​Regarding the white male gaze in South African photography

Mr Rossouw, Beaufort West.

Mr Rossouw, Beaufort West.

How does a person place himself in the current South African discourse when he is young, white and male? As someone who ticks all three boxes, this is a question I ask regularly as I seek to challenge myself and those around me while being sensitive to the historical social privileges that these variables afford.

Last week, the first feature-length documentary on photographer David Goldblatt made its world premiere in South African cinemas, probing me to consider this question in the context of the South African white male and the responsibility he carries when wielding his lens.

In the documentary, South African photographer and activist Omar Badsha accuses Goldblatt of being “naive” to his subjects’ position, particularly regarding his whiteness. He goes further by stating that Goldblatt is “complicit, like all white South Africans [during apartheid] who never really looked at the consequences of their actions”.

For Goldblatt, the terms “white” and “male” are irrelevant to the intention of the photographer and in the reading of their work.

“I don’t talk in those terms of white and black. I’m interested in photography. I’m interested in photographers’ visions. I couldn’t give a fuck whether you are pink, brown, black or white. If there are generic ways of looking that are associated with being white, I’m not aware of it.”

He goes on: “I frankly don’t know. I acknowledge fully that I am the product of a white, middle-class, Jewish home. I have a good education. All of these things make me who I am. But I don’t associate with the concept of a white gaze or a black gaze. It’s the gaze of a man who was brought up in a particular place and time. When I get a form from an institution and they ask my race I’m insulted. I say ‘human’. I couldn’t give a fuck.

“The fact that I’m turning my back on it doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist. But I don’t think those are the relevant terms with which to couch the discussion.”

It is clear, as we sit in this 86-year-old man’s home in northern Johannesburg, that being a white liberal of a different generation, Goldblatt is riddled with contradictions on this idea that whiteness and maleness can be treated as blanket terms to refer to a particular gaze informed by two powerful social positions.

On the one hand, he refutes the significance of the key terms shaping conversations on the arts around the world, especially in South Africa where an exhibition can spark heated debate on the politics of who we give a platform to in our galleries and museums. On the other, he seems to acknowledge that a white positionality does exist but is unable or unwilling to see it himself.

Today, the ownership of a particular narrative is hotly contested and rightly so. This is most evident in the success of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex photographer Zanele Muholi who has been influenced by Goldblatt, but takes a very different approach, turning her lens on herself and her community to claim a part in the national narrative that black queer South Africans couldn’t do 23 years ago.

The fact that she also trains her subjects as photographers seems to prompt a new era in which vulnerable photographic subjects are becoming empowered participants in control of the means of their visibility.

This sets up a vastly different landscape for the privileged white male photographer starting out in 2017, particularly when they are drawn to documenting experiences of black pain and poverty. For Jono Wood, who recently exhibited at Circa for a show titled Dark City in which he was one of three young white men venturing into hijacked buildings in Johannesburg’s city centre, it remains important for privileged South Africans to go into these “dark” spaces and document them.

“I think that today it is not even about white South Africa but [about] middle-class South Africa,” Wood says. “I have developed a skill set that has allowed me to cross voids. What I’ve been able to do is stand on two sides of a river. Middle-class white South Africa might think they’re aware of what it’s like in a hijacked building but I can stand in these spaces and interact with the people and get a true first-hand understanding of what life is like there and then I’m able to relay that back to the space that I come from.”

It is in many ways this modus operandi that has made Goldblatt so successful with groundbreaking but arguably voyeuristic seminal work such as On the Mines (1973). Wood’s decision to journey into dangerous, “dark” spaces is noteworthy as is his desire to shine a light on everyday suffering, inevitably of black people, in this country that would otherwise have remained anonymous.

The question as to who can lay claim to this painfully stagnant narrative, in which race remains so informative of class in South Africa and countries such as the United States, has evolved beyond revealing a “black world” through “white eyes” for “white eyes”. This approach was once lauded, as demonstrated by John Howard Griffin in Black Like Me, where the white American author travelled the 1950s American South disguised as a black man to give voice to the perpetuating black oppression under Jim Crow.

Despite his skill and drive, Wood, who is not represented by a local or international gallery, is struggling to establish himself in the art world. Although he believes, like Goldblatt does, that anyone has the right to document whatever he chooses, he does admit that the colour of his skin is holding him back.

I’m sympathetic to Wood’s predicament. As a white male in this country in 2017, it can often feel like you’re walking a tightrope when trying to navigate issues such as class, poverty and violence. By virtue of our skin colour, we are the benefactors of a racist regime whose roots still pervade every aspect of our society, but it’s impossible not to feel frustrated when told to remain silent. Here, Mikhael Subotzky offers a nuanced way to contribute to the conversation.

When he took his first steps as a photographer more than a decade ago, the Capetonian said: “I wanted to be the next David Goldblatt.” It was only after “moving away from the shitty apartheid city” and relocating to Johannesburg that Subotzky became aware of the voyeuristic nature of his gaze in series such as Beaufort West (2006) and Ponte City (2014) and started shifting it “inward”. He began smashing the glass that encases his photographs, tearing the images, and reassembling them with sticky tape in disjointed formations “to get in the way of viewing the image”, Subotzky claims.

“When I was doing earlier works that looked at incarceration and poverty, I felt like I was describing the effects of the colonial apartheid legacy,” he says. “Now I try to place myself in this weighty, problematic legacy we have as white South Africans. I want to get inside the colonial mindset and collapse it from within.”

It is an ambitious goal that culminated in Subotzky’s first fictional film, WYE, that powerfully critiques the white South African male position in the past, present and an imagined future. These deconstructive methods of interrogating the white male gaze are effective and informative to the white South African male navigating the now.

Towards the end of the Goldblatt documentary, the photographer is pensive when he speaks of having become frustrated with his practice: “It has become so difficult. I’ve walked every inch of my island. There is nowhere new to see.” It is a poignant ending from a veteran who has given so much and taken us so far. He now leaves it up to photographers like Subotzky to interpret the fast-shifting art world in which the white South African male gaze is on shaky ground.

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