Opinions

Deepening democracy: the family photo archive

  • Posted on June 25, 2013

Since 1994 the South African state has set about constructing a new national landscape of memory, the critical feature of which is the struggle for liberation from apartheid and colonialism. It is this grand, or master, narrative of struggle that has informed the selection of particular people, sites and events for commemoration, and the construction of new museums and monuments. Witness, for example, the so-dubbed “massacre monuments”, as in the Langa Massacre Memorial in Uitenhage; or the homes of struggle icons that have been transformed into museums, such as we have with the Mandela residence in Soweto.

Important about these national heritage initiatives is that they speak to the idea of a heroic, redemptive narrative, revolving around the notion of “triumph of the human spirit over adversity”, which is, in fact, the motto of the Robben Island Museum. Moreover, all of them are aimed at, not only a refiguring of how the public past is understood in the post-apartheid order, but at remembering for the purposes of nation-building, as informed by concepts such as rainbow nationalism, forgiveness and reconciliation, social cohesion and a shared national heritage. 

But while the master narrative of black dispossession, and resistance thereto, is the dominant theme in the state’s public representation of the past, this is a gross distortion of the record under apartheid. For the past isn’t only about the history of black dispossession and the struggle for human rights and democracy. As Jacob Dlamini argues in his beautifully crafted book, Native Nostalgia (2009), “Apartheid was not simply black and white, with resisters on one hand and oppressors on the other.” According to him, “the master narrative [of black dispossession and resistance] blinds us to a richness, a complexity of life among black South Africans that not even colonialism and apartheid at their worst could destroy.”

To find this richness and complexity, according to Dlamini, we need to look deeper and particularly at those areas of black life that apartheid was not able to stringently control, or, to put it another way, at how blacks exercised their humanity in spite of the pressures of apartheid. After all, as Dlamini points out, although the hand of oppression was always present, apartheid didn’t, and couldn’t, stop them from producing art, literature, photographs and music; neither could it stop them from playing sport, practicing religion, making merry at parties, falling in love, raising children and so on. “Despite your violent apartheid evil,” writes Dlamini, “we’ve got news for you! Our humanity and agencies were never entirely within your racist control!”

One way of recovering the richness and complexity of black life under apartheid, and of side-stepping the pitfall of the master narrative approach to the past, is through oral history testimony. But just as important here are family photo archives, repositories kept by individuals in albums, drawers, shoe boxes, trunks and the like.

There is, of course, nothing particularly new or groundbreaking about using family photo archives as a gateway to understanding people’s everyday experiences and social relations, and the fabric and patterns of communities. Some museums have in fact been using family photographs for these purposes for quite a few decades now. Nowhere is this more clear than in the District Six Museum in the Cape Town CBD and in the Heritage Museum in Simon’s Town, Cape Town, both of which are dedicated to, not only telling the story of forced removals under apartheid, but also of life in District Six and Simon’s Town respectively before the blight of dispossession. Here photographs donated by former residents of these areas from their personal repositories line the walls of these museums as a way of recognising, honouring and, in a way, dignifying, those who were displaced and cast adrift under apartheid’s Group Areas Act (1950) – and as a window to the lives and stories of ‘ordinary’ people.

Acknowledging and honouring ‘ordinary’ people in public life is particularly important because it lends weight to the idea of a people-centred society, so much part of the vision for a new, egalitarian dispensation in the South Africa of the early and mid-1990s. More than this, though, the use of family photos in the District Six and Simon’s Town museums not only helps to profile these museums as people’s institutions, but also ‘puts legs on’ the notion of people’s history, or ‘telling history from below’, the rally call of social historians. Then there is also this issue: their use in public representation is a reminder that there is always far more to people’s heritage, and, indeed, the archive itself, than representations of the power-brokers, or the movers and shakers, of history, as we have in the state’s national landscape of memory in respect of the Mandelas, Luthulis and so on. In the world of de-centred power and human rights for all, everybody’s record of experience should count, and everyone should be drawn into the frame of history as best as possible. 

But what can family photographs offer by way of understanding the past as far more than a record of political contributions by the ‘great men’, and occasionally outstanding women, of history, and a roll call of important and influential events? How can they subvert, or at least amplify, the over-determination of the master narrative of black dispossession and resistance thereto? And in what sense can family photos bring a richness and complexity to understanding black life under apartheid? Well, family photographs collectively constitute a visual record that speaks to a diverse set of social, cultural, and only sometimes political, engagements and relations, and the identities and life-experiences of individuals in a community. What we in fact have in the photographic archives of ‘ordinary’ people is everything from portraits of loved ones and family ancestors to representations of sport, recreation, parties, graduation ceremonies, the night out on the town, childhood, pilgrimages, school days and rites of passage, as you have with photos of weddings and birthdays, for example.

A particularly pronounced feature of family photographic archives from the apartheid years, and I mention this in the light of the grand narrative issue, is the near absence of the hand of the oppressor. If Albie Sachs could say of the resistance art of the 1980s that “it’s as if our rulers are stalking us everywhere,” or something to that effect, then in the photographic archives of ‘ordinary’ people we generally have just the opposite. And just as important is that these archives don’t convey a sense that those represented therein are victims of injustice. This, of course, is quite unlike what you find in history textbooks, where photos are chosen to illustrate political themes related to grand narratives, such as colonialism or apartheid. Instead, family photo archives demonstrate agency and self-determination: each one showcases the trail of a personal journey through, and cherished moments in, life and each presents clues to, and traces of, what that journey has involved. 

Because photographs from family albums are mnemonic devices, or prompts, or triggers, for recollection, these representations of journeys through life can be considerably amplified and layered through story-telling, particularly by the owners of these records. As such, family photographs are directly linked to the reproduction and performance of memory. When explored by, or with, the owners, they become a rich source for stories about the past and sites for self-discovery and self-reflection – a sort of ‘dream space’ where memories and fragments of information sometimes long forgotten slip back into mind.

If family photo archives are apolitical in that they carry very little sense of apartheid oppression and victimisation, and resistance thereto, this does not, of course, preclude political readings of particular photographs from these archives. This is clear from a story told to me by the owner of a photograph in about 1998, while I was conducting the ‘Lives of Colour’ project (see Archival Platform website, 18 October 2011). The photo, in the keep of the Gibbs family, was taken in 1955 by SV Petersen, said to be “the first black Afrikaans poet.” The context for the story is a boat trip undertaken by a group of friends, all middle class ‘coloureds’ from Cape Town, up the east coast of southern Africa to Mozambique. Here’s the story, as told to me: 

When in other countries, people of colour do what all tourists do – they make a beeline for the museum. This photograph of the Gibbs family and their friends was taken in the natural history museum in Lorenço Marques, now Maputo. Racist whites often called ‘coloured’ people ‘hotnots’ or ‘boesmans’ (literally ‘men of the bush’), derogatory terms with connotations of the uncivilised and the savage. If those same whites had seen this photograph of these ‘hotnots’ posed against a diorama of wild animals, they might have said that ‘that’s where they belong.’ 

It has often been said that all archives open to the future, and that they are explored and put to use in the present for one reason or another. What gave rise to the story, and also many others, was a particular set of needs, or desires, on my part in the immediate aftermath of the demise of formal apartheid – a time when there was great interest in refiguring personal and cultural identities after the collapse of apartheid race classification. These needs were to (1) explore my roots in the ‘coloured’ community at the Cape; (2) to honour the life-experiences, memories and legacies of ‘ordinary’, and relatively unknown, people from this community; and (3) to reveal, through stories, the humanity of people who for so long had been masked by racial labels and stigmatised as inferior beings by the colonial and apartheid minds. 

Recently Paul Weinberg, the renowned South African photographer and “documentarian of the 21st century”, as he calls himself, undertook a project that was not dissimilar to the Lives of Colour project in that it also sought to explore roots. In a sense, Weinberg’s project, a sojourn into his family history, was spawned in his childhood days, when he discovered an old black trunk originally belonging to his great-grandparents that contained family memorabilia – letters, postcards, photographs and the like. Decades later, that discovery inspired him to trace the routes that his family ancestors followed after they settled in the Orange Free State Republic in 1893, having emigrated from Latvia. It was a journey that took him to far flung towns and cities, from Philippolis, Bloemfontein, Kimberley and Vryberg to Springfontein, Kuruman and De Aar, all places that his great-grandfather Edward and his wife Fanny lived in. In each of these towns, he took photographs – he calls them picture postcards – of what he saw and experienced, which, together with eloquently written accompanying text, he presents in his fascinating and evocative book, ‘Dear Edward: Family Footprints’ (2012). ‘Dear Edward’ was also the title of Weinberg’s exhibition at the South African Jewish Museum in Cape Town (May-June 2013), the first in a series of shows at the museum entitled ‘Who am I’, in which South African Jewish artists explore their identity and heritage.

Weinberg’s book, a particularly profound instance of how an archive can be used in the present to satisfy a need – here an intense interest in exploring and uncovering family history – is an effective and beautiful assertion of what he calls “the concept of the ‘I’ in history and one’s own story in it.” His story is generated through conversations with people he meets on his travels, interpretations of markers in the landscape, and visits to museums, farms and other places pertinent to his quest to trace the routes and places of his ancestors. The outcome is not only a story about his family, but also a personal dialogue with some of the major themes and dynamics in South African history, such as land dispossession by both black and white settlers and the Anglo Boer War, in which his family ancestors were embroiled.

Most important about ‘Dear Edward’ is that it stands as testimony to Weinberg’s determination not to be, in his words, “airbrushed out of history,” as was the case with his family in Eastern Europe, from where they fled to South Africa to escape Jewish persecution. So, the book is a product of his desire and will to tell his story and to insert his voice among the dominant accounts of history by formal, or academic, historians. Just as important about the book, though, is that it is rooted in the idea that images have the power to evoke memories, which, along with representation (how, and in what circumstances, ‘ordinary’ people are portrayed) and personal identity (constructions of the self in a community), are the big issues with family photo archives. Democracy is always about the voices of the people, expressed not only politically, but also socially and culturally. Because family photo archives are triggers to the memories and stories of ‘ordinary’ people, because they contain representations of the life-experiences of such people, and because they reveal personal and community identities, the more these archives are opened in the public domain, the more democracy is deepened.

Emile Maurice is an Archival Platform correspondent based in the Western Cape. He is also a resident fellow at the Centre for Humanities Research, University of the Western Cape.

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