Respected African leaders, such as Nelson Mandela, Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Robert Sobukwe, championed the cause of the African Philosophy of Ubuntu, “a person is a person through other persons (Shutte, 1993)”, as the solution to resolve the major issues of inequality, poverty and dehumanisation of all people in South Africa. My intent is to critically investigate the impact of this philosophy in series of images.
“Photography has always been fascinated by social heights and lower depths. Documentarists prefer the latter. For more than a century photographer have been hovering about the oppressed, in attendance at scenes of violence with a spectacularly good conscience. Social misery has inspired the comfortably-off with the urge to take pictures, the gentlest of predations, in order to document a hidden reality, that is, a reality hidden from them (Sontag, 2005, p. 42).”
Sontag’s negative observation made in 1974 is still relevant and arguably informed by the socio-political-documentary photography in this period. Many journalists and documentary photographers gained photographic “immortality” and “fame” as they engaged in documenting the social injustice, suffering and struggle of the non-white communities in South Africa between the 1960’s and 1980’s. In spite of this, it managed to serve a moral purpose.
Another of Sontag’s critical observations was also upheld.
“Photographs may be more memorable than moving images, because they are a neat slice of time, not a flow (Sontag, 2005, p. 11).”
The Journalistic and documentary photograph was used to promote support for the anti-apartheid movement and there are many memorable moments permanently captured in the minds of many via photographs of the South African experience.
Who will forget this tragic image of the shooting of Hector Peterson that arguably changed the mind of any further international support for the Apartheid regime.
It also divided Afrikaner unity…
“A careful chronological reading of his (Gerrit Viljoen, the rector of the Rand Afrikaans University and the head of the Broederbond in 1976 ) published speeches suggests a fundamental shift took place in his thinking after July 1976 student revolt, as a sort of protest, had revealed to him the bankruptcy of Verwoerd’s claim that black urbanisation would be turned around during the 1970s… the actual significance of Blood River lay not in the Voortrekkers’ physical survival against Zulu attack but rather in the values and culture they represented.
Four sets of values were paramount, he argued:
- the political values of freedom for all nations;
- the economic values of the Protestant ethic;
- a fundamental (Christian-based) humanity in dealings with other nations and persons;
- and a rich spiritual life of cultural appreciation and open, critical conversation.
Viljoen admitted this was an idealisation. Basic humanity had been transgressed, he conceded, in job reservation, the application of the Group Areas Act, migrant labour, the quality of life in black townships and the handling of political prisoners, but these issues were being raised and debated. One might well wonder what remains of Afrikaner ‘Christian humanity’ after this list (Moodie, 2017).”
However, documentary photography is more than photojournalism. It’s the documentary photographer’s “interest in capturing a living record of extraordinary people, places and stories that emerge from creative treatment of actualities (Franklin, 2014, p. 9).
In South African documentary photography, the oppression resulted in a new approach to documentary photography called:” Resistance or struggle” photography. South African documentary photographers decided that they “were not above the struggle for change, but part of it”. Photographers in this genre include Omar Badsha, Paul Weinberg, Albie Sachs, and Guy Tillim. (Krantz, 2008). However, there was not complete consensus among documentary photographers
“David Goldblatt, South Africa’s pre-eminent documentary photographer, voiced the contrary position observing that ‘the camera was not a machine-gun and that photographers shouldn’t confuse their response to the politics of the country with their role as photographers’. Photographers required a degree of dispassion. They should not deliberately seek to be positive or negative, but should attempt to convey the reality of things, with all its attendant complexity. ( (Krantz, 2008)”
Resistance and Struggle photography was fulfilled when Apartheid was abolished, the criminalisation of apartheid and the handover of power to a black majority government.
While there have been some movement, it must be stressed that abject poverty, dehumanization of people, injustice, violence, and corruption persist.
Omar Badsha reflects: “I was told by an Old man from Amouti: ‘Take your pictures, show the world the how we black people are forced to live. But don’t show too much suffering. It makes those in power angry. No one likes to be shown the results of their stupidity and neglect! But if you are brave then you must tell the truth.’” (Badsha, et al., 1985)
It is tragic that this statement is still true despite the change in political power, and the dismantling of Apartheid. But international interest in the challenges South Africa disappeared due to the “normalization”. South Africa has become just one of many postcolonial African States with similar issues. And the Sontag’s Flâneurs disappeared.
Nelson Mandell made this prophetic call at a union meeting: “Power corrupts. Anybody is corrupted by power, can be corrupted by power. And a society should have means of ensuring that power will not corrupt those you have put in power. And one of the ways of ensuring that does not happen is for you to be critical, to be alert, to be vigilant.” (Africa Check, 2019) It is as if he posthumous calls documentary photographers into action.
While, in my view, there is no need for resistance or struggle documentary photography, there is still an urgent need for socio documentary photographers to act as prophets. This practice is not spurned on by sensation and funded by newspapers. And we need to look for ways to make it relevant. South Africa require David Goldblatt style of Socio-political commentators and if done well may, as in the case of the Americans like Dorothy Lange, Walker Evans and Robert Frank be able to re-establish the importance and value of Photojournalist and Documentary Photographers.
Whether we can make a difference is a matter of debate, but I conclude with this background statement By Susan Sontag: “Photographs cannot create a moral position, but they can reinforce one-and can help build a nascent one. (Sontag, 2005, p. 11)
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