Three photographers who are changing the way South Africa sees itself

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In order to contextualize contemporary photography, it is important to acknowledge the work of collectives and initiatives that have helped to evolve the narrative of South African photography towards a more worthy portrait of the country.

An example is TAMBOURINE (1951-2001), a magazine that garnered praise for showcasing the strength of black South Africans in their struggle against apartheid. Another example is Afrapix, an agency that brought together black photographers in the 1980s to articulate a new vision for the country.

Their work has created a comprehensive visual record of the intense years just before the end of apartheid.

Lidudumalingani Mqombothi

This Eastern Cape-born photographer and filmmaker has shot some remarkable images in Johannesburg and other cities.

I started looking at his photographs when he won the Caine Prize for African Writing in 2016, and over the years his photographs have become progressively more restrained, as if searching for what the light gently reveals. Many of his recent photographs are of landscapes and neighborhoods, and in a country like South Africa such a subject is steeped in history: the Native Land Act of 1913, the Sophiatown evictions of 1955 and the apartheid years pass.

His photography, with immense patience behind the lens, seems to speak to a much more nuanced lens rather than mere protest or angst. Seen intimately, the earth seems to have become something other than what history has determined for it.

It’s hard to watch pictures of South Africa and separate them from the politics of struggle and national claim. They show creative expression and the beauty of life by depicting black people and urban spaces in South Africa that deserve increasing visibility. These kinds of images prevent an entire country from fitting into an ordered set of assumptions and stereotypes. Images of a place or people should defy expectations of how they look.

[Santu] Mofokeng’s images – blurry and dark, deliberately hard to distinguish – are not meant to capture the mundane. [They instead] capture the complexity of South Africa.

South African imagery has always attracted great critical and popular attention, some – or perhaps a good part – are voyeuristic. Yet these images show a country that is not lacking in creativity and talent, but offers many examples of how the human spirit always remains unwavering even in the face of great opposition.

The most beautiful of these images – by photographers like Ernest Cole, David Goldblatt, Gille de Vlieg – continue to serve as memorials and songs of victory. Despite everything, Elizabeth Edwards, professor of the history of photography, in her review of the exhibition Figures and Fictions: Contemporary South African Photography (2011), says when you think of South African photography, the association can’t just be “hard, gritty, black and white documentary and photojournalism” as the canon extends.

Lidudumalingani says:[Santu] Pictures of Mofokeng – blurry and dark, deliberately hard to distinguish – are not meant to capture the mundane. [They instead] capture the complexity of South Africa. The same can be said of Lidudumalingani’s photographs, which seem to be a visual version of poetic language: they observe patiently before instructing. The images represent fields, poles, fences, grief, light, misty hills and the shadows of trees on the walls. They deal with the material and metaphorical worlds, bringing us close enough, but creating enough mystery – from a distance – for the audience to realize that the world cannot be guessed at a glance.

Opening Song, Johannesburg-Soweto Line, 1986 (Santu Mofokeng Black and White Photography)

Andy Mkosi

Andy Mkosi was born in Cape Town and grew up in two townships: Langa and Gugulethu. She began practicing professional photography in the mid-2010s with images of city life that are joyful, but not flippant, as they are aware of the grief and harsh legacies of the past.

ANDYMKOSI, my loves. Photo courtesy of ANDYMKOSI

They draw their strength from how joy and beauty can coexist alongside grief. Several of her photos are in black and white and her management of light makes this choice almost symbolic, as if she were seeking – through pure visual presentation – to combine the two facets of life.

For example, his photo collection titled There is beauty in mourning is of a recently widowed woman in Kensington, Johannesburg. In another series of photos, Landscapes and spaces, Mkosi depicts neighborhoods and buildings, illustrating them with light. Her talent is evident in the way she shifts the charge of image from subject and composition to the very DNA of photography, the very material of its making. The sensitivity behind the camera is as great as the subject captured.

Members and supporters of the Action Campaign for Treatment at the First Desk. They came back a second time to address their grievances to the MEC of Health, Dr Makhura. August 10, 2021

Lebohang Kganye

In his book Landscapes from yesterday to today, Nicola Brandt says, “Artists and photographers now rely on highly imaginative and interdisciplinary approaches and media to investigate deeper truths and…new practices of the self. This statement reflects the artistic practice of Lebohang Kganye.

Born in 1990, Kganye uses photographs, literature, cutouts, film and performance in his work, which is transdisciplinary. She uses various media to explore personal history and ancestry. Her work is very invested in family and memory and how they shape a person’s sense of self.

I continued [a]journey in search of him. I […] put on his clothes and started going to [places]or [she]was photographed…

At 20, she lost her mother. She then turned to photography in her project Ke Lefa Laka: Heir Story (2013) to examine his mother’s life and his relationship with her. ” I continued [a]journey in search of him,” she said in an interview with 1000 words magazine. “I also realized that a lot of the clothes she was wearing in those pictures of her [a]young woman were in the house. I […] put on his clothes and started going to [places]or [she]had been photographed to stage […] and imitate[…] the same positions [and]visually imitate my adoption of the role of [a]mother to my sister after our mother died.

She intervened in her own story by using photography to recreate the relationship between her and her mother. The project offered insight into how images can bridge gaps in memory and human interaction, even across generations. It is intimate and personal, but speaks of an overall feeling. His work speaks to how we look at images from different countries: a country is as much private or public as its history.

The approach, subject and style of these photographers and artists are varied. If there is perhaps anything clear in their work, it is that there can be no easy uniformity or one single notion to sum up a country.

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