In the prevailing images of the Sharpeville massacre, in which the apartheid state slaughtered scores of unarmed anti-pass protesters, maiming hundreds more, we see black people run. Young, old, they run. Or lie dead or wounded from the onslaught.
Given this backstory of Sharpeville as an apparent procession of tears, Tsepo Gumbi’s collection of photographs of the township can be read as both a loving ode and an urgent intervention.
In his own writings on his approach, the photographer states, “I grew up in Sharpeville unaware that it had a politically significant history. It was only in my late teens that I was exposed to books which had sections dedicated to the Sharpeville massacre. The image on the front cover of An Ordinary Atrocity: Sharpeville and Its Massacre by Philip Frankel, haunted me for a very long time.
“After several readings, I noticed a lack of contemporary visual material about Sharpeville. I took it upon myself to visually document Sharpeville as I know it. For the past few years, I have dedicated my photography practice to this cause.”
Through Gumbi’s lens, we barely encounter wide expanses or aerial depictions of Sharpeville. We see, instead, contained scenes that jolt our focus and disrupt our expectations about the place. As Gumbi gives us hardly any geographical markers, and no easy signifiers of political epoch, we are left with a Sharpeville of our own making. More precisely, we are allowed to imagine being in any township in South Africa.
The premise of rendering a Sharpeville beyond the observable facts is artfully carried out in Gumbi’s photographs. In many cases, it is achieved through abstract renderings of scenes that either comment on the sociopolitical reality of the place or capture moments of joy — an approach carried out without self-conscious heavy-handedness.
Gumbi posses an innate knowledge of his subject that mitigates the temptation to perform the story of Sharpeville. Driven by the respectful distance of the photographer’s outsider/insider status (Gumbi no longer lives in Sharpeville), the viewer is guided away from drawing simple conclusions.
This untitled photo is from the series Re-Imagining Sharpeville