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Why music is better than photography

Why music is better than photography: An argument in two parts

by Sean O’Toole

Photography by Ranjith Kally.

Photography by Ranjith Kally.


“Hey boy, stand there. Between Sonny and Miriam. Yes… no, more to your left. Your left, boy… that side. What’s wrong with you, are you stupid like?”

The young man in the pencil tie shuffles into place. Slowly, very slowly, something begins to cohere. A photo, still formless, starts to compose itself.

Kally, a sweat bead trickling down his back, flashes a look at his wristwatch. Drum’s Durban-based sharpshooter has just remembered a deadline for the Golden City Post – his other master. Looking up, he smiles. It is not a smile that soothes, rather it marshals; it is a clip-on smile that reminds the actors of their respective duties in this pantomime. Real life can wait, it says.

“Okay, we’re almost there. Now everyone pretend you’re reading that piece Todd wrote on Sonny.”

The balladeer’s younger sis begins to giggle.

“Hey boy, stop messing around,”

Kally snaps. “Don’t let me have to talk with you again.”

In his head, the young man in the pencil tie wonders what it is about the photographer in pressed white shirt facing him down with his camera. It’s not like what he does is magic, a secret science. Lots of people in Cato Manor have cameras.

Sonny and Miriam are silent. It is a poised silence, patient and expectant. The it-couple, still caught up in the rapture of the moment, King Kong, the menacing looks of white pedestrians outside 161 President Street, Gallo (Africa) Limited, all that jazz, they oblige. After all, isn’t that what it-couples do, they oblige.

(Implicit in this willingness to oblige is visible proof of something that comforts. It-couples read magazines and drink tea. Their lives are not simply all make-believe. Even they have to visit the old auntie’s house as a prelude to the ecstatic whispers that hide beneath frowning bedspreads in the early hours of the morning. Somehow, even though we are not quite sure why, we feel relieved.)

In this frozen moment, waiting for Kally to get on with it, Sonny hikes his left leg up over his right. The gesture reveals a plaid sock. The effect is jaunty, raffish. Perfect. Miriam is less convincing, her clenched smile about as persuasive as the empty cup of tea in her hand. Perhaps it is the anticipation of showing Sonny what’s underneath that I’m-just-a-good-Catholic-girl outfit: a woman, tangible and heaving, not just a ping-pong ball floating down a mountain stream.

Not that Kally, who like a vulture gyres around his camera, ever cared much for the fluffier side of Kong. Most of it was melodrama. Sun is dull, grass is grey, nothing real, now there was something he could believe, something that spoke to him about his colourless world. Colourless? Yes. My world has shrunk away, colours gone.

Concentrate, Kally tells himself, his eye wandering across the frame. Past Miriam. Past Sonny. It settles on the auntie in her sari. Mrs. Pillay. Her stoic, wooden pose reminds him of a photo of his mother. Seated next to his father, she wore the same immobile pose. What is it about photos that they can make people look like caged animals?


The camera’s flashbulb illuminates the murky interiors of a Cato Manor bungalow. Things best left unseen – the sheen of a pair of stockings, a blemish on a right cheek, the ghostly outline of a man in a white shirt imagining a photograph into being – are revealed.


Really, truthfully, there is no languor in this photograph, no jazz, no head full of Durban steam. It is dull, unimaginative, a crime scene photograph trying to describe the possibilities the invisible. But it is all we have, this stage play with its garishly illuminated facts.

Here’s a proposition: photographs record the death of possibility. They do this because they tether our dreams, confining our imagination to a tight frame. And yet, still, we search them out. Call it human optimism, or dull stupidity, or both. Whatever it is, we gape at this picture; we ogle it into extinction. We can’t leave it, nor will it leave us, the impossibility of the dreams it proposes. The dreams in which we smell Kally’s impatience, feel the humid, fragrant embrace of Mrs. Pillay’s small living room, hear the sounds of a world outside (dogs barking, a car backfiring, radio playing, children laughing, a hoodlum called Pataan doing violence to the body of a man whose name we’ll never know – pick your stock fiction).

But photos, we know, don’t offer these things. They do not record love, sex and jazz, only the bodies that make these things. We have to imagine the invisible, hoping beyond hope for the confused flutter of whoops and whispers not there. We have to become a drummer, who from the ruins of a shattered idea reformulates them into a new rhythm, slow-paced and unsure. It is a searching process, one that involves becoming a wet-nosed dog on a brisk winter morning chasing after a scent.

Sometimes, more often than not, the scent never reveals itself. The drummer, like the dog, must start over. We must return to the photograph, and from there imagine different possibilities. A voice.

It is shy voice, we remember, which is a dull adjective but the only one we can think of, because we (or is it just me?) are shy too, ashamed by our own inability to fill the silence of that Durban bungalow with sound and smell. Perhaps this is why we will eventually turn away from this photograph, not because it is unimaginatively conceived, which it is, but because we are unimaginative, because we cannot imagine it into being. It cannot, we tell ourselves, it will not, can ever not. Sing. And so we let it go, to float like paper riding in the breeze.


— with thanks, or perhaps apologies, to Todd Matshikiza, Pat Williams, Ranjith Kally and Riason Naidoo.

Sean O’Toole is a Cape Town based journalist and writer. This argument originally featured in Chimurenga Vol.14: Everybody Has Their Indian (available here) which came with an audio accompaniment by Ntone Edjabe:

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