The Other Camera Exhibitionan anthology of ‘vernacular photography’ in South Africa

Introduction

The Other Cameraas a project is challenged to explore another vision of the world from a participatory, community photographic point of view. It poses the important question – how do photographers from communities in Africa and specifically South Africa photograph their own people, environment, cultures and events? More importantly how has the inside or the ‘other camera’ been acculturised , how has it adapted to a modernising Africa and to a globalised and transforming world?

A commonly held position when understanding the role of photography historically is to associate the camera with its other colonial apparels – the gun and the bible. Destruction of the indigenous value systems, cultures and its often romantic reconstruction through images, is mirrored in many colonial experiences throughout the world. John Marshall, documentary filmmaker, most known for his seminal work on the San people, once described this phenomenon as ‘Death by Myth’. There is a plethora of material critiquing this practice of photography since its inception in 1839.

But a more recent body of research has begun to recognise another archive, broadly understood as ‘Other Photography’s’, bringing with it refreshing perspectives, and values. The realm of ‘Other Photography’s’, explores a more nuanced approach to the role of the camera, images and their attendant value. This focus brings into the frame the concept of indigenous media – insider perspectives on identity and representation.

“By abandoning the notion that photographic history is best seen as the explosion of a Western technology whose practice has been moulded by singular individuals, Photography’s Other Histories presents a radically different account of a globally disseminated and locally appropriated medium” 1

Allied to this research is a more recent discourse which moves away from a fixed position of the colonial gaze and explores its complexities. Historian Jeff Guy argues that while Zulu subjects were photographed in a portrait style in the 19th Century, constructed by the photographer, they were not powerless subjects who yielded to the colonial photographer but rather used the camera for their own assertion of identity through body language and expression to reclaim a sense of their own agency.

The exhibition opens up new vistas beyond the dominant approaches of 19th and 20th century photography at the same time, exciting exploration, research and analysis of other photography’s. It explores a sense of dynamism that exists in the “locally appropriated medium”. It shifts focus from how outsiders photographed ‘the other’ to how ‘the other’ photographs and represents itself.

In Africa the ‘other camera’ is prevalent and all pervasive. In South Africa with its strong migrant and urban historical links, the ‘other camera’ has evolved into a genre itself.  You will find this camera at events, rituals, traditional celebrations, and social occasions. The photographers who work in this way are called ‘street photographers’, generally hussling for a living in the way the informal sector survives.  These photographers in South Africa often mix two distinct styles of photography – the documentary approach, photographing events and rituals as well as the set up portrait. These images are integrally part of modern African culture, linked to assertions of identity, class and status. Fundamentally they challenge the more traditional views of representation – of outsiders imaging the lives of ‘others’, particularly indigenous communities. The ‘other camera’ is a window on a world, highlighting how insiders photograph themselves and their fast changing typographies, and in itself, is a self sustaining sub-culture.

One can identify two very strong and contradictory themes that dominate Africa’s photographic imagery – Afro pessimism and Afro romanticism. Both these concepts are driven by first world thinking, by the imperatives of the news industry and magazine market. Both are highly saleable – ‘Africa as a disaster zone’ and its continuing narrative and Africa ‘exotique’, the perennial search for the ‘noble savage’. A counterpoint to these dominant representations is to raise questions about how Africans perceive their own lives and more pertinently, how they photograph themselves? The inquiry also suggests how these photographers beyond Africa, as part of the majority world, cope and deal with outside perceptions of themselves; continue the practice of their own story telling traditions; reclaim ownership of their own cultures, histories, and experiences and finally how they survive as photographers in a globalised economy, dominated by a media system they will increasingly consume but have very little sense of agency over?

The project draws on recent exhibitions and scholarship with regard to African Photography – namely  – In/Sight: African Photographers, 1940 to the Present (Guggenheim Musem, 1996), Snap Judgements (2007) and Africa Remix (2004). The importance of these exhibitions are that have firmly placed African Photography on the map. They have been curated by Africans namely – Okwui Enwezor and Simon Njami.  In/Sight: African Photographers, 1940 to the Present focussed predominately on the portraiture style of West Africa, particularly highlighting Seydou Keita’s work. The two other projects have focussed on the contemporary practice of African photographers. As described by Enwezor, “This photography focuses not just on individuals through social representation, but also on social environments, on networks, of shared relations, and coevalness, on the events of the self, on spatial practices. Some of the works are both documentary and social. Others are rooted in performance. But they are never disposed exclusively to ideology nor do they reproduce pathology.”3

Remarkably these recent curatorships have not included the street photography tradition of South Africa. This possible omission is because the tendency has been to highlight “artists” as opposed day to day practitioners. In Snap Judgenments  the work of Lolo Veleko has been included. Veleko while not a “street photographer” herself has used the style and approach of the genre. In this vicarious way the tradition has been flagged but in no way adequately represented. In this sense I believe the ‘The Other Camera’ will be acknowledging a tradition and movement largely under researched and neglected both in African representation and in global visual culture.

The Other Camera will examine and celebrate the different styles and approaches of photographers in South Africa generically known as ‘street photographers’ and practitioners of the vernacular. The overall picture will provide another view of how their world is portrayed and presented from an inside perspective. It will challenge tried and tested formulas about what makes good, aesthetic photography, like war, famine, exotic cultures, rituals, the gaze of the photojournalist, documentary photographer and what has been understood traditionally as ethnography. It will also show how photography has become integrally acculturised, appropriated and part and parcel of people’s lives in modern African context and in a globlised world.

Navigating Narratives of African Photography

The notion of African Photography by Africans is a relatively new concept. African photography, has by and large been reflected by a vast and highly exposed visual narrative of outsiders and foreigners whose work has tended to represent the continent and its people. Important when considering the different approaches of how Africa has been imaged, is to recognise that the outsider was generally photographing on commission and for a public audience while the African insider was photographing for a private audience. This has contributed to the insiders muted voice. A difficult starting point in this discussion is to attempt to identify “African Photography”. Curator, Simon Njami grappled with this issue in the compilation of Africa Remix, “It is impossible to separate the construct of Africaness from its historical context, impossible for Africans to think of themselves in any other way than as a reaction to other – in this case the colonisers.”4

Early images of Africans of 19 and 20th centuries were determined by technological constraints – long exposures, lack of mobility of the camera off the tripod on one level and aesthetic and ideological, on the other. As noted by the authors of From Site and Sight, “Many of the photographers of the period worked out of commercial studios. In pursuit of appealing representations of the exotic, they sometimes manipulated their images, using professional models, painted backdrops, studio costumes and contrived poses.” The portraiture of Native peoples, “were prompted by the view of humanity as divisible into racial types on the basis of physical appearance.”5

Deeply embedded in the representation of ‘Africa’ for Enwezor is the dialectic between Afro-pessisimism and romanticism which he problematises. “Africans are turned into spectres haunting the photographic imagery and Western conscience. Entire industries that are dependent on this haunted scene have been sustained by a fiction that has been almost impossible to eradicate. For decades now the photographic imagery of Africa has circled the same paradoxical field of representation: either showing us the precarious conditions of life and existence, in which case the Africa subject always appears at risk, on the margins of life itself, at the intersection where one is forced to negotiate the relationship between man and animal. Or we are confronted with the heartbreaking beauty of its natural world, where man is virtually absent except on the occasion where the landscape is left to the whims of tourists and researchers with dollars and fat grants.”6

Like Najmi, he too struggles with the conundrum of how Africa is seen and how it sees itself, “In a way this is a clash of lenses, a struggle to locate and represent Africa by two committed and disparate sensibilities – one intensely absorbed in its social and cultural world, the other passing through it, fleetingly, on one assignment or another.” He is unequivocally critical of the photojournalist movement which he argues creates an iconography of “dispair”. 7

He further observes the difference between the African portraits by Africans and those by colonials. In the one, “the point of view is always direct and always centred on the subject, which unlike colonial photography, usually images the African subject as a specimen of some exotic investigation.” 8

Enwenzor sets up a binary between the outsider and insider photographer. While these are useful metaphors to guide us, both historically and aesthetically, there is a danger of oversimplification and reductionism in his critique of the colonial gaze and the embellishment of the African one.  The recent discovery of the van Kalker archive, which has been acquired by the District Six Museum, provides a valuable counterpoint. Van Kalker was a Dutch immigrant photographer who settled in Cape Town in the 1930’s. Photographing in the studio portrait genre, his images of the coloured communities of District Six and its surrounds are seminal in our visual history of a period before and after the destruction of District Six. He has been hailed by the curators of the Museum as a voice of the community who recorded its social history, culture and its people during this time. Another perspective is the view of the authors of the book In and Out of Focus. Their perspective is that the nexus with regard to portrait photography, somewhat like van Kalker, between European and African and the development of cities (especially on the coast of Africa), was relatively organic. They suggest, “Portrait photography much as it had in Europe became an instant success. It captured one’s aspirations and modern lifestyle in a disposable, collectable and exchangeable two dimensional format.”9

Pertinent in understanding the symbiosis of cultural identity and this kind of photography’s complex evolvement, is the observation of acclaimed sociologists, Jean and John Comaroff who have perceptively understood the hybrid connection between coloniser and African. Where ‘margin’ and ‘metropole’ recast each other as Africans and Europeans to, “mark their similarities and dissimilarities, to inhabit and inhibit one another’s fantasies – and taken-for-granted practices”2.

Both Ewezor and Njami have been pivotal in positioning African photography in a world setting. They have collectively highlighted the dynamism that has been part of the continent’s photographic movement for over a century, established a new archive if you like, and shaped a valuable set of semantic codes to read and appreciate.

In their curations they have highlighted amongst others, two important South African photographers, Zwelethu Methethwa and Lolo Veleko. Both have helped to tease indirectly the idea of the vernacular South African street photographer movement. Mthethwa in his book, Zwelethu Mthethwa, uses the street photography style very common in the townships. Ordinary people of the shack settlement of the Western Cape are his subjects and the interiors are his backdrop. This is a departure from the usual style in that the portraits are inside and lit with available light. Observing his body of work, Octavia Zaya writes, “Zwelethu Mthethwa’s photography wants to be a reflection on the web of histories, styles, products and wishes that come across the life of those living on the boundaries of urban culture.” 12

Appropriating the style of the street photographer (outside portraits on the street, as opposed to the more stylised West African portrait movement with a backdrop), Veleko in her exhibition, Beauty is in the Eye of the Beholder, documents street fashion in South Africa, showing a kaleidoscope of influences – exotic and local. Her driving force behind her work, “was to make sure that my history never gets wiped out again, visually.”10 Importantly in both their works, is a sense of dignity and new identities. Entrenched in their photography is a well-worn practice of African modernity, to have your photograph taken. This is in itself one could argue has become a modern ritual. As pointed out by legendary portrait photographer Seydou Keita, “To have your photograph taken was an important event. The person had to be made to look his or her best.” 11

The Other Camera I believe is filling an important gap in the lexicon of African Photography linking the now well exposed West African vernacular movement with the less exposed South African one. This body of work will present another perspective on this marginalised, bypassed and misunderstood aspect of photography – it will showcase how photographers who are not part of the mainstream but indeed make up the majority of its practitioners in this country, see and represent their own experiences, cultures, and indeed celebrate their changing lives.  It emerges in a context where the dominant social documentary eye in South Africa has given way to broader visions of social history. It will add depth to the discourse on representation of African people through the camera. Finally it will examine and explore how one time ‘subjects’ of the photographic process became empowered, claimed the camera, placed it in their own hands and presented a different kind of iconography of Africa, “as a living, dynamic changing substance.”13

Bibliography

1 Pinney, C in Introduction. Pinney, C and Peterson, N (eds). 2003. Photography’s Other Histories.
Durham: Duke University Press, p1

2 Comaroff, J. and J.  2001. Of Revelation and Revolution – The Dialectics of Modernity on a Southern African Frontier, Volume Two. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, p 7

3 Enwezor, O. 2006. Snap Judgements.New positions in Contemporary African photography: New York, ICP, p 29

4 Njami, S. 2005. Africa Remix: contemporary art of a continent: London, Hayward Gallery, p 54

5 Banta, M and Hinsley, C. From Site to Sight. Anthropology, Photography and the Power of

Imagery. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Peabody Museum Press, p11

6 Enwezor, O. 2006. Snap Judgements.New positions in Contemporary African photography: New York, ICP, p 11-1
7 Enwezor, O. 2006. Snap Judgements.New positions in Contemporary African photography: New York, ICP, p 12
8 Enwezor, O. 2006. Snap Judgements.New positions in Contemporary African photography: New York, ICP, p 25
9 Banta, M and Hinsley, C. From Site to Sight. Anthropology, Photography and the Power of

Imagery. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Peabody Museum Press, p10
12 Godby, M, Macri T, Zaya O. 1999. Zwelethu Mthethwa: Italy: Marco Nooire Editoire, introduction.
10 Mail and Guardian Online. 100 ways to be a good girl, article by Kwanele Sosibo, 27 July 2007
11Magnin, A.SeydouKeita. 1997. New York, Berlin Zurich: Scalo, p 11

13 Enwezor, O. 2006. Snap Judgements.New positions in Contemporary African photography: New York, ICP, p 29

14 Artthrob, article Bienalle Blues, 2002