Migrant workers in South Africa: Photography and social justice struggles

Born in Durban and the author of a forthcoming book on Wentworth in Durban, Peter Mckenzie was a co-founder of the photo collective Afrapix agency under the auspices of the South African Council of Churches and the chief photographer for Drum magazine until the late 1980s before going freelance. He was also the co-ordinator and facilitator of the photojournalism department at the Institute for the Advancement of Journalism from 1996 to 1999. Mckenzie has published and exhibited both in South Africa and internationally, and is recognised as one of South Africa's greatest photographers.

Below, McKenzie provides a commentary on aesthetics and representation strategies for popular movements committed to social justice.

Pre-post: A trajectory in South African photography

By Peter Mckenzie, Sean O’ Toole and Jo Ractliffe

Sean: Very often in discussions of contemporary South African photography, and I would say I’m a guilty culprit here too, commentators have tended to speak of the 1990s signalling a break in continuity. After decades of socially committed photography, Drum magazine in the 1950s and early 1960s, and more pointedly the socially committed vision of the Afrapix collective in the 1980s, it seems that after Mandela’s release and the transition to a non-racial democracy photography splintered. At least so goes the master narrative. Or will history, which is good at flattening things, simply define the 1990s as the identity decade?

Jo: I remember in the mid 1990s there was much debate about the ``crisis in photography'', that with the advent of democracy, photographers ``lost'' their subject. But I think it was more intricate than that and something that faced all visual artists at the time, not only photographers.

Certainly, our world opened up – and not only politically. We began to think differently about ourselves, our past and how it had been narrated. There was a new complexity to image making; an investigation into other themes, modes and languages, as well as more self-reflexivity in the work of that time, all of which previously had not seemed possible – and this links to your point about the 1990s being the ``identity decade''. Also, prior to democracy and particularly during the 1980s, there was a strong sense of ``collectivity'' in the way artists and photographers positioned themselves and how they worked; the imperatives were clear-cut and unambiguous – as was the language of image making. And photography was the domain of social documentary. There was little ambivalence about this; it was a ``weapon of the struggle'' and its business was advocacy – exposing the evils of apartheid.

And there were other new things in the 1990s. We became part of an international art world and this expanded the field; remember the 1995 and 1997 Johannesburg Biennales and the surge of photography and video that followed? Suddenly, or so it seemed, photography had entered the realm of art. I think that moment had quite a profound affect on photography here and sometimes I wonder whether the splintering you speak of wasn’t perhaps more an anxiety that photography might lose its coherence, the distinctiveness of its project and simply be absorbed into the broader practice of contemporary art – because that’s really what changed here then. If you consider photography during the apartheid years, its efficacy and its power was largely tied up in its deliverance of an unequivocal and (seemingly) unmediated ``truth''; we could ``rely'' on the image and we understood our world as much in terms of the conventions of social documentary -- its explicit black and white clarity -- as we did through its subjects.

Peter: I think to say that after 1994 photography ``splintered'' is to imply that there was some kind of cohesiveness in what photographers were doing and saying during the apartheid years. I’m thinking more of the 1970s and 1980s here. At the one extreme there were those, mostly white photographers, who were at apartheid’s technical colleges, universities, art schools, alongside those who were members of the almost exclusively white Professional Photographers of South Africa organisation unaffected or unconcerned about the issues of the day. On the other hand, the socially engaged, ``committed'' photographers, professionals and free-lancers were a fairly disparate lot too. There were the shooters like the Bang-Bang Club, locals working for the ``wires'' and the South African media, the Drum photographers and those working in progressive structures like Afrapix and others. The result was a very diverse picture or photograph of the country as these photographers brought their own aims, objectives and professional imperatives to the situation, some ardently in search of the Pulitzer-winning photo of the man or woman with the burning tire around their necks. Consequently, there were to consumers of these images both locally and internationally, confusing truths about the realties of the struggle for democracy and freedom. The photographs were mostly sensational, voyeuristic and dehumanising and soon after its inception Afrapix made a conscious decision to show the more humane side of struggle, the resilience of revolution and the dignity of organisation and resistance.

Jo: I think the subject, given all these factors, was not as clearly defined as we would like to think and that the complexity of photographs made during this period has not been fully explored. But maybe the notion of subject during that time and now links these two eras. That after the exploratory 1990s, the ``identity decade'' or parade, we are today being challenged by similar issues as those in our past and to comment and reflect on them in new, effective and accessible ways.

Besides identity, the 1990s was also a period where photography delved into the fabric of society in more detail and nuance than was allowed in the past when physical access was difficult both due to angry and frustrated communities and a security apparatus that was suspicious of anyone with a camera. The work of the 1990s was also portrayed in much more personal ways examining post-apartheid phenomena like truth and reconciliation, diversity, rainbow-nationalism, post-apartheid trauma and the transformation project. Obviously these newfound themes or subjects called for new visual languages, perspectives and conceptual approaches.

Sean: Perhaps to expand on the previous question, histories of South African photography often tend to highlight the social and political content at the expense, I would argue, of a wider picture. Perhaps this is unavoidable, and one that is justified given our history. But, and here is my argument, the history of South African photography is about more than social and political pictures. Early on in his career David Goldblatt made fashion pictures for Tatler, in the 1980s he was making portraits for Leadership magazine. Point being, there have always been a number of ``other'' photographies happening in tandem with image making concerned with social and political contexts. Billy Monk, Paratus, Scope magazine, South African photo comics, studio and street portraiture, for example.

Jo: I’m reminded of something Susan Sontag said about photography in South Africa when she visited here a few years ago. Her observation was that photography is highly politicised here, in complex ways and not simply in terms of a political subject, but in how the subject is politicised. I would agree; our framing of things, the way we represent things – even the representation – is politicised. So when thinking about photography that has been ‘more than’ the socio-political, I’m not entirely sure a ``wider picture'' wouldn’t still be connected. Because ``political'' doesn’t necessarily entail advocacy, photographers whose work engaged with the ``state of things'', but was circulated in other contexts, outside of the press and other progressive media, could still be considered political. And even if you take this further, to work where the intention was not socio-political commentary, the political is still embedded in our reception, the way we understand how things mean.

But to get back to ``other photographies'', we should be clear about what we’re looking at – you mention Scope magazine! And how could Paratus, a military publication, not be political? But regarding David, I think there’s a difference between work that defines a photographer’s practice and work that earns a living. And while David’s Tatler work may be illuminating in retrospect, it’s not the stuff of his career. Leadership too, although many of those portraits have weight beyond their ``bread and butter'' origins, but I suspect they would still be seen as political pictures, or at least in that register. Billy Monk is a better example but there we only have the works, we know little about the motives behind their making. One could argue there’s nothing overtly ``political'' in them, but they do reflect a particular South African subculture, at a particular time in our history and it is precisely because of that, what they add to the ``wider picture'', that they take on socio-political connotations. That’s partly the thing about photographs; their meaning is not fixed, nor is it located inherently within them. They reflect different things over time and as their contexts shift and other interests are brought to bear upon them, they mean new things. There are other examples, private images, that acquire political resonance as they find their way into the public archive – think of the studio portraits in Santu Mofokeng’s Black Photo Album, the snapshot of Brett Murray as a boy, covered in boot polish and dressed up as a Zulu warrior, or the home movie clips in Penny Siopis’ My Lovely Day. The point I’m making is that things are charged here; our positioning and the things we make figure in political terms, whether so intended or not.

Peter: The ``wider picture'' or ``other photographies'' was not an option for some photographers, the crop was tight. Even the ``bread and butter'' jobs that were done were gleaned from the progressive organisations that had the budgets to pay for photographs. And resources like equipment and film were scarce, every roll had to matter.

At the 1982 Culture and Resistance Festival in Gaberone, Botswana, which convened to examine themes of ``Art for Social Development'' and ``Culture as a Weapon'', the role of photography was further compromised. We went to the festival as photographers and returned as cultural workers with a directive that the struggle for liberation demanded action beyond just photography. Consequently photographers became involved in other facets of the struggle; community mobilisation, advocacy, protest meetings, funeral organisers, underground couriers and sometimes were detained for their efforts. In retrospect this was positive in many ways, not least because we were a bit arrogant about the importance of our role as those who decided what the face of struggle looked like, that we were doing work that had the same degree of persuasiveness as Sam Nzima’s photograph of the mortally wounded Hector Peterson. So being a worker brought some sobering perspective. Yes, I’m sure there were ``other photographies'', done even by the most committed, but their significance was lost in the pursuit of more pressing imperatives.

Post-apartheid photography strove to escape from the confining realities of the past. It was as if photographers, like all South Africans, wanted to distance themselves as quickly as possible from the ``fist in the air'' type image. Collective strategies were replaced by the individual and the novelty of self. The irony was that much of the stronger work being done in the 1990s was by those who belonged to the social documentary traditions of the past. It was as if those photographers were now freed up explore subjects, insights and perspectives that they had self-censored in the past. The shift being that it was now possible to explore life, to know it, to record the fabric of current experience and invest it with meaning.

So it’s this type of continuity that I think is important today, this newness and keen observation of the ordinary, the head and the heart in a harmonious duet. Some contemporary South African photography has run ahead of itself, not stopping to assess its effectiveness, clarity of vision and relationship with the realities that face the country.

Jo: Sean, I think Peter’s comment about ``more pressing imperatives'' addresses why certain practices were overlooked. But to throw something else in here, I don’t think this was simply about political relevance. Because why has Drum endured so in our imagination? It’s not just that it reflected its time and pioneered the work of black photographers.

It’s equally because its photography was distinctive. So when considering ``other photographies'', the question remains, how would these figure? For instance, your examples of Scope, Paratus and photo-comics; are they compelling in photographic terms, or is their value as artefact, what they reflect of South African culture?

Sean: Peter, two questions based on your response. It is well known that at the 1982 Culture and Resistance Festival in Gaberone yourself and David Goldblatt had a disagreement over the very issue of, as you put it, ``action beyond just photography''. Can you revisit this moment and its significance? Secondly, and opening things up to Jo here, you talk of the post-apartheid moment freeing you (photographers collectively) to ``explore subjects, insights and perspectives that they had self-censored in the past''. Can you talk a bit about this self-censorship? My question here is partly informed by something JM Coetzee noted in a review of Mona de Beer’s photo book, A Vision of the Past: ``Is it enough to reproduce an era’s representation of itself without at the very least indicating the boundaries the era drew around that self-representation – without, in other words, indicating what was censored from the public image?''

Peter: I really don’t remember the detail of my disagreement with David and I’m surprised that it’s well known, so I won’t comment, save to say that photographers weren’t immune to the tensions between black and white people and it took a long time, white or black, to establish one’s bona fides, to be seen to be different from the press pack and to identify with the struggle. So we shot our fists into the air when the Amandlas rang out and downed cameras to toyi-toyi afterwards. I think more than a consciously determined self-censorship, it was about being subject and sensitive to the disposition of the times and acting in sympathy, according to your convictions.

Jo: I think my circumstances were unlike Peter’s; I didn’t feel the same pressures or restrictions that ``professional activist'' photographers would have, although my activities and the work I was making were seen as political. But I didn’t ‘fit’ social documentary. Partly, it was how I worked photographically - images that engaged with the constructs of photography and the real as much as they did the subject. And that separated me from many other photographers (then I was called an artist; it’s only recently, I’ve noticed, that people are calling me a photographer). But it did give me more autonomy. Looking back, the personal has always been embedded in my work even if it wasn’t brought to the fore as such. So regarding self-censorship, while I certainly felt the need for my work to be socially and politically engaged, to have ``relevance'' beyond the personal, it was as much an internal compulsion as it might have been an external obligation.

Sean: Picking up on something Jo said about pre-1994 photography, the belief that surrounded its ``deliverance of an unequivocal and (seemingly) unmediated `truth'''; is it not possible that SA photography is still burdened by this assumption? I raise this specifically in relation to the numerous travelling group shows, in which photography is reduced (not always) to a sort of picture postcard view from elsewhere – the emphasis is still on visible depiction of otherness. (One could argue that Snap Judgments, for example, fulfilled as well as wonderfully debunked this demand of the West to see ``how it is over there''.) I am also interested to gauge from both of you how input from foreign observers has influenced your thinking around South African photography. After all, both of you are well travelled and now partake in a global discourse of photography.

Peter: Maybe, as a friend suggested to me, the ``truth'' that motivated apartheid photography has today become subjective ``truths'', like the ruling [African national Congress] party’s rhetoric of ``A better life for all''. So if we’re clear that these days our photography comes from a place of honesty then the question could be what motivates our ideas or the conceptual framework from which we create? If it’s personal or introspective, it raises the question about where the impetus or genesis of the concept lies or originates. The sources of ideas for creative output in South Africa are as diverse as the variety of lived experiences in this enigmatic country. But more important is the confluence of conviction about the role or place of art today and how the profound affect of our recent traumatic history influences this process. Visually we live with the past. The landscapes, both physical and social, are daily reminders of the challenges facing us. The things that touch and move us on an everyday basis cannot be ignored and attempts to do this merely diminish the effect of our work to the point that it seems to be coming from another place, an attempt to extricate ourselves from our realities and pander to the demands of the gallery and criteria that are informed by sometimes questionable agendas.

This utopian idea of creativity free of responsibility falters in the face of the social ills that slam us in the face whenever we see kids sniffing glue at traffic lights alongside anxious baby-toting mothers. Do scenarios like this not affect who we are, what we do and how we create? Once you’ve seen it can you ``unsee'' it? Sometimes it seems that artists have bought into the government rhetoric of success and smugness about South Africa, that we are free to pursue our individual and mostly selfish notions of where conceptual thought comes from, free from morality, accountability and the vision of what an equitable society could and should be. We’ve succumbed to the powers that determine what art is, mainly because they have decided what ``sells'' and shunned a sense of purpose because it doesn’t.

Jo: We were very invested in the idea of photographic ``truth'' during apartheid. Given the structural violence of the system, it’s secrecy and lies, photography had to convey a clear, direct message, one that wasn’t further complicated or undermined by questions about representation and the subject. And as much as we may still be invested in what Susan Sontag called the ``concerns of ‘concerned’ photography'', I think there’s a very different inflection to the work made now. But the link you make between the ‘burden of truth’ and otherness is interesting. It seems we still have quite a strong sense of being different, collectively, as a nation – a sense of our own specialness. This may have something to do with years of isolation, but we’re quite resistant to views from the outside; we’re very particular about how we are represented, how we explain ourselves for the world and the image of South Africa that’s created. I wouldn’t equate this with the obligations of apartheid photography though, but it may suggest a censure of another kind. I take your point about the ``postcard view from elsewhere'' but I think we might also collude in this to some degree; we resist what the prefix ``South African'' implies, but we also insist on our distinctiveness, which in turn, could be seen to entrench our position of otherness, whatever the curators’ interests may be. But I wouldn’t put Snap Judgments into your ``picture postcard'' category. What struck me about that exhibition was precisely the opposite; it’s actually quite hard to find ``Africa'' in that show, certainly if you’re looking something that would reflect anything of the myth or stereotype. What did emerge, for me at least, is the impossibility of defining ``Africa'' in either photographic or other terms.

My own experience in the international arena has been a somewhat contradictory one. For most of the 1990s (especially with those early survey shows), the general response to my work was that it lacked a ``uniquely South African'' trait, while at the same time being ``too South African'', too specific in the framing of things, to relate in a global context, which was interesting, if not a little frustrating at times.

But it did indicate something of what was desirable in terms of ``South African'' for a foreign audience then and the irony is that recently there’s been international interest in many of those earlier works. I think our interface with the international art world has ultimately been beneficial; apart from the obvious opportunities of exhibitions, exchanges and debates, it’s important to see how our work is received in other contexts and it opens the space for a different set of relations, to discover perhaps that we are less different than we might think.

[This first appeared on the website of the Centre for Civil Society, Durban South Africa (http://www.nu.ac.za/ccs/default.asp?2,40,3,1407).]