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Not yet “beyond the racial lens”

The Bonani Africa 2010 Exhibition and Conference about social documentary photography post-apartheid took place in Cape Town at the end of August and brought photographers, writers and critics together for three days of discussion. The event was framed as hosting a conversation about photography “beyond the racial lens”, but invoking the visual archives of apartheid and anti-apartheid struggle brought to light much that is unresolved about the past. Powerful photographs of life as it was experienced under apartheid can serve to reactivate the often painful memories of those who view them. It was therefore unsurprising that questions of power and who has the right to look at, read, and interpret South African visual archives figured large in the discussions. The debates that surfaced indicate how engaging with questions of representation in South Africa continue to be bound to questions about race and racism.

It became clear that for some stalwarts of the social documentary tradition it was difficult to accept a position of undecidability, a position described by Ashraf Jamal in his discussion of the work of David Lurie as “extra-moral”, one which asks the viewer to look before taking sides, or even to suspend judgment altogether. The work of Jo Ratcliffe, which she presented as part of a panel on war and its aftermath in conversation with photographers Juan Orrantia and Rui Assubuji, incited a similar debate. Omar Badsha called for Ratcliffe to articulate her position in relation to her photographs of the remnants of war in the Angolan landscape more clearly. While Ratcliffe agreed that providing context for the images through extended captions was important, she refused to claim a singular position or perspective in relation to her work. Like Orrantia, she argued for the complexity and instability of the visual image.

A key set of discussions focused on photographic archives and how these were being “refigured” post-apartheid. Premesh Lalu, historian and Director of the Humanities Research Centre at the University of the Western Cape, pointed out that working with archives entails not only documenting them or producing them but more importantly articulating one’s position in relation to the archive in question. Lalu was, I think, calling for scholars to take a step back and to reflect on what it means to approach the archive and to find ways of defining that before setting up new archives. Like Gary Minkley and Ciraj Rassool who both raised the question of what archives are, Lalu argued that “new archives are easier to proclaim than to constitute” and that archives are as much about disappearance as they are about preservation.

A thread that ran through the proceedings was a call for photographers to engage with the everyday and in particular to trace a visual portrait of love. This first arose through Thembinkosi Goniwe’s presentation and then was taken up by Gabeba Baderoon who considered the question of the private in relation to forging new forms of representation for the intimate. The “intimate archive” of Zanele Muholi is one instance of how contemporary photographers have begun charting this terrain.

There is of course a history of writing the history of photography in South Africa and the work of Darren Newbury, author of Defiant Images: Photography and Apartheid South Africa, published last year, enters a conversation begun by South African scholars like visual historian Patricia Hayes and art historian Michael Godby. But as the discussions at the Bonani conference make clear, much of the work of mapping the richness of the social history of photography in South Africa remains to be done. 

See papers and abstracts on the Bonani Africa 2010 webpage

Kylie Thomas is a Post-doctoral Research Fellow in the Archive and Public Culture Research Initiative, University of Cape Town

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