Photojournalism then … and now

Using words to convey the experience of visiting a photo exhibition means converting the event into a different currency of communication.

But the coinage of text can’t recreate the imagery, or evoke the space of a gallery. What it can do is dig into the meaning of the Then & Now exhibition, which opened in Grahamstown last month.

The display is made up of 160 pictures taken by eight of South Africa’s finest photojournalists. The story line is a contrast between their record of the struggle years (”then”) and their comparatively more recent work (”now”).

Six of the contributors are from the generation of Paul Weinberg, the photographer who also convened the exhibition.

Back in the 1980s, he and his peers were young, middle class and mainly white. They discovered and developed their visual passion within the vortex of South Africa’s most violent decade.

Those in the exhibition reflect, says Weinberg, members of the ”family” that’s come together. Forged by that political period, the group was also fixed in the form of the anti-apartheid Afrapix agency (1982-1991).

The exhibition and its accompanying book tell how these photographers’ cameras became ”passports” for them to explore their own country.

Where are the famous African photojournalists in all this, one may ask? The answer is that they were not part of the Afrapix community.

This phenomenon highlights one of South Africa’s undiscussed paradoxes: namely, that white photographers could enter high-conflict zones in times of rough resistance and usually emerge unscathed — despite serious risks and many close shaves.

In part, their safety came from having a visa of white skin that protected them from non-racial youth radicalism as well as the white-run security forces.

Immunity of a sort also came from the preaching of black photographers like Peter Magubane who urged freedom fighters to allow their resistance to be documented for history.

It is this background that gives meaning to the exhibition’s theme of — as Weinberg puts it — the seeming ”opposites of struggle and liberation; justice and injustice; war and peace”.

Back ”then”, capturing the pain of the struggle period changed what at the time were privileged people learning graphic truths about their country, and having to reconcile sheltered upbringings with the consequences and atrocities of apartheid.

In text adjacent to her photos, Gisèle Wulfsohn, for instance, tells how she would earn her living photographing affluent people for Style magazine in the morning, and doing the ”schizoid” thing of driving to the townships in the afternoons.

Weinberg says: ”I was a very reluctant war photographer.”

So, this group of camera warriors had mixed feelings when the struggle ended, and their subject matter along with it. They faced a confusing mix of loss as well as liberation.

This generational specificity contrasts with David Goldblatt’s work, also in the exhibition. His selection of ”then” is mainly about the less turbulent 1970s. It is also the reason why, for him, ”when apartheid ended, I wasn’t suddenly at sea; I didn’t need an enemy to be a photographer in this country”.

For the Afrapix group, it was less easy to navigate from the ”then” to the ”now”.

Two of them have continued, at least in part, to pursue the dramatic. Eric Miller and Guy Tillim put forward, among their recent pictures, images of tension in Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo that is not so different to that in 1980s South Africa.

Trauma is also evident in the work of two others from the group who submit striking visual evidence of the meaning of HIV/Aids. Cedric Nunn presents unhappy images of inner-city Johannesburg and post-war Angola.

But other directions, less political and more personal, are also evident. There are pictures of black girls learning ballet and portraits of contemporary poets. One portfolio includes Cape Town Muslims sighting the new moon, and Mother City Queer Party participants in the same city.

Paul Weinberg, whose ”now” has images of tribal dance, explains that in the old days ”more personal forms of photographic expression were pushed aside”. It is more open today, yet he also highlights that the exhibition is more nuanced than simply juxtaposing past wrongs and current rights.

Looking at the personal trajectories of each photographer and the periods they have frozen for contemplation, you can’t but bring yourself into the equation.

The power of the exhibition lies in making you measure your own experience of ”then” and ”now” — getting your own grip on what’s new and what’s plus ça change — and comparing it with what’s on show.

The exhibition moves to the Durban Art Gallery for two months in January, and will also show in Johannesburg and Cape Town. In book form, there has been a small run of copies, under the title Then & Now: Eight South African Photographers, available from Highveld Press

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