‘The Other Camera’
21.07.2015 – 11.08.2015
The Other Camera is an exhibition of about one hundred photographs drawn from different photographic archives in South Africa (see the full list here). Loosely covering the past forty years of our history, these images have been provided by collectors, individual photographers as well as photographic collectives or projects. With this exhibition, the curator Paul Weinberg attends to an ’other’ kind of camera work that has so far been neglected in serious study in South Africa. An important precursor to mention, however, is Santu Mofokeng’s The Black Photo Album / Look at Me: 1890-1950, first shown in Johannesburg in 1998.
Photography is undisputedly one of South Africa’s most successful exports. Whether in photojournalism, in the advertising industry or in fine art photography, an unusually large proportion of our photographers are listed, booked and exhibited internationally. The prolific sales figures of the artist-photographers in particular have contributed to a kind of African renaissance of the ‘Documentary Fine Art’ genre. This trend is not unproblematic, and the past two decades have seen a concomitant increase of contestations around how top commercial galleries are feeding the nouveau-colonial voyeurism of international art investors with quasi-documentary images that draw from this country’s visually and emotionally potent mix of hard light and hard life. Essentially, the critique centres around the fact that the unacknowledged symbolic currency – which this art market segment is translating into cash sales – is actually an ongoing sense of white/Western superiority over black/African subjects, whom the camera has a long history of rendering in ways that are derogatory, pitying or exoticising – in one word: ‘othering.’ This exhibition of photographs however, beginning with its title, performs a very interesting reconstruction of this notion of ‘the (social) other’ in showing us images of family and familiarity, as we shall see in a moment.
The camera has been wielded by Europeans with an interest in Africa right from the time of its invention well over a hundred years ago. Successive waves of amateurs and professionals alike – in their various roles as ‘explorers,’ missionaries and ethnographers – have made use of its ostensibly objective imaging capabilities as well as its inextricable positioning within a rich visual history in order to gather visual evidence of their discoveries and godly services abroad, and to take measurements for racist European (pseudo)sciences. The latter types of images were generally staged to support the photographer’s own rather barbaric notions around the relative savagery, nobleness or particular otherness of so-called ‘primitive’ African people. Within many further contexts in the course of the twentieth century, the camera continued to play a central role in the relentlessly exploitative encounter between blithe subjugators and disempowered subjects on either side of its film plane. In a Foucauldian sense then, the camera was introduced into Africa as an instrument of power, and continued to perform as such within a wider arsenal of technologies and worldviews employed to surveil and control those it was pointed at.
What emerges in this miniature history is a continuum of exploitation at work in photographic representations of Africa: not only the ethnographers of the 19th century staged their particular ‘records’ here according to the racist ideologies underpinning the colonialist project long underway, but also contemporary ‘fine art’ photographers are staging their ‘documentary art’ images of Africa to suit to the tastes and preconceptions of non-African audiences and investors browsing and buying ‘African photography’ at art fairs in Venice/Basel/Paris et al. The incompatible terminologies silently point to the fact that the very genre of ‘Documentary Fine Art’ actually requires a scientifically precise and ethically dubious concealment of specific technical and theoretical manipulations to be performed on the images it produces. Taken together, the ideological machinations underlying the vast span of practices emerging here could be summed up, for argument’s sake, as ‘the Camera.’
Contrastingly, ‘The Other Camera’ is an exhibition of what at first glance appear to be quite ‘ordinary’ photographs, gathered together from a variety of different sources and contexts that are not usually associated with art. In producing this sensitive and unpretentiously thought-provoking show, the curator Paul Weinberg put aside his own camera, with the exception of one contextual photo, in which we witness a joyous moment of the other camera at work: ‘Take me a photo,’ at the Durban beachfront in 1995. Almost despite the inclusion of some very well-exposed names such as David Goldblatt (also with just one double-frame depicting a photographer and his subject, from 1955), the selection of images created by participatory and community ‘street’ photographers ranges from spontaneous holiday snapshots through to carefully staged and post-produced studio portraits. ‘The Other Camera’ gives us a glimpse of a vast archive of social photography that stands in gentle contrast to the harsh visuals that we have become so accustomed to seeing in history books, newspapers and on gallery walls. Here, there are no teeming masses of angry protesters in black and white, no freakish, desaturated natives in white box frames, nor indeed any po-faced ‘identity art’ video stills. Instead, we encounter small, sample collections from the archives of photographers who recorded ordinary life in extraordinary circumstances.
Depending on the viewer, the simple humanity portrayed through one particular image may feel heartbreaking and deeply thought-provoking, while the formal banality of another might leave one cold or puzzled at first about its inclusion in the show. These feelings, importantly, arise in relation to viewing printed access copies of a collection of private photographic archives, and therefore constitute something quite distinct from the aesthetically disinterested or politically (un-)informed responses to South African photography as it is predominantly marketed at present. Here, we are invited to think through what personal histories are implied in what we are looking at, what it is that makes these images look so special or so ordinary to us in each case, as well as question how we are socially positioned in this gallery space, gazing into these ‘other’ pasts. Also: what was that camera that recorded our own past (in the family album, the silver frame on Grandma’s mantlepiece, dad’s slide collection etc), and how do its images – which are so often intimately entwined with our personal memories – relate to those we see here? These are some of the most worthwhile questions ‘socially responsive’ art can endeavour to bring up in South Africa right now. Yet as works of fine art such questions are commonly met with no more than the loud talk of connoisseurs suiping their craft beer, quite set on ignoring what might emerge in response.
Away from the noise of hipster socialites, looking across this colourful mix of photographic styles across the decades – all of them reprints from archival scans, on the same paper, in the same frames – the question of mediality raises its troubled head: particularly in relation to the small selection of quite extraordinary studio portraits taken by an unknown photographer (c. 1990s), Courtesy Gisele Wulfsohn and Ruth Sack Family Collection, and what John Peffer made of these images in his fascinating contribution to the exhibition catalogue. Drawing from the field of phenomenology with its discussion of the body as the primary medium of perception, he brings us in touch with a perplexing history: in a time when the only photograph that most poor people possessed of themselves was in their ‘dompas’ – arguably one of the most obnoxious instruments of systemic, bio-morphic control – they (or their families) still proceeded to turn (in art speak: détourn) this image – through the work of a professional retoucher – into paintings that would serve a variety of uses, for instance memorialisation. Thus, the powers of value and usage invested in the pass photo could be transformed from those of surveillance and exclusion to ones of celebration, fantasy and commemoration. This way, thinking and acting through the medium – however un-academically – became, amongst other things, a concrete embodiment of social critique.
Arriving at this question of (historical) embodiment, one may feel strangely bereft looking at this road show: if only one could have a sensorial, tactile experience of the precious, unrestored originals! Instead, one has to imagine the scuffed, faded and painted-on prints in all their different shapes and sizes currently resting in the archives and photo-albums – and all the further layers of reproduction and recycling suspended in space and time. I was led to wonder if perhaps the withholding of this experience of physical authenticity holds its own value, and actually enables an important shift: through the translation procedures of digital archiving, these objects transition from serving a personal use to becoming images at play in the public realm.
Thus, in foregrounding the back stories to our common history, ‘The Other Camera’ is at the very least an overview of the multitude of ways in which black South Africans under Apartheid took control over the production and ownership of their image, against unimaginable odds. Beyond that, each viewer will have to ask themselves what occurs in the process of their own engagement with what they see here today: Is there sense of loss or shame? Does a redemptive desire arise? Is this a history of care and empathy, to be reconstructed towards a collective future? Can we imagine a new camera yet? What kinds of new innovations, exclusions and problems of representation might it give rise to? On its travels, ‘The Other Camera’ will certainly engender important questions about us South Africans, and how we look.