The Conceptual framework
The photohgrafic imagery of Africa and South Africa has mainly been created by western, professional photographers. One can identify two very strong and contradictory themes: Afro romanticism and African pessimism. Both 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’ where the African subject always appears at risk on the margins of life itself. Or Africa ‘exotique’, where we most often are confronted with the heartbreaking beauty of its natural world and where man is virtually absent. Africa is mirrored in the eyes of the outsider, flying in-flying out, generally photographing on commission and for a public audience.
But there is also another Africa and another South Africa. This is the daily life with work and leisure, socializing, friendship, family and friends. The Other Camera explores and depicts South Africa from an inside perspective. It asks the questions;
- How do indigenous photographers depict their own environment, their own culture and their fellow citizens?
- How has this domestic photography evolved in a society that has gone from oppression under apartheid to democracy?
- What effects, if any, have technological developments and globalization had?
The Other Camera wants to show the South African society the way it looks through the camera lenses of photographers who are a part of the society they photograph. The title of the exhibition could therefore just as well have been ”Their Own Camera” as The Other Camera.
In South Africa the other camera is traditionally prevalent and all pervasive. You will find it at events, rituals, traditional celebrations and social occasions. There has always been a camera and a self-taught photographer present at such venues. Often moonlighting from another work but often someone who tried to get along and support himself by offering his services as a photographer. The other camera has developed into a genre of its own through the so-called ”street photographers” who lived on temporary assignments. These photographers often mix two distinct styles of photography: documentary-style recording of events and rituals and portrait photography that was an important part of their income. They worked either in the studios, if they had one, or out in the street.
The exhibition includes images taken after the fall of apartheid but most of them are from the period when the oppression was at its worst. So called non-whites were discriminated against and deprived of their human rights and their self-esteem. However the portraits show dignity and “modernity”. People refused to capitulate to the oppression. Fighting back by looking good.
The exhibition does not include images from the resistance and the armed struggle against the regime. However one must not forget that the people having their portraits taken had to have their passports with them at all times, were not allowed to sit on “white” park benches, had no access to the best “white” hospitals, were forced to live in certain designated areas and could not choose their professions. It is also against this background that one should view the hand coloured paint-brush portraits. A way to depict a life that was not theirs.
It is also interesting to notice how society and the attitudes of those having their portraits taken has changed from Ronald Ngilimas 1950s to Lindeka Qampis 21:st century. The fall of apartheid at the elections in 1994 changed the base of the society and how people came to regard themselves. In Qampi´s images the inhabitants of the township Khayelitsha outside Cape Town radiate self-assuredness . Even if there is still poverty you are no longer a second-class citizen.
Even if this vernacular photography is a part of the South African culture it has not been widely recognized as such. The images and the archives that are the basis of The Other Camera have been found and digitalized by the University of Cape Town. The museums and institutions that had the responsibility to preserve and promote South Africa’s cultural heritage did not consider photography to be sufficiently interesting and valuable to be included in their collections. Negatives and photos were also often thrown away when a photographer died. They were not seen as having any value.
Today’s street photographer lives in a society that is constantly changing under the influence of technical development and of globalization. The mobile phone has had a profound influence. There are a number of photos in the exhibition that have been taken by high school student in Khayelitsha. They are participating in a project where they are taught photography, including using their mobiles. They are asked to express their personalities, their expectations and their wishes for the future through photography. It is something of a paradox that the mobile phone that is an important tool in the democratization process around the world also is a threat to the whole photographic genre that The Other Camera shows. Today the mobile has largely taken over at weddings, portrait photography and celebrations. One of the last specialists in studio photography outside Durban sighs:” When I die a whole profession will die with me”.