Stories of survival

There’s something unsettling about reading a nicely made coffee table book containing pictures of poor people living through hell. But even in their fetters and tatters, Africans in historical pictures are now far sexier than colonial whites — in the academic sense, of course. Which means that, when you encounter those doleful eyes looking at you from across two centuries, you can make your contribution to a major contemporary cultural debate by asking yourself: “Who am I in relation to this person’s misery?”

So it is with Surviving the Lens.
In it, South African art dealer Michael Stevenson and London-based dealer Michael Graham-Stewart have provided a type of Rorschach test for anyone who flips through the photographs they have collected over the previous decade.

The meaning of this type of photography, in a post-colonial context, cannot easily be pinned down. And the meanings we lend to these images have to do with what we are conditioned into believing as we grow up. In general though, one can imagine using some of the pictures to decorate one’s lounge whereas others, of people chained by their necks, would sit well in a museum of colonial injustice — in a sort of African Yad Vashem.

Which leads one to wonder why pictures of this sort are published today. In their short introduction to Surviving the Lens, Stevenson and Graham-Stewart provide few clues as to their mission. The book’s blurb tells us that such pictures are now being reviewed “for their aesthetic merits as well as their historical significance”, and that photographs from the particular locus of their work, Southern and Eastern Africa, “have not received the same attention as those from West and Central Africa”.

Since South African galleries that collect historical photographs no longer place them in ethnographic collections, it is the authors’ intention to initiate a dialogue, to start “re-looking” at such works “in a framework much broader than social and ethnographic history”. The broader framework, according to Stevenson and Graham-Stewart, has to do with subjectivity. They seem to be searching for the motivation that inspired photographers to produce certain images.

George T Ferneyhough, for example, worked in Natal in the late 1870s and sold albums of pictures of the Anglo-Zulu War. He also photographed black individuals he must have invited into his studio on the basis of their “interesting” physical attributes. One such image is that of an African woman in period European dress standing with an undressed child who appears to suffer from the blotchy skin disorder vitiligo. Far from making an aesthetic statement, the photograph seems to say to Europeans who may have bought the image as a tourist postcard, “Look, they also come in dots!”

Today, though, this particular image leads one into a dialogue with the subjects, an attempt to come to terms with the complexity inherent in the act of looking. A century after the photograph was taken, one finds oneself asking not who the photographers were but who the subjects were, and whether they felt that their physical attributes and traditions were being reduced to curiosities.

Stevenson and Graham-Stewart look beyond this aspect of the pictures, gleaning an idea from Christaud Geary, an early commentator on photography from the Cameroon, who wrote in 1915: “Many of these images are remarkable works of art, provoking an aesthetic response and thus becoming meaningful in yet another way.” Ultimately, they look beyond this, gesturing towards “a larger discussion about how whites and blacks negotiated each other’s identities during this era”.

At the end of their introduction, Stevenson and Graham-Stewart opt for optimism, quoting Native American Hulleah Tsinhnahjinnie who, looking at this type of photography, saw in it “stories of survival”. This, appropriately, is the origin of the book’s name.

Images from Surviving the Lens are on show at the South African National Gallery in Cape Town until November 18.

Matthew Krouse

Matthew Krouse

Matthew Krouse is the arts editor of the Mail & Guardian, a position he has held since 1999. He has edited two anthologies: Positions (Steidl, Jacana Media 2010) about artists engaging with politics in South Africa today, and The Invisible Ghetto (GMP, 1994) a compilation of creative writing about gender. His essays have appeared in collected works about arts and culture here and abroad. He has worked in the theatre for over a decade as an actor, writer and senior publicist at the Market Theatre. Read more from Matthew Krouse

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