Often what makes a great documentary photograph is when the photographer manages to inscribe their meaning straight onto the surface, when the subject and the form of the photograph merges into a universal language. The image is so powerful that it speaks, but in that speaking it loses its specificity. Others have a clarity of purpose, so embedded in place and context and specifics, that only an accompanying text can help us unravel it. Both these, in opposite extremes, reveal a limit to photographic language, that a photograph can show, but never tell. If we want any further telling, we have to look outside the image: getting closer to the image only breaks the image up into shapes and shadows, and then into pixels and grain.
After Santu Mofokeng passed, I noticed a post being shared on Instagram, a handwritten note from Hans Ulrich Obrist’s feed (Obrist often posts handwritten notes from artists he interviews). It read: ‘I’m not interested in the “is”-ness of things, only in the ambiguousness of things.’ and signed by Mofokeng. Mofokeng’s work takes a third approach to documentary, stepping straight into the shapes and shadows. What is lost in clarity, is gained in productive ambiguity.
In Winter in Tembisa, a billboard for Omo washing powder is tilted at a jaunty angle in the middle of an empty, filthy lot. There is humour in the image, as well as a meditation on capitalist dream-images in the presence of lived reality. Mofokeng would put this irony to use well in his ‘Billboards’ series, extending and investigating this theme. More importantly for me, though is the incredible moment of visual tension in the photograph, contrasting the pitch of the billboard, a man hurries across the foreground almost in silhouette his body tilted into the stride. This moment is so visually compelling, so laden and tense. Our eyes tumble between the two angles, which frame a rhombus of space. And in this frame is nothing but smoke and mist.
For me this photograph has always seemed to be an implicit criticism of documentary styling. It’s a decisive moment, and yet that moment can tell us barely anything of the experience of a winter morning in Tembisa, or the meaning of the tilt of an Omo sign. It pushes the acts of interpretation back to the viewer: here, take this and think about it.
Smoke and dust are an integral theme in Mofokeng’s work. In Senaoane, Soweto dust seems to be the central subject, with some figures and signs just barely emerging from the gloom and a Lee Friedlander-like moment of self-reflexivity in the bottom right corner. But in its quietness, it seems to have a terrible beauty and a cloying menace, which Patrica Hayes describes in her obituary as like being hit by a stray bullet.
The power in the image though is Mofokeng’s space, the opposite of the famous Capa maxim of getting closer. Mofokeng pulls back, until the land itself takes over the frame. In Chief More’s Funeral, GaMogopa, for instance, the landscape frames the figures, pulling at them relentlessly. But the land here is never apolitical, to quote again from Hayes, Mofekeng says that ‘the violence is in the knowing’.
Mofokeng also understood the power of knowing, and his archival project ‘The Black Photo Album/ Look at me: (1890-1950)’ is a continually surprising and challenging collection of vernacular photography. Comprising family photographs of working- and middle-class black people, it shows an element of history that Apartheid erased. Mofekeng concludes his biographical essay, ‘The Trajectory of a Street Photographer’ (a compelling read for insights into his approach), with a meditation on this series and a powerful quote from Milan Kundera: ‘For the struggle against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.’
Perhaps my favorite photographs by Mofokeng are where he throws all the rules out entirely. Robben Island as you’ve never seen it before is skew, strangely exposed with a blur of – I assume – his car window in the foreground. Teju Cole describes it as like Baldesarri without the irony: ‘Mofokeng seems to test how many eccentricities a picture can tolerate before it breaks apart.’ He is embracing a photography that is more out of control, and in that bring out the ambiguity of images. It seems a similar impulse to the one that led him to try and capture spirituality, essentially uncapturable, in his Train church series, or his work at the Motouleng Cave. Mofokeng seems to break the rules, but then makes it stick.
These broken rules, his embrace of ambiguity and his work on the struggle of remembering, seem to me to be the things that stand out in his work. We must hold onto these ideas as his work changes into his legacy changes into history.