‘Pictures From the Inside’: The power of the thinking photograph

The rise of digital photography and social media has caused the commercial photography market to be flooded; the era of the “instant” photographer has also contributed to this situation. The increasing influence of material, celebrity and capitalist culture positions digital photography as a somewhat glamorous and profitable career option. 

Yet, despite the popularity of the medium, there is a persistent lack of seriousness about what this particular moment presents for us collectively, against the violent and exploitative history of photography on our continent.

Untitled (Rharha Nembhard)

With the increasing popularity of the medium comes a deeper responsibility towards critical consideration of the ways in which society is shaped and governed by photographic imagery. The eye is the second-most complex organ in the human body (after the brain), hence the social study of the interconnection between these two intricate and intelligent systems — and, by extension, its effect on our individual perception and collective psyche — should not be overlooked. 

In late 2018, Through The Lens Collective was established by Michelle Loukidis and myself, as a photography education, mentorship and exhibition space, created out of a deep interest and respect for the medium, and an insight into the important role of photography education in Africa.

From the series In-Between (Ngidi Thandolwemfundo)

In our combined 30 years of experience in teaching and mentoring photographers, we’ve observed the challenges of young visual practitioners trying to develop their craft, access spaces to show work and, sadly, the decline of a critical and rigorous engagement with the medium of photography on the part of larger cultural institutions. 

With this in mind, we set out to provide photography education that champions the power of the thinking picture: the kind of photograph in which concept, place, subject matter and technique purposefully coalesce in ways that elevate the photographer’s initial idea, and accurately embody the more intangible aspects of their being and experience — something distinctly ‘not documentary’.

The Reconditioning (Amira Shariff)

It is this focus on authoring, not just witnessing, that drives our interest, and the idea that alternative and new narratives can be authored; with the power and responsibility of visual representation sitting (but not resting) firmly in the hands of local African photographers with a growing awareness of the potential that comes with the opportunity for self-representation and global dissemination.

In 2020 we launched  Through The Lens Collective’s first advanced photography course, a 10-month part-time course that facilitates the production of a body of work, created with meaning and intention, through a system of group engagement, critical dialogue and individual mentorship.

Nothing for Us Here (Katlisho Tleane)

Incidentally, the simultaneous arrival of the Covid-19 pandemic, and the subsequent lockdown, made for a challenging year, with both teachers and students being thrown into new and uncertain territory in terms of the ways in which we operate, teach, photograph, and connect with each other. The lockdown has disrupted the one thing that we all have taken for granted — the ability to go out and photograph, and to connect face to face. 

Under this challenging pretext, eight photographers at varying levels of experience (Anna Sango, Thandolwemfundo Ngidi, Katlisho Tleane, Tshepo Moloi, Rharha Nembhard, Amira Shariff, Brendon Burmester and Chama Mwanga) have produced work that is engaged on levels both highly personal and yet socially relevant, using self–reflection as a means of inquiry into identity, space and belonging. 

The Union of Kensington (Brendon Burnmester)

Our graduate exhibition, titled Pictures from the Inside, is a curated selection of their respective bodies of work. There were certainly periods of inertia, of creative block and frustration for us all, but together we found individual and collective means to strive towards what we had originally set out to do. In the end (which is really a beginning), we have been moved, challenged and inspired by the stubborn creative ability demonstrated by this group of talented individuals, who have expressed themselves in diverse and complex ways using photographic technique as an essential carrier of meaning. 

Between working full-time jobs, moving house and changing cities, the death of close family and friends, loss of employment, and the birth of a child, these photographers have persisted in their vision to develop their skill and share their perspectives. It is their bold yet sensitive manner of expression that excites us about photography, and its ability to transmit one’s most intimate inner conceptions to another. 

From Savannah City ‘House of Bond’ (Tshepo Moloi)

It is this “being human” that we are constantly grappling with, and that which characterises the way in which Through The Lens Collective approaches artists and education. In a world where human connection is increasingly facilitated by an automated screen, there is a vital need to foster a more critical sensitivity towards each other, our surroundings, our common value and, indeed, a greater respect for the incredible medium of photography.

To see Pictures from the Inside, Through The Lens Collective’s advanced course 2020 exhibition, visit the website. Follow us on Instagram at @throughthelenscollective.

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Michelle Harris
Michelle Harris is a Johannesburg-based artist and educator. Her mixed media practice traverses the mediums of installation, sculpture, photography and public art/performance. She graduated from the University of Johannesburg (formerly Wits Technikon) in 2005 with a B-Tech in Fine Arts (cum laude) and holds a Teacher Training Certificate in Arts, Culture and Design from the same institution. Michelle has completed curatorial internships at the Sasol Wax Art Award and the Johannesburg Art Gallery. Michelle produced her first solo exhibition in 2006 and has participated in a number of public art projects and group exhibitions since. She is also a senior trainer at the Market Photo Workshop, Johannesburg, where she has taught Visual Literacy, Visual Culture, and Narrative Development for the past 10 years. Her educational focus is on representation and the history of photography in Africa, with the aim of developing more critical and ethical approaches to photographic practice in our local context.

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