Iziko National Gallery
Perhaps most widely-known for her photograph of Bibi Aisha featured on the cover of TIME magazine in 2010, the work of South African photographer, Jodi Bieber, is currently on exhibition at the Iziko National Gallery. While much is left to the imagination when an exhibition is described as “a mid-career retrospective”, the exhibition may equally be captioned as a retrospective of Bieber’s life and growth as an individual, as a woman and as a photographer; a retrospective of human resilience and the universal mechanisms that have allowed people to persist in the face of adversity; as well as a retrospective of photography, as a medium that has become intrinsic to our country’s history and has been visibly influenced by a continuously changing context.
In one of her books, Between Dogs and Wolves: Growing up with South Africa (2006), Bieber recounts that during her youth she had a limited awareness of the social politics around her and that, in many aspects of her life, she always felt like an outsider. She recalls that “It was only by chance and great fortune that I found photography. With its discovery I found a vehicle to explore my country and the people I knew so little about.” It is no surprise, then, that Bieber has dedicated most of her work to capturing people and communities living on the fringe of society, as she describes it. As seen in her current exhibition ‘Between Darkness and Light’, these fringes do not just refer to the outliers of society’s physical boundaries but also to those marginalized by society’s mainstream ideologies of beauty, belonging and perfection. Her work focusses predominantly on people and their everyday lives, covering an expanse of locations and contexts which at surface level may be viewed in terms of the social and cultural differences they harbour, while an underlying theme of human universalism ties all of the work together.
Following Bieber’s work chronologically (which unfortunately was not made easy by the exhibition’s layout), the viewer is presented with a photographic journey spanning eight bodies of work taken between 1994 and 2010. The displays are organized into different rooms, creating a landscape embedded with borders which constantly leave the viewer on the margin of an adjacent room. Voiceovers from two different displays echo throughout the space, continuously reminding the viewer that there is something to be found beyond where they stand and beyond their familiarity. The voiceovers also contribute to an overall sense of dialogue and conversation, making the exhibition feel like a mutual endeavour between the viewer, the photographer and the people who have been photographed.
Starting with Between Dogs and Wolves (1994-2003), a long-term project which focuses on youth growing up on the fringes of South African society following the end of Apartheid, the exhibition exposes the continued struggle of young lives consumed by gang violence, HIV/AIDS and abandonment. The viewer then meets David (1995), a series which provides a closer look at one of the individuals Bieber encountered on her 10-year project, an adolescent living in a lower-class, conservative white area in Johannesburg (Bieber, 2006). Following this is Going Home: Illegality and Repatriation (2000), a series focussing on the relocation of illegal immigrants in South Africa back to Mozambique, and Las Cañas (2003) which explores a rural compound outside of Valencia, Spain. Of the people she photographed here, and perhaps applicable to most of the people in her work, Bieber writes (2015) “They may live in different places, have different economic or cultural backgrounds, but they could be your sister, your brother, your daughter, your son.” This is testament to the empathy that Bieber evokes in her work, such that even in the face of difficult subject matter, the viewer’s initial reaction is not to judge but rather to seek an understanding. This remains true for her subsequent series on exhibition Survivors (2005) and Women who have murdered their husbands (2005), both dealing with women who have endured various forms of abuse and domestic violence, some cases so severe that the victims resorted to murder as their only means of escape. Following these are works from her Real Beauty (2008) and Soweto (2009-2010) series, the former dealing with women who explore their own ideals of beauty independent of the ideal prescribed by society, while the latest series focuses on depicting real life in Soweto, avoiding the perpetuation of stereotypes portrayed by the media. Instead of taking the frequented angles of poverty, politics and Vilakazi Street, Bieber wanted her project to provide viewers with a sense of the pride and dignity with which Sowetans perceive their own home (Bieber, 2015).
Making the effort to envisage the work chronologically also makes way for an interesting aesthetic (fringe) narrative to take shape, whereby Bieber’s style undergoes a stark change from her early work’s (David, 1995 and Between Dogs and Wolves, 1994-2003) black-and-white photojournalistic approach to the heavily saturated and carefully constructed nature of her more recent work (Real Beauty, 2008 and Women who have murdered their husbands, 2005). When considered within the context of media and the changes that have occurred to photography over the past two decades, Bieber’s stylistic transformation may be seen as a process of adaptation to these changes. Having begun her career at the Star newspaper in 1993 and later working for the New York Times magazine (Bieber, 2015), the influence of print media and its demand for rapid photo-documentation may be seen in the style of her early work, where her photographs appear more candid and intertwined with biography as a means to make known the stories of minorities living in Post-Apartheid South Africa. Print media has dissipated over the years, however, as a result of the growth of social media which has allowed the public to share their own images instantaneously and in doing so, illustrate their own experiences. For photography, this has meant that its sustenance can no longer be bound to the depiction of society’s ephemeral moments and that, rather, its survival may be better suited to the realm of fine art, where the placement of value on aesthetics renders it eternal. In this way, I like to imagine the exhibition’s asynchronism as a conceptual embodiment of photography’s split from time-based journalism, now capable of defying time as ‘art’. With careful attention paid to colour and framing, her later work begins to feel like a contemporary exploration of art-historical portraiture.
In Women who have murdered their husbands (2005), Real Beauty (2008) and Soweto (2009-2010), the viewer becomes acquainted with more direct, portrait-like eye contact, involving the viewer but perhaps most importantly, repeatedly making them aware of him/herself as a spectator and outsider. This technique of Bieber’s encourages self-reflection and causes one to re-assess their initial perception of the work, questioning the extent to which the image has been constructed or the authenticity of the moment. In turn, this brings about larger questions of what society takes as truth without questioning its accuracy, or the presence of other alternative truths. This, the ability of Bieber’s photography to delve deeper than its aesthetics into questions of truth and the endurance of the human spirit, brings to mind a somewhat prophetic quote by photographer, Alfred Stieglitz in 1922: “If a photographer has the aesthetic perception; if he feels living beauty in anything concrete that he wishes to photograph; if he is actually searching for the truth; he can get the spirit of it through the camera as well as the painter can through paint.”
As much as Bieber’s work brings into light the difficult circumstances that people face, her work also identifies the universalisms which foster resilience regardless of social, political or economic contexts; universal experiences such as love, music, costume, dance, religion, smoking, drugs or alcohol. Whether it’s a young couple embracing, a row of waiting nuns or a destitute man shooting up, Bieber’s photographs depict real people exploring their own (yet recognizable) ways of transcending reality. It soon becomes apparent that Bieber’s photography may be functioning in the same way for her as a mechanism that allows her to grapple with her own life, allowing her to come to terms not only with the world that surrounds her but with herself as an individual. In her discussion of Real Beauty (2008), for example, Bieber (2015) reveals that her turning 40 was the impetus for the series, aiming to interrogate society’s ideals of beauty and perfection.
In this way, Bieber’s work is as much about her as it is about the people she photographs, once again allowing an air of commonality and empathy to be made manifest. In another excerpt from Between Dogs and Wolves: Growing up with South Africa (2006), the photographer articulates her philosophy that “we all have two sides and, depending on the changing circumstances of our lives, one side might overshadow the other.” What is particularly poignant here is her reference to a state of being between two polarities, a territory that is difficult to name or categorize. The exhibition interrogates this by blurring the space between ‘us’ and ‘them’, the space between ‘right’ and ‘wrong’, as well as the space between not-knowing and understanding; ‘darkness’ and ‘light’. While the title may also be metaphoric of South Africa’s progression from its troubled past to a more hopeful future, the exhibition situates itself in the present- our shared space in between.
Bieber, J. 2006. Between Dogs and Wolves: Growing up with South Africa. Cape Town: Juta and Company Ltd.
Bieber, J. 2015. Between Darkness and Light. Cape Town: Iziko National Gallery.
Stieglitz, A.1922. Is Photography a Failure? The New York Sun. March 14, p. 20.