Peter McKenzie’s opening address changed all that. His telling overview of the plight of African photography reminded the crowd that there is trouble in paradise.
McKenzie is a council member for the Market Theatre Foundation and an advisory board member at the Market Theatre Photography Workshop. He is also Vice President of the KZNSA Council and chief photographer for the pan-African agency Panapress in the SADCC region.
Here is what he had to say:
Photography has consistently mirrored the narrative of Africa. The colonising lens that dehumanised us, sold our image as potential slaves, culpable in Afro-pessimism. Then, as antidote the humanizing lens of the West African studio photographers, Malick Sedibi and Seido Keita who allowed their subjects to dream, to hope, to see beyond their immediate situation, the images, a precursor to freedom, taking control of their likeness, the way they wanted to be seen, deflecting the gaze, “You look beautiful like that!” Our own Sophia town, better known as Kofifi, a nascent renaissance, the first photos that reflected the reality of life under urban oppression, with potential and possibility. The paradox of the life’s vibrancy juxtaposed against depictions of the debilitating effects of apartheid. Then Drum, celebrating literature, arts and the music of the most incredible periods in the history of intellectual thought, political activism and creative output. Then struggle photography, defiant images, the aesthetic of the fist in the air, that were the product, the end result of the notion of the collective which was fundamental to creative output and the role that art played in liberation. The kind of imagery that was in itself asking questions of power – alas being repeated today.
Dale’s work has pushed me into an inescapable corner, one that I have been mulling over in my head for some time, disturbing and sometimes quite frightening. Post-apartheid photography or if you want “freedom photography” which in Arundhati Roy’s words should ‘allow us to fly, to push the frontiers, to worry the edges of the human imagination, to conjure beauty from the most unexpected things, to find magic in places others never look, to interpret a reality, to explore the self outside of social imperatives.’
However, with some colleagues from the Afrapix collective, we were recently ruing the possibility that we may have to re-gather and reconstitute this 1980s agency with some of its original aims and objectives. A sad possibility after the heady creative liberation that 1994 promised, when photographers turned their lenses on themselves in a journey of self discovery and search for identity outside of the constraints of commitment to freedom – the identity parade if you like, what art can, should, or could, be about.
So today the narrative and the subject have changed, instead of fighting against tyranny and racial oppression it seems now we are fighting against ourselves against a government and power that we, yes, you and I, have endowed.
This is a time when the historical coincidence of the Black Consciousness philosophy of Stephen Bantu Biko - with its emphasis on introspection - coalesces with Ernest Cole’s images reflecting the realities of the time that needed that inward gaze in order to deal with the changing dynamics of oppression. Sadly for me, Dale’s photographs echo this context, that the polar opposites of apartheid and democracy still mean we are ‘under’ something, both equally not of our choosing and neither deemed to be the ideal and consequence of struggle, questioning the very concept of democracy, for whom and by whom?
For as I look into these images that act as both mirror and window, at once allowing introspection and simultaneously inviting a look beyond, tinged with possibility, I’m imbued with a foreboding that in spite of Mandela’s admonition, history has the possibility of repeating itself. We have lost or ignored our ability to empathize with the downtrodden because they are unseen; except when they are symbolized by glue sniffing kids at the traffic lights, when we nervously tap on the steering wheel hoping for the lights to change. Once you’ve seen it can you un-see it?
Is there another way of telling, of seeing and a new way of being? A new perspective that would shake this nation out of indifference? The moving visuals of a mortally wounded Andries Katani, just last year mirror Sam Nzima’s iconic photograph of the expired Hector Peterson, the events 36 years apart. Can photography today move us to action like Nzima’s image once did? Are there eyes to see?
There is ‘Another Way of Telling’. In a world overloaded with imagery, maybe we have to explore the new technological possibilities, in new ways differently. The Arab Spring has demonstrated just how powerful collective visual purpose can be. Everyone is a photographer, a videographer, a sound recorder, a consumer. The possibility spares no one and indicts all.
Don’t turn off your cell phones!
2 October 2012