/ 6 August 2008

Margins and transitions

My initial motivation for this project was to capture a segment of South African life during our transitionary period. My own reactions to the changes happening around me were mixed and in the early stages I tried to let my approach to the project be as unformulated as possible, allowing themes to emerge.

Instead of trying to construct a narrative about life in the country, I concentrated on fragments of life at the literal and figurative edges of town. It is a stream of consciousness that attempts to draw in the elements of both change and lack of change within this paradoxical country.

This essay, like a mosaic, is made up of fragments that I have collected as I moved within the spaces occupied by South Africa’s marginalised communities. These fragments build a picture of the challenges, changes, frustrations and joys experienced by people who are attempting to move from the shadows into the centre stage of South African life.

I travelled to more than 100 towns and townships around the country. To keep the process of seeing fresh, I made a rule that I wouldn’t photograph in the same place twice. The early morning and evening light added an element of tension or energy to the photographs and so I confined my photographic work to those times of the day. This meant that over the four years that I worked on this project, I did a lot of travelling and saw many early mornings.

At no time did I know what I was looking for. I had to rely on a belief that something might develop out of a situa­tion. So I would drive around until I found people gathered and involved in some activity. Then I would stop the car and wander up to them.

I wanted to avoid the conventional photographic documentary approach — so much a part of the apartheid docu­mentary tradition. This meant doing away with the photographer’s conventional role as observer, photographing a subject from an objective standpoint.

The way I went about this was to make use of layers of visual information. I began to photograph from a position that would give a sense of my involvement and hence communicate something more intimate. I realised over time that the closer one gets in proximity to the subject, the more the photographer’s presence shows through in the photographs. In some circumstances this became too dominant and I constantly had to find a balance between achieving a sense of intimacy and objectivity.

At the outset I photographed in black and white, but then realised that colour added both a sense of immediacy and a further layering.

Graeme Williams’ exhibition, The Edge of Town, is at Artspace in Parkwood, Johannesburg, until August 23