/ 17 February 2006

The black albums

As far as I can recall there are no photographs of me as a baby. My first encounter with the camera happened in the early 1960s when I was seven or eight years old. The person behind the camera was an itinerant, journeyman photographer who plied his trade on a Lambretta motor-scooter. He came to our house in Soweto at the behest of my mother, to photograph me and my younger brother one cold morning. She wanted to memorialise the jackets she had sewn for us with bits of leftover material from the garment factory where she worked. She was proud of her handiwork. We were happy for the warmth we got from these coats of many colours, though we regretted that our jackets did not carry any store labels. Let me confess that envy is one of the motivations that steered me into the photography business. A few friends and peers at primary school had cameras. I noticed that they were very popular and had no problems approaching girls and chatting them up. They always had loose change jangling in their pockets.

The first camera I ever owned had probably “fallen off a truck”. I was 17 years old and in high school. The camera was in a dismal state of disrepair, so I couldn’t do anything to it to make it worse. I paid for it to be repaired with my own money, which I’d earned from a commission on a sale of a complete set of Collins’ encyclopaedias during school vacation in 1973. I only had this camera for two years before my neighbour came to borrow it (in my absence) from my sister. I never saw it again.

In those two years, however, I cherished that camera. It helped me overcome my awkwardness around strangers. I got invited to parties. My social status was enhanced. Everywhere I went strangers would approach me to have their photograph made or simply to talk, all because I was lugging a camera. They asked me whether I could shoot colour or black and white or both, and whether the lens could see in the dark. I was often asked if I could shoot photographs inside a house, or when it was cloudy or windy or raining. Cameras carried a mystical fascination for a lot of people. It was as though the act of looking through the camera transformed and enchanted the landscape or person through the viewfinder.

Cameras in whatever condition were difficult to come by because they were said to be too expensive. They were considered rather complicated. When you did chance upon one it carried with it a kind of an invisible warning, like the zig-zag sign one might find on a power station. Ignorance about how cameras operated gave them an irresistible allure. Cameras were the preserve of specialists; the press, men on “government business”, a few rich families and educated people. This probably explains my artificial social elevation.

Looking back, I am still amazed that a schlemiel like myself made a career of photography. I have always been nervous around machines and part of my paralysis reflects the experience of an impoverished upbringing: “Leave other people’s things be,” I’d be told. “I cannot pay for the damned thing to be fixed.” And later “You think this lens was made in Soweto?”

I began to learn the photography trade as a street photographer. As a roving portrait or street photographer you charged a deposit for each and every exposure you made for a client. You then hoped you had enough business to finish a roll of film or as many rolls of film in a weekend, so you could come back the next weekend with the finished prints and collect the balance. You had to sell all the exposures you made, including the duds. You could make enemies for life if you didn’t return all the exposured prints you’d made of the subject.

Tardiness in returning photographs could cost you your reputation and business, perhaps even a beating. Most township people felt vulnerable and exposed when they gave you permission to take (or make) an image of them. Many felt that their “shade” (the new anthropology term), “seriti/isithunzi” (in the vernacular), or “soul” (the older missionary term) was implicated in the process. They feared that their essence could be stolen or their destiny altered by interfering with the resulting image or images: “Cameraman, why are you taking so many photos of me. What are you going to do with the rest of them?” Often I found myself at pains trying to explain why I have to make many exposures. I imagine that this explains why I still use comparatively very little film on professional assignments.

If all went well, clients paid me the balance due and took their photos. Most of these images found their way into family albums. Photo albums in the townships are cherished repositories of memories. The images in them are similar to the images in albums the world over: weddings, birthday parties, school trips, portraits — special occasions of one sort or another. They are treasuries of family history, visual cues for the telling of stories. They are mostly of happy, smiling people, dressed to party and surrounded by food and drink. The more formal portraits are crafted to promote what might be called petit-bourgeois or suburban sensibility: everyone and everything must look its best. Sometimes the moment memorialised is the presence of the camera! Going through township photo albums can sometimes be a tortuous journey. But it is considered impolite to decline an invitation to look through them because it is a kind of an induction into a family’s history.

In spite of the popularity I gained by having a camera, I still did not consider photography as a career. The reasons were many; the main one being I was not making a lot of money. “Hey Santu! On the weekend of … I/we are celebrating our wedding anniversary/twenty-first birthday/unveiling of a tombstone etc etc, I/We would like to invite you to be there. Be sure to bring your camera and don’t worry about film. I/We will provide the films and am/are going to pay for processing and printing myself/ourselves! You don’t have to worry. Come and enjoy yourself; you can bring your girlfriend and some of your friends along!” The real meaning of the invitation was that I was not going to be paid. Pressing the shutter was not considered work!

It was not until I had my first solo exhibition that I really began to ponder my role as photographer. The exhibition explored not only the townships, where the focus of the struggles for liberation were well documented, but rural landscapes as well. I had some reservations about the way the show was received by the majority of people in the black communities. I soon realised that a lot of people in the townships could not relate to the realities that resided in my photographs. One comment from a visitor who signed his name as Vusi haunts me: “Making money with Blacks”.

That simple comment forced me, like nothing else ever had, to question the value of my work. I began to understand that the messages I was trying to send, however different from others that came before, would always be overshadowed by the perceptions and assumptions about South Africa that viewers bring with them. The other thing that became clear to me as a result of Vusi’s comment was that in my pursuit of the art I was not paying enough attention to the narratives and aspirations of the people I was photographing; I had either forgotten, neglected or disregarded my early beginnings. I had simply graduated into being a professional photographer without first thinking about my position. I had not thought about my own responsibility in the continuing, contentious struggle over representation of my country’s history.

I began to enlist the participation of the communities where I worked. Soon after, in another show I juxtaposed images of the township (public/political) with images in the township (private/personal). I was looking at those pictures I had been making for the public media and contrasting them with those I had been doing as street photographer, that is, images people choose to treasure and pass on to their children. This is how I began to explore the politics of representation. And it was only then that I become aware of urban family portraits that were made at the beginning of the last century.

These images are slowly disintegrating in plastic bags, tin boxes, under beds, on top of cupboards and kists in the townships. And because they lie outside the education system, including the museums, galleries and libraries in this country, I found them enigmatic. These solemn images of middle and working-class black families, crafted according to the styles (in gesture, props and clothing) of Georgian and Victorian portrait painting, portray a class of people who, according to my history lessons, did not exist at the time they were made. My quest for an explanation for this omission made me appreciate the crime of apartheid, “For the struggle against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting” (Milan Kundera). And as I examine old family albums, I feel I have come full circle.