Sixosh’ abathakathi: Ukuthwebula and the photographic image

The nexus between photography and ukuthakatha is power. In isiZulu, the term ‘ukuthwebula’ has multiple meanings. Among isiZulu speakers, this expression refers to a ritual where umthakathi (a noun that has meanings that go beyond witchcraft) uses umlingo to take another’s power.

In Isichazimazwi Sanamuhla Nangomuso, Sibusiso Nyembezi offers interesting variations of this concept. He speaks about “umthwebulo” and “ithwebulo” as a person’s state of (un)consciousness that results from losing one’s power and sense of self through the ritual of ukuthwebula. In his own words, he states that umthwebulo is “isimo esidalwa ngumlingo ophendula umuntu angazazi”, while ithwebulo is “ukuthatha amandla omuntu ngomlingo, umlingo ophendula umuntu angazazi”.

At this point, you may be asking yourself what any of this has to do with photography? Interestingly, isiZulu speakers refer to the process of capturing an image through the camera as ukuthwebula. According to AC Nkabinde’s Isichazamazwi 1, and GR Dent and CLS Nyembezi’s Scholar’s Zulu Dictionary, the camera (whether it captures still or moving images) is understood as “[u]mshini wokuthwebula izithombe”. In this context, umthwebuli comes in the form of a photographer (or filmmaker since ukuthwebula is not limited to photography) who decides what to capture at any given moment. The idea that the camera is a device through which the visual ritual of ukuthwebula takes place is critical, because it calls to attention the power dynamics that are involved in processes of image making.

Cameraman, why are you taking so many photos of me. What are you going to do with the rest of them?

In the world of photography, authority (although limited in relation to the power that institutions such as galleries and agencies hold) is often assigned to the photographer. It is common practice that the person who is photographed is framed as a subject of “the photographer’s work”. It is the photographer’s name that appears in big bold letters at gallery exhibitions. The photographer’s name becomes prominent while the names of those who are photographed remain in obscure captions that are written in fonts the size of ants. It is in the photographer’s artist statement that the intentions of the photographer are explained. And depending on how much clout the photographer has, it is they that decide which institution will house “their” photographic archive.

The vital thing about the process of ukuthwebula is that it can be disrupted and resisted. In the case of ukuthakatha, there may be recuperative acts that may liberate the person in question from ukungazazi. And in the context of photography, there may be multiple ways in which photographers can destabilise normative photographic practices. 

One example that comes to mind is how photographer and artist Zanele Muholi insists that people who are photographed are participants, not subjects. Another is Santu Mofokeng’s reflection on how abantu basekasi think through image-making processes as they happen elok’shini. 

In Trajectory of a Street Photographer, which appeared in the Journal of Contemporary African Art, Mofokeng states: “Most township people felt vulnerable and exposed when they gave you permission to take (or make) an image of them. Many felt that their ‘shade’ (the anthropology term), ‘seriti/isithunzi’ (in the vernacular), or ‘soul’ (the missionary term) was implicated in the process. They feared that their essence could be stolen or their destiny altered by interfering with the resulting image or images: ‘Cameraman, why are you taking so many photos of me? What are you going to do with the rest of them?’ Often I found myself at pains trying to explain why I have to make many exposures or to do a reshoot.”

What is interesting about Mofokeng’s observation is that it demonstrates how abantu basekasi are anything but passive photographic subjects. Moreover, the relationship between seriti or isithunzi and isithombe further emphasises how it is that photography is seen as a ritual that is close to ukuthakatha. 

When one thinks of photography in Africa, one cannot easily separate it from the colonial enterprise. In the paper Imifanekiso: An Introduction to the Photographic Portraits of Dr RJ Mann, which appeared in Safundi: The Journal of South African and American Studies, Jeff Guy’s description of the arrival of the camera in South Africa sounds a lot like ukuthakatha. In this text, he states: “By default, the African men being photographed were not just posing but asking questions. It is their questions which make the portraits so powerful — because although no one could answer them then, we can answer them now, and the answer is that this new technology at which you are looking, and these people who have brought it here, will conquer you, strip you of your rights, remove you from the land, tax you, and record technologically the way in which it is done. You will lose your independence, you will work for others, and you will be impoverished. We know, history has told us, the answer to the questions you ask in these photographs by your long questioning, concerned gaze, and it is an answer we cannot give you.”

When one considers the above rumination, one can understand how abantu could conceive of the camera as a device through which amandla abo could be taken as in the ritual of ukuthwebula. And because they knew that ukuthwebula could be countered, they asserted themselves from the front of the lens. It was through acts of self-representation that they were able to ukuxosha abathakathi — as seen in Wenu Wetla, recorded by The Brother Moves On, and Njabulo Zwane’s article, The Dream to See Ourselves Clearly (2018). 

Black participants refused to be confined in photographic subjecthood. Instead, they shapeshifted into abantu abaphilayo that ruptured the borders of the image. 

Instead of being painted with light, they took on the form of the star isandulela. Blazing. Light. Out into space. The place. For Black people. To be.

UKholeka Shange ungumfundi nombhali othanda izinto ezikhulula umphefumulo— 

This article was first published in Ilisozine

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