Othering the othered

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Photo: Daniel Morolong

How people choose to represent themselves can make for fascinating viewing. Less so today, where we are saturated with selfies and self-promotion, although the fact it is so ubiquitous is an indicator of our mixture of narcissism and interest in self-representation. It’s particularly revealing when it goes wrong.

But I’m talking about how people chose to represent themselves before the advent of digital and cellphone cameras. Especially people for whom the camera was a relatively foreign object. When you went to a studio to have your image captured.

At the COMMUNE.1 Gallery in Wale Street, Cape Town, there are collections of photographs by black photographers from as far back as the ’50s who worked from their own – sometimes garish and makeshift – studios and captured their clientele as they were passing by at the train station, street, park or beach – snapping them and then handing them a card in the hope they would call and buy a print.

Some of the studios, such as the Bobson Studio in Durban founded by Bobson Sukhdeo Mohanlall, specialised in a Zulu clientele who appeared to favour traditional costume.

Standing on the patterned linoleum of mixed brown shapes, in front of the deep red curtains which make up the studio backdrop, we see an elderly man fully kitted out in intricate beadwork, including an extravagant headdress, yet choosing to clad his feet in Onitsuka Tiger hi-tops (very sought after in the ’70s as I recall) with red laces over yellow socks, his legs bare with just a fan-shaped piece of springbok hide covering his genitals while a sort of cape is tied to his waist, falling to his ankles.

Then there is the Zulu matriarch entirely in traditional dress except for over-size sunglasses. Possibly most interesting of all is a woman posing with her back to the camera, showing off the beadwork of her skirt. This, rather than her own image, must have been what was most important to her.

Of equal interest is the discernment in almost every square-format photo of the rough accoutrements of the studio: boxes, lamp, shelves, are all partly visible along the edge of the frame, providing an indication of the cramped space carved out to preserve the image for posterity.

In filmmaker Angus Gibson’s collection of images he printed up from an unknown photographer’s studio in Maribastad, Pretoria, the formal poses are reminiscent of the tintypes of the 1800s.

There is a young man in what was likely the khaki bantu police uniform of the time (1970s) complete with colonial helmet, looking vulnerable, almost scared.
Two men in western suits posing with guitar and trumpet.
A man seated, flanked by two young children, one an albino.

There are images taken by photographers such as Ronald Ngilima who worked in Wattville township, Benoni from the ’50s and Daniel Morolong who photographed life in Mdantsane in the ’60s and ’70s. Life swept to the margins by the apartheid regime but as real to the subjects as life ever is.

Ngilima and Morolong’s sophisticated compositions stand out compared to the more formal studio photographs and the bizarre and surreal studio work of Lucky Sipho Khoza who specialised in double exposures (a bride superimposed on a cow, a woman’s head and shoulders on a Coke can) and the Ruth Sack Collection in which the specialist studio airbrushing over snapshots make the subjects appear to be paper dolls with their clothes pasted on.

Among all these photographs which have layers of history adding meaning to the image, are works by contemporary Khayelitsha-based photographer Lindeka Qampi, whose photographs translate Morolong and Ngilima’s sophistication and eye for the particular among the mundane to today’s world.

Qampi’s work asserts a modernity which has at times an intriguing inverse echo of some the archival images, such as the image of an attractive and confident young woman, taken from a low angle so that she dominates the landscape of squatter shacks behind her, nonchalantly holding a traditional beer pot.

Her urban confidence in jeans and jersey both part of and defiant of the dysfunctional urbanism of the informal settlement, yet holding a traditional object, inverting the urban accessories sported amidst the traditional garb worn by the Bobson Studio clientele.

This exhibition thus celebrates past township photographers who captured life in their communities despite apartheid’s attempts to sideline their existence, as well as current photographers such as Qampi who validate their subjects’ agency in the face of economic occlusion.

Or so it seems.

Despite having found the work fascinating, intriguing, and worthwhile for its retention of visual history, there was something that did not sit right. It wasn’t just that the exhibition was unimaginatively displayed, resembling more a museum collection than a celebration of images.

It took awhile to sink in but I eventually realised the problem was the title: The Other Camera.

On the surface it is merely descriptive. Most of the images are archives of work by black photographers who lived under apartheid and were thus barely recognised by the state and by extension white society which wielded power. These photographers – barring Qampi whose inclusion is particularly problematic given the title under which her work is displayed here – were wielding the ‘other’ camera, from a white point of view at least. But, 20 years after apartheid’s demise, to still label this work as ‘other’ displays a disconcerting lack of reflection on history and contemporary South African society.

‘The other’ is a term of exclusion wielded by the group holding political power, which leads to the assumption that exhibition curator Paul Weinberg and the gallery are part of the ‘normal’ photographic world and the photographers here are others who they have deigned to let in.

Frustratingly, Weinberg knows this. In the exhibition notes he states: “The camera, like the gun and the bible, has historically been viewed as a tool of colonialism… The Other Camera offers another perspective and explores a more nuanced approach to the role of the camera, images and their attendant value. This focus brings the concept of indigenous media (insider perspectives on identity and representation) to the fore.”

But Weinberg did not take his own cue contained in the phrase ‘indigenous media’. These photographers were the ones taking photographs of life under a state which ‘othered’ them and tried to sweep them into bantustans and townships situated beyond urban borders. They depicted the life experienced by the ‘indigenous’majority but were othered then and are being othered now when in fact, with the benefit of hindsight, they were norm, not the other.

For the ‘other’ camera is wielded by gallery successes such as Pieter Hugo, Mikhael Subotzky, Guy Tillum, et al. This is something Hugo himself admitted in an interview I came across some time ago in a publication the name of which I have forgotten. He spoke about the fact he is a tall blonde Afrikaaner taking photographs in Africa and given this fact, he cannot pretend to be invisible but has to use his visibility as an outsider to best effect. And he does. To great effect. There is nothing wrong with this as long as it is acknowledged.

Arguably any photographer whose subject matter is not his or her own community where they can approach invisibility, or at least an invisibility borne of recognition, is other to those whom they photograph.

‘The other camera’ is a term also wielded by David Goldblatt in his preface to the exhibition catalogue in reference to studio and street photographers. Goldblatt, like Weinberg, appears to divorce ‘the other’ from its socio-political context to place it the realm of the aesthetic. But even in so doing, the socio-political context is reasserted in the assumption that the art and commercial photographers’ camera is the norm against which the other camera is defined.

This validates the cries of many black artists that they remain othered by the appointed selectors of what constitutes art, as the use of the term reflects an exclusivity inherited from the academies of 19th Century Europe.

And given there may be space for the argument that The Other Camera could be applicable to these archives as the photographers themselves were othered by the state, the inclusion of Qampi’s work, and that of the Ikamva Youth Project, nullifies this justification.

There is currently no political elite other than the established jurors of what qualifies as admissible on gallery walls that has the power to label Qampi in particular as ‘other’.

It is unclear what qualifies this exclusion. Perhaps it is because she is self-taught, perhaps it is because she lives in Khayelitsha, perhaps because she sells some of her images as postcards to supplement her income. It is troubling. Particularly because she is deservedly represented by the Erdmann Contemporary Gallery and has crossed the artificial divide.

The use of the term other, unless applied by the artist to themselves, is an uncomfortable continuation of the colonial view this exhibition seeks to address. This is a disservice to the photographers who captured the celebration of life expressed by their subjects in spite of the oppression under which they lived. It is also an insult to the people we see in these photographs who, as opposed to being represented by the other that so defined them, were represented by the artists among them who the actual other refused to recognise.

Thus this exhibition, in 2015, should be called ‘The Real Camera’.

The Other Camera is up until 11 August at COMMUNE.1, 64 Wale Street, Cape Town.

Steve Kretzmann

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