subject following the first democratic elections. The history of South African photography is usually described in two, rather abstract and simplistic, chronological moments: the ‘struggle years’ of the eighties and early nineties and the ‘identity decade’ in 2000s, where photographers were questioning their place and belonging in this ‘new’ South Africa.
FB: So photographers who had grown up their entire lives living under Apartheid had to almost re-calibrate their sense of identity after it ended?
JB: Exactly, and photographers who were working as photojournalists during the Apartheid years had to find a new visual language. But what I find most interesting about Goldblatt is that he does not really belong to this generation of struggle photography or Afrapix. Instead of taking spectacular images of mass movements – funerals, strikes, marches, fights – he was always more interested in the hidden violence, the quiet kind you don’t really see. The series I am referring to is called Structures, where he took pictures of architecture, buildings, landscapes, houses to highlight how the Apartheid regime had shaped the ordinary and everyday.
FB: I read he had an aversion to photographing protests or scenes of real violence, that he was more interested in causation rather than effect?
JB: Yes, and the caption for him was very important, sometimes five sentences long to explain what the viewer was actually seeing. It was a much more analytic way of using photography. To me, it’s still about protest and politics but moving away from spectacular ‘news’ imagery, Goldblatt was adopting a much more oblique angle to raise complex questions. I have nothing against the photojournalist images that prevailed at the time, but since they were used to raise awareness and call international help, they were spectacular, quite graphic, and printed in newspapers that people flicked through without, sometimes, really looking at them. David Goldblatt asks the viewer for much more time in contemplating and questioning the images.
FB: What can you tell me about Santu Mofokeng?
JB: Another very interesting figure, he was part of Afrapix agency, creating those ‘struggle photographs’ that circulated in international media. But he soon became very sceptical of the Western appetite for images of violence, so he moved away from Afrapix and started working independently in line with Goldblatt. He was especially interested in the ordinary life of black South Africans living under Apartheid, of domesticity, religious ceremonies and intimate forms of resilience. Instead of sharp and clear pictures, his black and white photographs are often a bit blurred. He was very much interested in creating a different photographic narrative of the black experience of South Africans. He explored different forms of everyday protest and how South Africans went about their everyday lives despite what was happening.
FB: So in a similar way to Goldblatt there is a distinct sense of private and public?
JB: Yes, it was much more about the domestic sphere. His photographs generated a completely different understanding of the past and of the history of photography in that country. If you go to museums in South Africa, the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg for instance, many of the images you see will be about the explicit forms of the struggle, Ernest Cole’s House of Bondage series, for instance. But Santu Mofokeng created a very different archive, a different history about what it really meant to be South African at that time and what photography could achieve in attempting passive resilience – a different way of protesting by using this medium.
FB: So was Jodi Bieber part of that same period?
JB: Jodi is a bit younger, I would say generally speaking that David Goldblatt actually became a mentor of Santu Mofokeng while Jodi Bieber studied at David Goldblatt’s school. She came from a photojournalistic background, winning photography prizes such as the World Press Photo in 2011 and I think the various changes in her work since could be related to this idea of the ‘identity decade’ in photography in the 2000s.
In her series called Real Beauty (2011) for example, she photographed women wearing underwear in their home, using a pose of their choice as a means of questioning beauty standards in South Africa at that time. It’s an interesting series because you could see that various poses were actually recycled clichés of western advertising. The photographs were about private and domestic experiences, but they also gave information about the place of South African in a capitalist and globalised economy.
FB: How do African and western beauty standards differ?
JB: It’s hard to say, but they sometimes seem to be a bit in conflict, especially in South Africa where the idea of plentiness is synonymous with good health, whereas being too skinny could be a sign of AIDS and HIV, which has become a huge and dramatic issue since the end of Apartheid. This idea of portraiture, identity, the sitters’ self-presentation and frames of reference, was very much present in Jodi Bieber’s work after Apartheid ended.
FB: And did she belong to a wider movement?
JB: I think so. After Apartheid ended there was so much change. The Apartheid regime, together with international boycott, isolated South Africa like a bubble. Following the first democratic elections, the country really became connected again, the internet was happening, together with new technologies in photography. South Africa and South African photographers became connected to the rest of the world in a very different way, and questions of gender and identity politics – which were not really in photographers’ agenda during the Apartheid years because of the struggle and the necessity of making anti-Apartheid images – became a possibility in the 2000s. It’s not really that photographers lost their subject [following Apartheid], I think it’s more about that photographers were questioning their place in this new, transitioning South Africa – and they still are.
FB: What can you tell me about Zanele Muholi?
JB: She’s a huge figure in photography now, you see her everywhere. She studied at The Market Photo Workshop as well and she’s interesting because she considers herself primarily a visual activist prior to a photographer. She has been very much concerned with giving visibility to the LGBTQI community, which was not a hugely important subject during the Apartheid years. This underrepresented community suffers from violence on an everyday basis and Muholi uses her photographs to raise awareness.
FB: Do you have a favourite series?
JB: Faces and Phases is a series of portraits very much about creating a counter-narrative of South African experience. If you visit an exhibition where the work is displayed, you will see walls filled with individual portraits, celebrated and beautifully composed. The work is about counter-narrative but it’s also about creating a different history, a new and alternative ‘monument’ in including those people and their individual stories in the broader history of the country.
“The women portrayed have continuously received death threats, many have been murdered since.”
FB: And so did the idea of counter-representation first emerge with Zanele?
JB: I think it started as soon as cameras became available to a wider audience, as attested by the studio photographs found by Santu Mofokeng in his series, The Black Photo Album/Look At Me: 1890-1950, but Muholi’s work is now exhibited internationally, in museums, galleries and fairs. She has been criticised about displaying her work Faces and Phases in so-called ‘white spaces’ but she justified it by saying that those are actually secure spaces to display the portraits and have a conversation. The women portrayed have continuously received death threats, many have been murdered since. The space where the work is displayed doesn’t seem to alter its political meaning.
FB: Am I right in saying Kganye is slightly younger?
JB: She was born in 1990 so she’s quite young. She also did her study at The Market Photo Workshop and became increasingly famous for her remarkable series called Her Story and Heir Story. In them she revisits her family’s story, the history of South Africa, the colonial and Apartheid years, but also deconstructs the way those stories have been recorded and visualised. Her Story is about the loss of Kganye’s mother. She found photographs in old family albums of her mother in special dress posing in her home or garden. Her family didn’t have a camera but there was a street photographer who cycled around the neighbourhood and each time he came they would dress up and have their picture taken. So Kganye recreates these images, with the same clothes and poses and digitally juxtaposes her figure onto her mother’s. The work engages in this notion of the model, both for mother and daughter.
FB: And what about Heir Story?
JB: Heir Story saw Kganye literally step into her grandfather’s suit and shoes, having actually never met him. Through sculptural photo montages, she recreated elements of her grandfather’s story as told by family members, dressed in those clothes and inserted herself into those domestic and underrepresented narratives.
Protest: Activism and Counter-Representation in South African Photography run at The Photographers Gallery until 18th February. Find more information here.