/ 20 June 2017

Ranjith Kally, our unremembered reminder

Ranjith Kally's photographic journey through South Africa’s history 1946 – 2010
Ranjith Kally's photographic journey through South Africa’s history 1946 – 2010

I had forgotten how verdant Durban is: how lusciously green and warm it remains even in the winter. From the airport on the north coast, boundless fields of sugar cane stand at attention, giving way, gradually, to shacks, houses and factories as the freeway heads towards the Indian suburb of Reservoir Hills where the funeral of photographer Ranjith Kally was to be held.

It’s been almost 15 years since I left Reservoir Hills, where I grew up and spent more than half my life, and as the car approached the Clare Estate Hindu Crematorium on the banks of the Umgeni River, I tried to remember how many of my own family I’d said goodbye to at the same hall as a boy.

Just next to the crematorium is the Papwa Sewgolum Municipal Golf Course. Named after the caddy who taught himself how to play golf with a second-hand club, commemorated in Kally’s pictures when he beat Gary Player in 1965. Player questioned the veracity of Sewgolum’s scorecard before finally accepting defeat and when Papwa received his trophy outside, he looked on from within the clubhouse, where the Indian golfer was not allowed to enter.

Just outside the crematorium, an uncle has set up shop from the back of an old bakkie, a tarpaulin serving as a makeshift verandah. He sells cans of cold drink while aunties in pristine saris glide past on their way to the hall where the Hindu mantra of aum namashivaya echoes as a dirge for the departed.

A dog lays in a nearby dry flowerbed, kicking up dust as its tail wags and a group of men stand in a patch of nearby shade smoking cigarettes and exchanging memories of Kally and his work, and life. It was a scene that would not have been out of place in one of Kally’s photographs of Durban’s yesteryears.

Kally was born in Isipingo, near Durban in 1925. His father, Kallicharan, like his father before him, worked in the sugarcane fields as an overseer. At age 14, Kally left school to work in a shoe factory in Durban in order to supplement the family income. Seven years later, he found his first camera at a jumble sale for sixpence.

That was the beginning of a career which spanned more than 60 years. Singularly prolific, there is perhaps no photographer who has documented Durban as thoroughly nor as consistently as Kally. A self-taught photographer, he got magazines from the Royal Photographic Society of London and learned the principles of exposure and composition by trying to replicate the techniques seen in their pages.

As one of the photographers at Drum magazine’s Durban bureau, between 1956 and 1985, is where Kally made much of his best work: documenting life in the African and Indian townships of Durban, covering their social events and celebrities and taking portraits of the leaders of the anti-apartheid movements.

His work during this most creative period of his career is marked by a unique subtlety, devoid of ostentation and with a tenderness, most especially in his portraiture, that only one who came from poverty himself could see within those denigrated by it.

His portfolio is perhaps a reflection of the man himself who, says his daughter Dr Pavitra Pillay, was a “humble, happy-go-lucky man who loved life and stood for justice. There was a sincerity in my dad’s work, he wanted to tell the truth, to tell the story as it was and he had a genuine interest in the well-being of others,” she said during a telephone interview.

“Growing up we had an improvised darkroom at our home and sometimes I would go in there with him while he was working but I wouldn’t be able to leave until he was done because light would come in. He would take so long sometimes …” she reminisces, a small laugh breaking through the lingering sadness in her voice, “He was so passionate and meticulous.”

Such values are often conspicuously absent in modern photojournalism which so often prioritises the sensational over the sensitive, immediacy over intimacy. Depth has been sacrificed in the name of ever-shortening deadlines, dictated by the whims of social media. In the race to break the latest story, something intangible and essential to photojournalism itself is often broken. The modern photojournalist is now a one-man-band, strutting and fretting the scant hours he is afforded in the field to produce images, tweets and multimedia. “Content” – full of colour and flavour, sound and fury. Aesthetically pleasing but signifying nothing.

Kally’s considered and thoughtful black-and-white photography stands in stark contrast to the glut of images which fill our news feeds today.

Peter McKenzie, a former Drum photographer himself, reminisced. “He was perhaps the most objective photographer I’ve known and was first and foremost concerned with the act of documentation. The power of his work does not come from any particular visual aesthetic or his own voice, but rather from the subjects themselves and from the vast diversity of the subject matter in his oeuvre.”

That his work remains as powerful today as it did half a century ago stands as a testament to his dedication to the act of recording KwaZulu-Natal’s forgotten history, when Zulu and Indian people lived next to each other in corrugated iron shacks. When Sonny Pillay and Miriam Makeba were the Kim and Kanye of our ghettos. When the president of the ANC, Albert Luthuli, was a teacher who ran a spaza shop in the predominantly Indian town of kwaDukuza, then known as Stanger, immortalised in Kally’s iconic portrait of him at the shop window soon after he found out that he was the first African to win the Nobel peace prize. It was a different time.

Sadly, much of his work is still buried in archives and this is part of a broader issue of the missing visual histories of South Africa. In McKenzie’s opinion, the iconic images from apartheid which are seared into our collective consciousness aren’t wholly representative of the huge body of work which was created at the time. These “other histories”, as McKenzie calls them, are perhaps needed now more than ever as we still seek to create a new South African identity, 23 years after democracy.

“The image has been complicit in the creation of Afro-pessimism,” he continues. And, to this day, the front pages of mainstream newspapers will often only run a picture of a a township when it’s “lit” with very little consideration as to why it’s lit. Contemporary freelance photographers, desperate for paying work, acquiesce. Very rarely reflecting, let alone coming from the communities they have been charged with representing.

“He leaves behind a legacy of a deep body of work, channelling South African history,” says Kalim Rajab, whose family connection to Kally spans three generations and who was instrumental in helping Kally edit his book Memory Against Forgetting. “In the 1950s, if a foreigner came to South Africa and picked up a mainstream newspaper they would not have known that black people even existed in this country. It was only Drum and a few other publications that actually showed what life was really like in the townships. Yet his work was neither dark nor self-conscious. It doesn’t scream for your attention.”

For all his tireless endeavours and the enthusiasm for photography which remained with him until his last days, Kally received little financial reward or adulation for his efforts. Following his retrenchment from Drum in the 1980s, Kally made a living doing photography at schools and weddings and picking up the occasional freelance gig for local newspapers.

What little recognition he received for his years of dutiful and dedicated service came to him only much later in life. He had his first exhibition, at the Goodman Gallery, at the age of 79 when he was finally given recognition by the art establishment and was conferred an honorary doctorate from the University of KwaZulu-Natal aged 87. His book Memory Against Forgetting came out only three years ago.

The title of this “lyrical”, as Rajab puts it, and engaging visual record of South Africa’s history is derived from a quote by Czech novelist Milan Kundera which reads in its entirety: “The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.” How apt that his magnum opus, a chronicle of the black and Indian endeavour for dignity under apartheid in Natal would in itself serve as a reminder of a shared history, now relegated to the antechambers of our identities.

I am grateful for the work of Ranjith Kally, though I will have to live with the regret that I never got to meet the man himself. His photography continues to serve as a reminder that it is possible and indeed necessary for African photojournalists to create work as critical and as nuanced as our European and American contemporaries, despite the lack of resources, remuneration or recognition – which is the reality for freelance black photojournalists on our own continent.