Still Defiant – Final Thoughts on Position and Practice

The First semester is gone. Time to reflect on it all….

(Andre Nagel 2019) Statue honoring the Miners of both African and European decent, back dropped by the New Johannesburg Council Hall, a symbol equality and common sharing. Symbols of Synergy between Modern Mining and African Mining.

For me this semester was most definitely a decision to select my practice and positioning myself as a contemporary documentary photographer . However, it was never easy for me. In Brassaii’s words: “I’ve always hated specialisation. That’s why I constantly changed the medium I express myself…that way I can breath, I can see things anew (Gautrand, 2008 p 9).”

I realized at the outset that I needed to select a specific “practice”/ genre that I want to use to grow . I have done many personal projects ranging from landscape, abstracts, flowers, portraiture, wedding and events and other “eye candy” work. I definitely did not want to socio-political documentary. I even stated that to my on line tutor, Paul. But that intent was short lived.

When I started the program I wanted to break away from my past. I did not want to engage with a political agenda. I just wanted a “normal” project. But this changed when I was challenged by the reading work from “Practices of looking” (Sturken and Cartwright, n.d.). This monograph highlighted that my gaze as a photographer may be from a Paternalistic Western view and that I may not be able to see other original philosophies prevalent in my context as a South African. I knew I wanted to pursue the Documentary photography practice from the start, but thought I can get away with a simplistic subject. This was not to be…

My Oral presentation became a deep self analysis, and from it was borne a need to investigate the post apartheid South Africa and the collision between unpopular and sometimes condescending Colonial philosophies and Ubuntu, believed by many to be the answer to South Africa’s challenges. And I started on a journey of discovery far beyond my expectations of the course.

In an earlier blog I mentioned that I no longer wanted to define myself as white and South African, but I have discovered that it is not easy to break those bindings. I discovered how I am entwined in the knowledge of major socio-political issues still prevalent in South Africa. I found myself being alien to the challenges of my peers to the extend that I was alienating myself from them.

Reading “On Photography (Sontag, 2014)” I came to realize how unpopular the practice of documentary photography has become, reinforced by the inability to ensure the delivery of “truth” with the arrival of the digital age. (Ritchin, 2013)

That being said, I also found a diamond where Darren Newbury quote Susan Sontag at the “Photography, Politics and Ethics seminar”, held in Johannesburg in 2004, where she talked about being struck by a strong moral and ethical dimension within South African Photography and the attention given to the politics of photography (Newbury, 2009). This has made me realise that I have an obligation to attempt to uphold such a standard.

One of the most important things I did discover is in my picture taking. I needed to learn to detach myself my believe systems and opinions. I needed to become dispassionate with my subject matter, following in the path of my favorite documentary photographer, David GoldBlatt.

I started reviewing the work by my favorite photographic mentors and among of all the gold nuggets I found a mantra to work towards during the coming semesters: Don’t be a Thief; don’t take people by force. (Gautrand 2008 p9)

I will also pursue the following as a creative principle: “There are two gifts which every man of images needs to be a true creator: a certain sensitivity to life, to living things, and at the same time, the art which will enable him to capture that life in a certain specific way. I’m not talking about pure aesthetics: a confused photo isn’t capable to penetrate the the viewers memory. I’ve always felt that the formal structure of a photo, its composition, was just as important as the subject itself… you have to eliminate every superfluous element, you have to guide your own gaze with a strong will. you have to take the viewers gaze, and lead it to what is interesting“- Brassai (Gautrand 2008, P 12) .


Gautrand, J. (2008). Brassaï, Paris, 1899-1984. Köln: Taschen.

Newbury, D. (2009). Defiant Images Photography and Apartheid South Africa. 2nd ed. Pretoria: Unisa Press.

Ritchin, F. (2013). Bending the frame. New York: Aperture Foundation, Inc.

Sontag, S. (2014). On photography. New York, NY: Picador [u.a.].

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