The butterfly effect

It was important for me to show that the majority of people in these essays—the poor, the marginalised, the very ordinary—are not victims. They are the agents of change, they are the ones who made history,” says photographer Omar Badsha of his retrospective, 30 Years: A World of Small Things, at the Durban Art Gallery.

“For me the exhibition is about re-establishing and confirming the statement that every person has the potential to change their condition.
They did it in the Seventies and the Eighties and hopefully we can continuously do that, to change the top-down way of development [in South Africa presently]. I’m hoping that it has the same resonance today.”

The fires of activism still burn in Badsha (61), whose “logical” entry into social documentary photography in 1976, and his career since, has been intrinsically linked to a political life spent mobilising grassroots structures and setting up trade unions, including the Trade Union Advisory and Coordinating Council, the forerunner to Cosatu.

He is critical of the iconised, pap-and-gravy-train memory of the struggle, while his thoughts and ideas toyi-toyi to the United Democratic Front-speak of “development”, “socio-political” and “grassroots consciousness”. In the light of President Thabo Mbeki’s recent Nelson Mandela Lecture, Badsha is angry “that we have lost the past 10 years in which we could have used the same energy and mobilising tactics which we used in the Eighties”, yet optimistic because “we still have those dreams and pressure to put on the ruling party”. He feels Mbeki’s “RDP of the soul” can only happen with an “RDP of arts and culture”.

“People say South African photography is so political but, in a broader sense, it had to be because the situation in the country was such. The disparities are still massive and they are growing bigger and sharper, which means that young people with cameras have a lot to document,” says Badsha. He ranks the early Eighties formation of Afrapix—a photographer’s collective that included the likes of Guy Tillim, Peter McKenzie and Giselle Wulfsohn—as the “other extraordinary thing I was involved in”, along with his trade unionism.

While the socio-documentary school of South African photography has been criticised for its slim artistic merit, Badsha is one of those photographers whose instinct for texture and light seems to have elevated him above that debate: “I suppose my work is nuanced because of my art and drawing background,” he says.

The exhibition—which starts in Durban’s Grey Street area, moves through the socio-political landscape of Eighties Inanda and Lamontville and ends with the photographer’s recent projects in Gujarath province in India and Denmark—draws from Badsha’s published collections Imperial Ghetto (2001); Imijondolo (1985), which focused on the resistance to forced removals in Inanda; and the Letters to Farzanah (1978), which was commissioned to celebrate the International Year of the Child and banned until 1992. It charters local history, asking questions about racial identity, gender, child labour and religion before asking those same questions in Europe and Asia.

For someone who started in photography asking “how do we represent ourselves” and with an urgency to overturn “narrow, stereotypical racist representations of black people and their culture as ‘the other’”, Badsha’s work overseas brought new tensions, clearly evident in the photographs and the gaze of their subjects. “When I went to Denmark, I was confronting a largely white society and was photographing them without any inhibitions about who I was, about their colour, et cetera. It was only towards the end of my stay that I became aware that they found me very strange, because they had a large Turkish and Pakistani immigrant community and their relationship with them was totally different, probably similar to that of a white South African with black people here. The Danes weren’t equipped to deal with race,” says Badsha.

Going to Tadeshkwar in Gujarath with the intention of tracing the roots of South African families, Badsha found it to be “another world”, with its caste system and religious fundamentalist dynamics. “I could decode some of that society a little bit. I showed the diversity of this society and the huge class and caste divisions, which are much more horrific than ours. It is absolutely horrific how people treat each other, but that required more decoding and I didn’t have all the tools. It requires a number of trips,” he says.

Badsha is building the resource website, South African History online (, which he believes is vital in documenting the history and memory of a generation that is disappearing.

Mindful of the subjective nature of historiography and the ease with which propagandising can infect, he says: “There is an element of bias at this point, but as we fill it in more, that will change. Our political perspective is quite a diverse one, it is not an African National Congress history. If it is the ANC, we have articles that are critical, which open debate—and when it looks at its history, we can see that it is a contested history.”

Omar Badsha’s 30 Years: A World of Small Things runs at the Durban Art Gallery until September 3

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