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The Trajectory of a Street Photographer

By Santu Mofokeng

“… capturing and recounting the world of omens, premonitions, cures and superstitions that is authentically ours, … looking at reality without the limitations that rationalists … through the ages have tried to impose on it to make it easier for them to understand … [D]isproportion is part of our reality too. Our reality is in itself out of all proportion.” – G.G. Marquez interview, “The Fragrance of the Guava”, London: Verso, 1983.

As far as I can recall there are no photographs of me as a baby. My first encounter with the camera happened in the early 1960s when I was seven or eight years old. The person behind the camera was an itinerant, journeyman photographer who plied his trade on a Lambretta motor-scooter. He came to our house at the behest of my mother, to photograph me and my younger brother one cold morning. She wanted to memorialise the jackets she had sewn for us with bits of leftover material from the garment factory where she worked. She was proud of her handiwork. We were happy for the warmth we got from these coats of many colours, though we regretted that our jackets did not carry any store labels.

Let me confess that envy is one of the motivations that steered me into the photography business. A few friends and peers at primary school had cameras. I noticed that they were very popular and had no problems approaching girls and chatting them up. They always had loose change jangling in their pockets.

The first camera I ever owned had probably ‘fallen of the truck’. I was seventeen years old and in high school. It was in a dismal state of disrepair, so I couldn’t do anything to it to make it worse. I paid for it to be repaired with my own money, which I had earned from a commission for a sale of a complete set of Collin’s encyclopedias during school vacation in 1973. I only had this camera for two years before my neighbour came to borrow it (in my absence), from my sister. I never saw the damn camera again.

In those two years, however, I cherished that camera. It helped me overcome my awkwardness around strangers. I got invited to parties and social gatherings. My social status was enhanced. Everywhere I went strangers would approach me to have their photograph made or simply to talk, all because I was lugging a camera. Conversations revolved around the features of the camera. They would appraise the value of the camera according to weight or the width and length of the eye (lens). They asked me whether I could shoot colour or black & white or both, and whether the lens could see in the dark. I was often asked if I could shoot photographs inside a house, or when it was cloudy or windy or raining. Cameras carried an aura and a mystical fascination for a lot of people. People would stop me just to gape at the apparatus or to look through the viewfinder. It was as though the act of looking through the camera transformed and enchanted the landscape or person through the viewfinder. To be photographed was a privilege they paid for, except friends, acquaintances and relatives.

Cameras in whatever condition were difficult to come by because they were said to be too expensive. They were considered rather complicated. When you did chance upon one it carried with it a kind of an invisible DO NOT TOUCH sign, like the legend of the skull and cross-bones with the words “Danger/Ingozi” emblazoned beneath them, or the zigzag sign one might find on a power station. Our ignorance about how cameras operated gave them an irresistible allure. Cameras were the preserve of specialists; the press, men on `government business’, a few rich families and educated people. This probably explains my artificial social elevation.

Looking back, I am still amazed that a schlemiel like myself made a career of photography. I have always been nervous around machines, including cars (I do not drive), computers, answering machines, microwave ovens and any new technology. Part of my paralysis around things mechanical reflects the experience of an impoverished upbringing: “Leave other people’s things be,” or “I cannot pay for the damned thing to be fixed,”  or “You think this lens was made in Soweto?”

I began to learn the photography trade as a street-photographer. As a roving portrait or street-photographer you charged a deposit for each and every exposure you made for a client. You then hoped you had enough business to finish a roll of film or as many rolls of film in a weekend – you  saw an image I had made of my wife suckling Kano, my son. (This is an image I really like. At the time of this writing my wife and I are divorced.) Her comments were very dark; they smirked of a Freudian foreboding, ‘Why did you chop my daughter’s head off?’ Let me add that my mother-in-law is God-fearing and a deeply religious person.

Tardiness in returning photographs could cost you your reputation and business, perhaps even a beating. Most township people felt vulnerable and exposed when they gave you permission to take (or make) an image of them. Many felt that their ‘shade’ (the new anthropology term), seriti/isithunzi (in the vernacular), or ‘soul’ (the older missionary term) was implicated in the process. They feared that their essence could be stolen or their destiny altered by interfering with the resulting image or images: ‘Camera-man, why are you taking so many photos of me. What are you going to do with the rest of them?’ Often I found myself at pains trying to explain why I have to make many exposures or to do a re-shoot. I imagine that my early experience as a street-photographer explains why I still use comparatively very little film on professional assignments.

If all went well, clients paid me the balance due and took their photos. Most of these images found their way into family albums. Photo albums in the townships are cherished repositories of memories. The images in these albums are similar to the images in albums the world over: weddings, birthday parties, school trips, portraits – special occasions of one sort or another. They are treasuries of family history, visual cues for the telling of stories. The images are mostly of happy, smiling people, dressed to party and surrounded by food and drink. The more formal portraits are crafted to foreground what might be called petit bourgeois or suburban sensibility: everyone and everything must look its best. Sometimes the moment memorialised is the presence of the camera. Going through township photo-albums can sometimes be a tortuous journey for a photographer. Some people consider it impolite if you decline to partake in the ritual of looking through the albums when you visit, because it is a kind of an induction into the family’s history.

In spite of the popularity I gained by having a camera, I still did not consider photography as a career. The reasons were many, the main one being I was not making a lot of money. “Hey Santu! On the weekend of … (Friday, Saturday or Sunday) I/ we are celebrating our wedding anniversary/21st birthday/ unveiling of a tombstone etc., etc…I/We would like to invite you to be there. Be sure to bring your camera and don’t worry about film. I/We will provide the films and I/We am/are going to pay for processing and printing myself/ourselves!” Or, “I know someone/ brother/ cousin/ girlfriend who works at the processing and printing laboratory. You don’t have to worry. Come and enjoy yourself, you can bring your girlfriend and some of your friends along …!” The real meaning of the invitation was that I was not going to be paid. Pressing the shutter was not considered work!

As soon as I finished matric I went to work as quality control tester in a pharmaceutical laboratory. It took me four years before I decided to forego a career in pharmacy because of boredom. I took a job in a newspaper darkroom. This career move cost me a fifty per cent pay cut in wages. I began as a ‘donker-kamer assistente’, no promotion and no future, just a dead-end position. Only white people could apprentice as photographers. I would be asked to show the new white employees their way around the darkroom and the next thing I knew, I was taking orders from them!

In South Africa at the time, ‘technician’ was a status reserved for whites or ‘coloureds’. Occasionally a black person could be employed as a technician in the more progressive foreign companies. But, as an ‘assistente’ in a pro-government newspaper, I was a dog’s body to every photographer, freelance journalist or anyone else who was chummy with the department’s secretary. In that newspaper there were no black photographers, only coloured reporters who also made pictures in order to illustrate their stories. Government policy on ‘colour-bar’ was followed to the letter.

In the first few months as darkroom assistant I learnt more about life in my country than in my twelve years of schooling. For instance, that “black skin and blood make beautiful contrast.” This from a conversation overheard in the photography department office:

“Come check at this, china! Isn’t this beautiful?” says one very famous South African photo-journalist to an Indian account’s clerk. He is referring to a colour transparency. The tranny depicts a corpse, an ANC cadre bleeding in death, lying on asphalt near a curb. A casualty in what is now known as the Silverton Siege (Pretoria).

“I don’t get it” responds the clerk. “I see nothing beautiful in this. This is ghoulish, man!”

“You know fuck all, china! This is a masterpiece. There is nothing as beautiful as black skin and blood! It makes beautiful contrast. There’s nothing like it, china!”

Four years I wormed my way as a darkroom-man, at various newspapers in and around Johannesburg. I also began to do freelance work as a photographer, mainly covering sport and social events. I took the abuses and insults that came with the job. I was once told by the managing editor of the mining house newspaper that BLACK IS NOT BEAUTIFUL ONLY HARD WORK IS! I did not mind hard work, but I refused to CLEAN-UP! – after the white paste-up artists (who sat gossiping and knitting) – the machines they had been using. I was promptly fired. I then accepted a job at a right-wing English speaking newspaper. For a long time I could not write the name of this newspaper in my C.V.

All this time I was reading whatever books that were available to me, in order to learn the photographic theory and technique. When I felt confident enough as a photographer and darkroom-technician I left newspaper-work in order to apprentice as a photographer’s assistant in an advertising outfit.

Gradually, I gained confidence that I had the technical wherewithal to brave the freelance market. Unfortunately, not everyone agreed? When I asked my bosses at a Christmas luncheon what future I had as a photographer, one replied that I could at least join the throng of black photographers at soccer matches! Even the company I worked for could not conceive giving me a commission to do a shoot, in spite of my proven abilities in the studio when the resident senior photographer was not

Ironically, in the light of my professed Black Consciousness politics, the person who nurtured me as a freelance photographer was a white man, David Goldblatt. At the time I was still not sure what kind of photography I wanted to do but, for reasons I could not explain, I enjoyed his documentary work above anything anyone else was doing at the time. This education was valuable, though it was short-lived when I lost all my camera equipment in a mugging incident. While I missed the camera and equipments I considered myself lucky to escape with my life. Together with the model, a friend I was using to make a pin-up for a society magazine. We escaped by rolling down a mine slime-dump into a motor-way.

I went back to work as ‘donkerkamer-assistente’ in the newspaper where I had begun my career. Within a few months I was fired because I was carrying too many books into the workplace. While the security officer was going over the books, he discovered a photograph of a very young Dr Beyers Naude and Rev. Makhalemele, which I had brought to work in order to make copies for a friend. Once leader of the Dutch Reformed Church, Beyers Naude had broken away from his Afrikaner upbringing by taking a stand against apartheid. He was banned for his insolence, and was ostracized from the Afrikaner community. The security chief of the company took an uncommon interest in this very image and confiscated it. When I asked to have it back, he told me he had given it to the Security Police so they could investigate the legality of my position considering that I was in the possession of a picture of a banned person, and that during a national state of emergency.

I joined the Afrapix Collective in 1985. I had no work, no equipment and no resources. Afrapix gave me a home. It provided me with money to buy a camera and film in order to document Soweto and the rising discontent in the townships. Their confidence in me was, in some ways misplaced, seeing that I was less interested in the ‘unrest’ than in the ordinary life in the townships. Nevertheless, I became an Afrapix member and contributed to the education programme the group was preparing for unionised workers. A short time later I joined the New Nation, an alternative newspaper, as photographer.

A photojournalistic career in those days was not without hazards, not all of which came from police bullets and batons. I was once nearly necklaced by comrades at a night vigil in Emndeni (Soweto) after being branded an informer simply by asking permission to make pictures of the proceedings.
At another time, while documenting the 1987 mine strike, I fell into the hands of scab workers. An angry mine-worker confronted me: “Do you know what is happening out there? People are being killed for not joining in the strike! From whom did you get permission to take our pictures?” I protested my innocence, I am only a messenger, said I! In a chilling tone he says, “You are coming with us. We are going to deal with you in the hostel! You are not getting out!” My tongue became very dry. I was trapped inside the bus with a menacing group of scab labour baying for my blood!
And I had only managed to shoot only one exposure.

Security guards at the mine offered little solace. One of the white security guards callously suggested that they should let the scabs deal with me, whichever way they saw fit! But for the insistence of one Paul Weinberg, a photographer who refused to leave the mine without me, I would be dead.

A few months after this incident I left photojournalism to concentrate on documentary work. When I resigned from the New Nation, I was leaving the universe in which my pictures had to function as ‘weapons of struggle’. I was unhappy with the propaganda images which reduced life in the townships into one of perpetual ‘struggle’, and because I felt this representation to be incomplete. I came to work at African Studies Institute in the Oral History Project, at the University of the Witwatersrand.

This move was frowned upon by a few friends who considered it a sign of lack of commitment. My work at the institute involved documenting worlds that did not usually feature in the ‘struggle’ images of South Africa so beloved of American and European audiences: rural communities, marginal ‘coloured’ communities threatened with resettlement, etc. In addition to this work I continued with my documentation of township life; a long term project which I had begun as a ‘metaphorical biography’ in 1982, which is divided into small manageable chapters or definable photo essays, e.g. Train Church, Soweto: Going Home, Pedi Dancers etc. This work was vindicated in the early 1990s when the overseas market, weary of ‘struggle images’ of sjambok wielding boer policemen , began to ask for ordinary pictures of everyday life in townships. Suddenly my pictures of quotidian African life: of shebeens, street-soccer and home life, which had been considered unpublishable in the 1980s now found commercial favour. My credentials as a ‘struggle’ photographer were restored.

It was not until I had my first solo exhibition that I really began to ponder my role as photographer. Like Shifting Sand, the exhibition, explored not only the townships, where the focus of the struggles for liberation were well documented, but rural landscapes as well. I had some reservations about the way the show was received by the majority of people in the black communities. I soon realized that a lot of people in the townships could not relate to the realities that resided in my photographs. One comment from a visitor who signed his name as Vusi haunts me: “Making money with Blacks”.

That simple comment forced me like nothing else ever had, to question the value of my work. I began to understand that the messages I was trying to send, however singular and different from others that came before, would always be overshadowed by the perceptions and assumptions about South Africa that viewers bring with them. The other thing that became clear to me as a result of Vusi’s comment was that in my pursuit of the art I was not paying enough attention to the narratives and aspirations of the people I was photographing, (I had either forgotten, neglected or disregarded my early beginnings). I had simply graduated into being a professional photographer without first pondering the meaning of this switch. I had not thought about my own responsibility in the continuing, contentious struggle over representation of my country’s history.

This inspired me to change my methods, where assumptions and projections were considered standard procedure in my professional work. I began to enlist the participation of the communities where I worked. Soon after, in the show Distorting Mirror/ Townships Imagined, I juxtaposed images ‘of’ the township (public/political) with images ‘in’ the township (private/personal). I was looking at images of the township which I had been making for the public media and contrasting them with those I had been doing as street-photographer, i.e. images people choose to value, to treasure, to conserve: ultimately to show or display and pass on to their children. This is how I began to explore the politics of representation.

And it was not until I was doing research for that project that I become aware of urban family portraits that were made at the beginning of last century. These images were slowly disintegrating in plastic bags, tin boxes, under beds, on top of cupboards and kists in the townships. And because they lie outside the consciousness of the education system, including the museums, galleries and libraries in this country, I found them enigmatic. These solemn images of middle – and working-class – black families, crafted according to the styles (in gesture, props and clothing) of Georgian and Victorian portrait painting, portray a class of black people which, according to my education, did not exist at the time they were made. My quest for an explanation for this omission in my history education made me appreciate the magnitude of the crime of apartheid, “For the struggle against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting” (Kundera). And as I examine old family albums, I feel I have come full circle.

This piece was first published in Chimurenga 03: Biko in Parliament (November 2002). Buy it in our online shop.

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