I see many of this book’s contributors every day. You might see some of them too. If not the very same people, then others like them. They live on the fringe of privileged society, filling its nameless and faceless peripheral roles.” This is the introduction to Brett Morris’s book Disposables, which he started almost five years ago.
My first impression of Morris is that he is shy. That notion soon disappears as he sits down and begins to speak passionately about his book. “Driving through Jo’burg every day, you are faced with a constant reminder of those people living outside our manicured borders. You are exposed to people on the streets all the time. I wanted to do something that could help them earn a little extra money and, at the same time, let them do something creative, something different. And hopefully this process would also give society a snapshot of their lives. I also thought I could learn from the process and do something more meaningful than just giving a couple of bucks at a time.”
More than five years ago, Morris bought 15 disposable cameras and started the recruitment process. On the back of each camera he wrote his name and phone number and picture ideas. “Friends, family, strangers, objects, places, my days, my nights, anything that interests you.”
Each participant was given R10 and promised another R40 on completion of the film. A bonus was also promised if funding was secured for the book, with the rest of the cash going to charity. The result is a selection of photographs that have a fantastic spontaneity to them. The book features photographs of only nine of the participants, as some of them didn’t really make an effort to involve the camera in their day and pretty much took all their pictures in only one spot.
One of the recruits, Albert Mkopo, phoned the very next day. Morris was initially sceptical, “thinking that he had snapped any crap just to collect the cash”. But many of the images are Morris’s favourites.
When Mkopo first held the camera, Morris tried to show him how to hold it straight and he took a practise shot, which is a detailed frame of a man holding a polystyrene coffee cup. The rest of the photographs are all taken with the camera held at an angle, as if shot from the hip, which gives them a really interesting quality. So Morris was actually quite glad the lesson didn’t stick. Many of Mkopo’s pictures are taken on a construction site, where he was hoping to get a job, and in Alexandra, where he lives.
The first people that Morris approached were Steve Wahl and Fanie Kapp, who pretty much thought he was insane. But, after he described the concept further, they were very enthusiastic. When Morris went back to show Kapp the photographs, he said that Wahl had disappeared after an argument and hooked up with some other drinking buddies. Recently, when Morris paid Kapp a visit, he told him that Wahl had passed away almost a year earlier from tuberculosis. Kapp is married to Martha, who begs at an intersection close to where he has his engraving stand in Dunkeld.
The disposable cameras give the photographs a grainy, soft feel. None of the photographs is very sharp and all the pictures have bright, exaggerated colours that give the photographs a gritty, raw honesty. The photographs are all very different; some are portraits of family and friends, others are pictures of their homes. Many are detailed shots of various aspects in their lives. The fact that all the images are taken by individuals who Morris describes as “society’s disposables” also give the photographs an intimacy so many shots lack.
Morris’s favourite image is a picture of a man sitting in Mashinini’s Bar in Alexandra. It is a simple, beautiful portrait of a man sitting in the entrance to the shebeen, a huge red sign — Jo’burg Beer — next to him. The picture is beautifully lit by the sunlight entering from the side. Michael Masedi, the photographer, knows the owner, Sipho, and sometimes hangs out there. Masedi also chose the photograph as his favourite image and, when asked why, he said, “Because of the darkness and the light and the shape and the way that it sits,” which is really layman’s terms for lighting and composition. A truly amazing and instinctive observation from someone who knows nothing about the formalities of photography.
Morris has lost contact with some of the participants featured in the book, as he conducted the last interviews and then almost three years passed while he tried to secure funding. Some people have died and others have moved. Morris says, “It serves as a reminder that, for some people, future planning is not a consideration. They plan only to survive day by day.”
Disposables is self-published with sponsor-ship by FCB South Africa (Brett Morris is executive creative director of FCB, Jo’burg), Altmedia, The Synchroni-city Foundation and anonymous others. The book costs R250 and Morris can be reached at [email protected] or [email protected]