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The darkroom process of Black Photo Libraries

Black Photo Libraries is a photography book without photographs. Yes, there is a list of photographs — shorn of the photographers’ bylines — in the book. But no photographs.

This is a radical conscious omission which, as one pages through the collection of essays and interviews, affirms the insistence of that choice. Black Photo Libraries then almost assumes the role of the photographic darkroom, the exclusion of photographs and the inclusion of text only combining for that process of revelation: when the politics and motivation behind this omission becomes clear to the reader, much like when a photograph, with its delicate balance of black, white and light, “appears” before the photographer during its development in the darkroom. 

The clarity of the picture developed in Black Photo Libraries is based on the testimonies of a generation of black photographers, many of whom have spent the majority of their careers at newspapers and magazines documenting apartheid in its wide and varied forms from the 1960s onwards: from state violence such as the massacre of school children in Soweto in 1976 to how black people, daily, reconstituted their lives towards “something normal” despite being surrounded by oppressions.

Yet many of them remain invisible to South Africans, as does the credit for their work. Photographers such as Sam Nzima, Mike Mzileni, Tladi Khuele, Thomas Khosa and many others talk of not owning the copyright to their photographs and the subsequent violation of intellectual property rights; never receiving royalties when their work was used by other media outlets for republication; of never being credited for their work at first instance (or second, or third or fourth…) rendering the photographs orphans without the recourse of paternity tests; of not fully comprehending how their work ends up in government museums, public spaces and publications without their knowledge; and of not knowing the full extent of where their archives of vintage prints and negatives actually reside — and who has benefited from their use and sale.

The case of Nzima is reflective — and instructive — of this problem. Nzima’s iconic photograph of Mbuyisa Makhubu carrying the dead body of 13-year-old Hector Pieterson during the student uprising in Soweto on 16 June 1976 was sold and published around the world, in major newspapers, for decades.

In an interview with Deryck van Steenderen, included in Black Photo Libraries, Nzima reveals that the copyright for the photograph resided with The World newspaper and all he received was a R100 “bonus” to “just say thank you”.

“[T]he rule of that time was that, when you are working for a newspaper, the camera was my camera but the copyright or the negative of that time — you know we were using film — belonged to The World newspaper. After taking the picture on June 16, I was told that ‘the copyright is not yours’ but they sold the picture, the way they wanted all over the world. I couldn’t get anything … because I was told that ‘you’re fully employed, once you’re fully employed, you don’t have no right to claim the copyright’. The picture was used from 1976 to 1998. Then I got my copyright. The company that I was working for was The Argus Group. The Argus Group sold The Star to Independent Newspapers, who then said, ‘No, this is ridiculous, we can release the copyright to you, Mr Nzima.’ But in the letter, they regretted that it is too late now, I wouldn’t make money out of that.”

There is a gaping hole in the South African photographic canon where the proper cataloguing, archiving, recognition and reward for black photographers should exist. The absence of their photographs from Black Photo Libraries, a project of the Market Photo Workshop, illuminates this void.

The Market Photo Workshop’s outgoing manager of archives and research, Candice Jansen, who edited the book with the assistance of Loyiso Qanya, Brittany Zoë Masters and Tshepiso Moropa from her department, said: “While this decision to not use photographs feels counterintuitive, especially because black South African photographers have come out of a history where they were ignored and now need to be seen and recognised, there was something about withholding the images to draw closer attention to the problems that are apparent around the history and ownership of black photography that demanded consideration.”

There was a “certain risk” in making that decision, Jansen concedes, but one that really does challenge and confront the reader, the historian, scholars, collectors, universities  and the wider media and art worlds.

Jansen said the decision was fed by several considerations. These include her own background and scholarship about the work of photographers Cedric Nunn and Ernest Cole. That process raised questions about the relationship between “already defined” bodies of work and the scholars’ academic intentions. 

Likewise, there was the consideration of whether the use of photographs would only reproduce the loaded relationship between text and images in media usage, where “images assume an illustrative nature in relation to the text” and the role of the “photographer as thought leader” becomes, like the photographs, secondary to that text.

There were other more quotidian — but no less political — reasons for discarding photographs for a project that, initially, sought to publish the work of ten lesser recognised photographers after they had spent six months digitising their archives.

Questions arose around whether using fewer photographs but showcasing more photographers would assist in documenting the lives and work of more black photographers threatened with being consigned to the scrap-heap of history.

There was that most elephant-sized challenge: finding the images for inclusion, establishing who, or which company, owned the copyright to them and negotiating usage costs. This, according to Jansen, confirmed the (corporate-capitalist) mess surrounding so much of the work and affirmed an instinctive sense that leaving out photographs would be a boldly political act.

Black Photo Libraries is, then, a collection of interviews with photo­graphers such as Peter Magubane; conversations between photographers such as Mike Mzileni and Thomas Khosa; intimate reminisces by the partners of photographers, such as Lucia Morongoa Mnguni (nee Morudu) remembering her husband, Bongani Mnguni; forgotten photographers, such as Myron Peter writing about themselves or their contemporaries; and archival texts such as the late Peter McKenzie’s Bringing the Struggle into Focus.

The keynote address delivered by McKenzie at the Culture and Resistance Conference in Gaborone in 1982, and later published in the magazine Staffrider, was, at the time, an essential call to arms for photographers to become part of the struggle by weaponising both “negative and positive documentation”.

There are also cultural and musical nods: a jazz playlist compiled by Sethembiso Zulu, which connects photographer Rafs Mayet’s essay about the need for a South African jazz photography archive — a piece that in itself doubles as an essential bibliography of books about South African jazz and photography — to Lindelwa Dalamba’s essay about Norman Owen-Smith’s 1964 photographs of the pre-exile Blue Notes performing in South Africa.

Significantly, the book questions the absence and knowledge of black female photographers from a history that is already bereft. In particular, Stefanie Jason’s interview with Zingiwe Cetu, the niece of Mabel Cetu, who worked as a photographer and journalist in Gqeberha between 1958 and 1970 is an essential intervention.

Cetu, was, according to the interview, a character, a “socialite” who photographed rugby matches and beauty queen contests (in which she encouraged her young relatives to compete) while in her fifties working for Drum and Golden City Post

She also worked as a nurse and a town councillor in the 1980s when the apartheid state attempted to instal a veneer of self-rule among separate race groups. This despite her son being imprisoned on Robben Island for political activity.

Yet, as Jansen raises with Khosa and Mzileni, neither of them, nor Alf Kumalo or Magubane, appeared to know of Cetu — despite working for the same publication. 

During the conversation, Jansen prods them: “You are asking, ‘Why are black women so absent from this history? Why do these big-name photographers not know about her?’ That is another big question for me that I don’t know if we have answers to. There seems to be an issue with how photographers were credited in these publications. Often in Drum and other publications, the names of photographers were not printed, if they weren’t big names.”

The testimonies in Black Photo Libraries make clear that at a time when there was no formal photographic training for black people, mentoring was essential in creating a lineage: Drum’s Bob Gosani tutored Magubane and Kumalo, who in turn passed on skills to younger cats like Mzileni, and so on. 

The general route for a black photographer was first as a messenger or newspaper seller, then working as a darkroom technician and then, to the camera.

These photographers often put their black bodies in danger to document their present — our history — with the intention of creating a better South Africa, which better understood itself because of that work — something at which we appear to be failing.

Black Photo Libraries also reaffirms histories under threat of cynical revisionism for political expedience by the ANC elite in South Africa. The conversations between Mzileni and Khosa, two photographers with their fingers on the political pulse of Soweto’s schoolchildren in 1976, affirms the argument that the Black Consciousness Movement had inspired those children to rise up. 

Black Photo Libraries exposes people, photographers and histories at risk of being discarded at the altars of amnesia, political homogeny, and white domination of South Africa’s photography. It is required reading.

Black Photo Libraries is a project of the Market Photo Workshop.

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Niren Tolsi
Niren Tolsi is a freelance journalist whose interests include social justice, citizen mobilisation and state violence, protest, the Constitution and Constitutional Court, football and Test cricket.

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