Photography in South African Townships

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Photography in South African Townships

  1. 1. Photography in South African Townships Holly Cavanaugh Anthropology 390 // 09 December 2012 Abstract Community within post-apartheid South African townships is alive and vibrant.Townships are informal settlements, that were formed before and during the apartheidera, as areas of residence for non-white South Africans. Post-apartheid, non-whiteswere allowed to move out of the townships; however, due to finances, deep roots andcommunity ties, many people still live in townships. Inside and outside of townships,there are budding art communities and artists come from around the country and otherparts of the world to create art in townships. I have analyzed much of this art, and willspecifically be discussing the role of photography and how it has become an importantmedium in representing community in South African townships.
  2. 2. Introduction to Research on Community in South African Townships As an anthropologist and an artist, the South African art-scape interests me inmany ways. Art in South Africa has many unique aspects, many of which are inspired bycommunities within the country. It is necessary to understand that a large factor in whatcreates community in South Africa is that within the last century, South Africa has gonethrough much turmoil. For nearly fifty years, apartheid greatly affected the lives of allSouth Africans, most notably it had a great negative effect on black and coloured SouthAfricans. Racial discrimination and segregation led to a rift in the country that can still beseen today. Racial zoning and the creation of shantytowns, or townships, designated areas inwhich people of certain colors were meant to reside. This created forced communities,that have in turn led to the blossoming of close knit relationships within townships.Although, western media enjoys to portray townships in South Africa to be full ofviolence and unrest, there are other unsung stories yearning to be told. The concept and dynamics of ʻcommunityʼ is a popular topic within anthropology,and is discussed frequently in ehtnographies and other various research projects. I havepersonally conducted research on community bonding and formation. Because of myinterest in this concept of ʻcommunityʼ, I wanted to take a deeper look into howcommunity is portrayed within South African townships, particularly through the art ofphotography. This project was initially undertaken within a group setting, which pertained tofive others along with myself. After deciding on our topic of ʻcommunity in townships,ʼ weeach chose a township to specifically research. I, along with another member, chose to
  3. 3. research Alexandra, which is in Johannesburg; however, as I conducted research on myown, I found to the use of photography throughout many South African townships to bemore fruitful, rather than trying to achieve a generalized concept of just Alexandra.Community in Townships South African townships are full of different types of community; from the idea ofthe South African Township community as a whole, to smaller sub-communities withinspecific townships, like Alexandra, communal bonds are continuously being created andmaintained. These concepts of community are represented through many artisticoutlets, including all mediums of ʻfine artʼ and other artistic representations that arerelatively unique to South Africa. For the purposes of this paper, I will be discussing onemedium of art within and of townships, but it is necessary to acknowledge there is aplethora of other artistic expressions being utilized within townships.Photography as a Fine Art “Photography has for me been the means for which I have come to deal with being a South African.” -David Goldblatt at the SFMOMA, November 2012. Photography is one of the most dynamic mediums of art and has an interestinghistory in South Africa because during the fifty years of apartheid it was used as a wayto document the ideal versus the reality of what was occurring around the country. Inthis discussion of South African photography I am going to address four artists, all ofwhom come from different walks of life and have greatly contributed to the South African
  4. 4. art-scape, as well as to the sense of community felt within the country and hertownships.Simon Weller Simon Weller grew up in England and remembers observing apartheid in the1980s through its demise in the 1990s via television and newspapers. He first visited aSouth African township in 2009, and was pleasantly surprised by the seemingly randommultitudes of barber shops and salons throughout said township. When going throughother townships, he noticed they too had many thriving barber shops and salons, andfrom these observations, he began formulating a photo series showcasing the beautyand communal aspects of these businesses. In his essay, South African Township Barbershops & Salons, Weller depicts ninetownships and through background, personal experiences, and interviews tells theirstories. I focused most on the chapter about Alexandra, the township in particular thatWeller was warned by many not to visit. Even with negativity, Weller ventured into Alex,which he happened to visit on a Sunday, the day of the week that many families wereout and about after attending church. In South African Barbershops and Salons, hediscusses how the barbershops of Alex (along with other featured townships) “serve asplaces where the community can escape.” These are the places in Alex where peoplecan relax and ʻhang outʼ with each other in a casual and comfortable manner. Wellerʼs photographs of barbershops and salons in Alex feature some of theouter art work of the shops, including, but not limited to: their shop name, a list ofservices, and some sort of painting on the front that is meant to entice a customer. In
  5. 5. much of Wellerʼs work, he shows the list of services salons and barbershops offer,which helps the outside viewer gain a greater understanding of popular styles, and theamount of services an establishment offers. He also has photographs of the insides ofsome shops, many of which directly show the social interactions taking place. Withmany of these shots, the viewer is able to visibly see the communal bonds formed inthese establishments, thus allowing closer connections between viewer and subject toform. An innovative way Wellerʼsphotographs of South African townshipshave been crossing the global art-scape, isby the creation of skateboards that havevarious photographs on them from theBarbershop & Salons series. Collaboratingwith the Familia Skateboards, a southAfrican skateboard company that promotesitself as ʻpeppered with a little antagonism, dysfunction, humor, and activism,ʼ Weller isshowcasing the township culture he captured through his images via skating.Graeme Williams Graeme Williams began his photography career as a photo journalist. He wascommissioned to record violence and death occurring in townships during and afterapartheid, but felt he was living a double life by shooting photos of violence in themorning and going home to the ʻwhiteʼ suburbs in the afternoon. He decided to stop
  6. 6. documenting, and now operates at a quieter level. His essay, The Edge of Town, isaiming to tie a ʻfragmented story of lifeʼ lived at the edge of South African town. Hecovers nearly 100 towns, including Alex. He is bringing to life images of South Africathat the non-South African viewer normally doesnʼt see, with narrative elements to makethe viewer contemplate life lived, at the edge of town. "Instead of trying to construct a narrative about life in the country as a whole, I concentrated on fragments of life at the literal and figurative edges of town... made up of fragments that I have collected as I moved within the spaces occupied by South Africaʼs marginalized communities" -Williams on the description of The Edge of Town While these photos donʼt follow a real ʻpattern,ʼ they all are depicting snapshotsof life in South Africa. Working with the literal and the figurative, Williams is playing theline between positive and negative aspects in the lives of marginalized South Africans.While his photos donʼt give an overly ʻhappyʼ feeling, they donʼt give a ʻsadʼ feelingeither; They exist for themselves, and are left to the viewer to interpret how the subjectsin the photos are feeling and seeing the raw beauty of life lived in townships.Zwelethu Mthethwa Zwelethu Mthethwa received an extensive fine arts education from MichaelisSchool of Fine Art, and has helped with various community projects, like ChildrenʼsProject for Community Arts. Zwelethu Mthethwa was an early proponent of colorphotography, a medium not readily embraced by South African photographers, he wasbreaking away from the black and white ʻdocumentary photographerʼ box that had been
  7. 7. the norm in South Africa during apartheid. In his series, Inner Views (which makes upone third of his exhibition, Interiors), one could argue that Mthethwaʼs photos representSouth African identities, but I would contest that they also show a great deal about thecommunities within townships. The portraits in Inner Views show people in their homes, all of whom were incollaboration with Mthethwa during the shoot. He would ask them to dress how theywanted, where they wanted to be in the photo and he let them choose their expressionand after printing he sends them a print of their photograph. By collaborating sointimately with his subjects, this makes Mthethwaʼs work is much more successful thanif he had posed his subjects himself. It also brings deeper meanings into the identities ofthe communities he is capturing. An insightful quote on Mthethwaʼs work, is from AriellaBudick: “His goals are curiously old-fashioned: he wants to seize his subjectsʼ humanity and broadcast it into the world. Heʼs not interested in arousing compassion or sparking political action, but rather in glorifying the patchwork beauty his marginalized subjects build amid their poverty.” -Budick Another interesting aspect of Inner Views, is the setting around the subjects.Many of the interior spaces look very similar, which creates a sense of communalsolidarity. The particular similarity within the settings is the wallpaper consisting ofcolorful paper advertisements, magazine covers, and food labels on the walls of eachsubjectʼs living space. The setting almost becomes the subject, since the viewerʼs eye istaken around so many parts of the photograph; however, the individual remains the
  8. 8. eyeʼs focus. The subjectʼs expression and body language really communicates whothey are and the emotions they want to express. This series is telling a narrative of Mbekweni (the location of the photographs)and the residents who live there. Sue Williamson discusses in South African Art Nowthat the images of Mbekweni are part of a healing process to the residents (healing fromthe long years of apartheid). Inner Views is reminiscent of American photographer,Shelby Lee Adamsʼs numerous narrative seriesʼ about rural Appalachian Mountainresidents. Both these men capture a culture in its purest and raw state, one which tells anarrative of unsung communities, and at the same time lifting the spirits of theindividuals themselves. in showcasing who they are.David Goldblatt Since the 1960s, David Goldblatt has devoted all of his time strictly tophotography. For over 50 years, he has exhibited countless series, and was the firstSouth African to have a solo exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Hecaptured apartheid in photographs and continues to photograph in the post-apartheidera. He mainly works in black and white, but has recently been experimenting withcolor photography. One notable achievement he mentions in his artist statement is thathe aided in the founding of the Market Photography Workshop in Johannesburg in1989. This program aims to teach young people photographic skills and how to becomevisually literate. This kind of program helps spread art, and create more players in theSouth African art-scape.
  9. 9. Goldblatt has documented the changes of South Africa, as a whole, during andpost-apartheid. Much of his work tells stories, and he helps these stories come evenmore to life with long description in the titles of his photographs. The photo thatimmediatly stood out to me was titled: “Victorian Cobokana, housekeeper, with her sonSifiso and daughter Onica, Johannesburg, June 1999. Victoria died of AIDS 13December 1999, Sifiso died of AIDS 12 January 2000, Onica is infected with AIDS andis not expected to live.” (Williamson, 144) This lengthy description allows the viewer tohave a more emotional experience with the photograph, more intense than they wouldhave without the description. The photograph itself is of Victoria sitting in a chair holdingher daughter, and her son standing next to them. Even though the photograph has asomber feeling to it, the title evokes a greater connection between the viewer, Goldblatt,and the subject. Goldblatt shoots seemingly normal daily situations. He is shooting the realities ofcommunities and their members within South Africa, particularly those who struggle inthe post-apartheid era. Now he has branched out and has began shooting thoseaffected by the HIV/AIDS epidemic that is the primary means of killing multitudes ofSouth Africans. Through his work Goldblatt is telling the emotional narrative of SouthAfrica, and he is an important figure to follow. He not only photographs the lives oftownship residents and marginalized South Africans, but has other work based on thelives of white South Africans. The dichotomy between the lives of white and black SouthAfricans is one that has been under stress since before the years of apartheid. Goldblattaims to show all walks of life in South Africa, many of which may have gone unseenwithout his help.
  10. 10. To close my discussion photography as a fine art, all these artists tie together intelling pieces of various narratives and the great dynamics within South Africantownships. From the safe places communities go to strengthen relationships, tonarratives of the people themselves in their places of residence, which are unique butriddled with patterns. Photography is and will continue to be an important art in SouthAfrica, and over time more township residents will pick up cameras and capture moreimportant moments in time.Photography from within TownshipsI See a Different You I was fortunate enough to come upon a photography blog called “I See ADifferent You.” This blog is run by three young men of Soweto (a township ofJohannesburg): Justice Mukheli, Innocent Mukheli, and Vuyo Mpantsha; Each wantingto tell the world a different story of Soweto, and of South Africa. Growing up, theynoticed the media was showcasing all the negatives about life in Soweto, but not of thepositives that they had experienced during childhood. Rather than having outsiderscome and tell them how life is being lived, they made it their mission to tell their story ofgrowing up and living in South Africaʼs most famous township, Soweto. It was only recently that one member of the trio, Justice Mukheli, even picked upa camera. “I never thought of photography as an art as I didnʼt think the craft behind itwas worthy of being art;” (Jordan, 1) However, after taking some photographs while ona trip to Cape Town, Mukheli began to see the value of photography artistically. By
  11. 11. attempting to make everything beautiful and paying attention to design, he startedshowcasing the beauty of his childhood home, Soweto. In oder to tell their story of Soweto, they capture uplifting and beautiful momentsthrough photography. They are part of a new generation in South Africa, one that isgrowing up believing in themselves and believing in their great potential. They are tryingto document and recreate pieces of their lives that were important in growing up inSoweto. “They say people connect with the photographs because they identify withthem, the photos say: ʻThatʼs where I am from.ʼ” (Taitz, 1) Rather than experiencing lifealone, they want to share with the world their love for their home and the communitythat means so much to them.Umuzi Photo Club The Umuzi Photo Club is an organization in South Africa that helps developphotography skills among youth in townships. Many of the photography projects theseyoung people conduct are activism based issues that South African youth faceeveryday. Another resource the Club provides is practical opportunities for youngphotographers, such as helping them learn how to earn an income with photographyand ultimately become independent professionals. In 2011, Nikon South Africa donatedequipment to the Club to help get more youth involved with photography. The firstcamera set went to a 24 year old Alexandra resident, who may not be in the targetgroup of high school students, but exhibited motivation to become a professionalphotographer. Nikon has partnered with the Club by selling South African crafts, such asbracelets, in order to help fund more opportunities within the the Club.
  12. 12. Each week a new young artist is introduced on the Umuzi Photo Club blog, inorder to showcase some of the young people who are involved in this organization.Their blog is a really great source for others around the world to get informed aboutwhat is going on in South African youth. The Club also has visiting photo journalists andartists guest lecture to the youth participants in order to further inspire. The UmuziPhoto Club is a great way for township youth to advance their photographic conceptualand technical skills, and gain the potential to become first rate photographers.Conclusion As discussed in this paper, photography has been and continues to play animportant role in displaying community within South Africaʼs townships. Not only arephotographers representing the communities of South African townships through theirimages through the world-wide art-scape, young township residents are givenopportunities to learn about photography and potentially become photographersthemselves. By showcasing the beauty of townships, and their residents, the world willbe able to learn the beautiful stories of barbershops that serve as social centers; of lifelived at the edges of town; of personal identities riddled with communal patterns; or ofthree young bloggers, each wanting to share with the world their charming and playfullives. South African photography will continue to travel the global art-scape, and affectthe lives of generations to come.
  13. 13. BibliographyBudick, Ariella. “Zwelethu Mthethwa, Studio Museum, New York.” The Financial TimesLimited. 26 August 2010.http://www.ft.com/intl/cms/s/0/f1a0d8ce-b12e-11df-b899-00144feabdc0.htmlI See a Different You. “About.” & “Archive.”http://iseeadifferentyou.tumblr.com/Jack Shainman Gallery. “Zwelethu Mthethwa.” Jack Shainman Gallery: Publications.2010. Web. http://www.jackshainman.com/publication16.htmlJordan, Emma. “I See a Different You.” iFashion. 31 January 2012.http://www.ifashion.co.za/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=4141:i-see-a-different-you&catid=78&Itemid=114Nkosi, Bongani. “Developing Young Photographers in South Africa.” Africa Good News.19 July 2011.http://www.africagoodnews.com/brand-africa/art-and-culture/2664-developing-young-photographers-in-south-africa.htmlNoakes, Tim. “Zwelethu Mthethwa Interview.”http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RmwJgPrKkiYPirie, G.H. “Ethno-Linguistic Zoning in South African Black Townships.” The RoyalGeographic Society. Vol. 16, No. 4. (291-298). December 1994.Rosenberg, Karen. “Intimate Interiors, Vividly Revealed.” The New York TImes. 15 July2010. http://www.nytimes.com/2010/07/16/arts/design/16views.htmlShelta.eu Familia Sakteboards.http://shelta.eu/products/brand/familia-skateboards/overview
  14. 14. Taitz, Laurice. “Photography: The brothers who see a different world.” Mail & Guradian:Africaʼs Best Read. 13 July 2012.http://mg.co.za/article/2012-07-13-00-photography-the-brothers-who-see-a-different-worldUmuzi Photo Club. “About Me.”http://umuziphotoclub.blogspot.com/Weller, Simon. South African Township Barbershops & Salons. New York, NY: MarkBatty Publishers. 2011. Print.Williams, Graeme. “The Edge of Town: Description.” Graeme Williams - Photographer.http://graemewilliams.co.za/web/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=3:the-edge-of-town&catid=2:essays&Itemid=34Williamson, Sue. South African Art Now. New York, NY: Harper Collins Publishers. 2009.Print.“Zwelethu Mthethwa.” PBS Video Review. http://www.pbs.org/arts/gallery/new-york-city-sunday-arts-video/arts-from-nyc-09-zwelethu-mthethwa/“Graeme Williams talking about his work The Edge of Town.” A Video Interview byPanos Pictures 25. 18 May 2011. http://www.panos.co.uk/blog/?p=5279Image SourceSkateboards:http://boldandnoble.com/blog/2011/11/south-african-township-barbershops-salons/familiasw/

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