Saturday saw a group of students join Jose Navarro and Clive White for a study visit to the V&A exhibition ‘Figures and Fictions: Contemporary South African Photography’. I was personally keen to visit the exhibition having lost sight of what was happening with photography in South Africa and intrigued by the masses of content on the V&A website. There are not many countries where I could seriously claim to have ‘lost sight of’ their photography. South Africa was the exception because I was well aware that for a significant period photography there meant one thing. There was a photographic project and it was exposing Apartheid, beyond that there was a photographic style, closely associated with the work of David Goldblatt and now less well known names like Ernest Cole. It could be described in shorthand as a styleless style; showing Apartheid was the challenge and that meant documentary photography and the need for unquestioned veracity meant images which looked like they were just out of the camera. The emphasis should be on ‘looked like’ because of course no photography comes unmediated.
The V&A exhibition confronts you with this legacy – the first image presented almost life size is ‘Pieter and Maryna Vermeulen with Timana Phosiwa’ by Pieter Hugo from his Messina-Mussuna series. The close physical contact in Hugo’s image echoes Goldblatt’s ‘The farmer’s son with his nursemaid…’ (seen here) and also religious depictions of Mary and Jesus. The scale and the detail refuse any idealisation however, Pieter and Maryna are presented sun blasted and physically damaged. There was much debate about Hugo’s intent and the extent to which that could be understood from his statements about his work and his other work in the exhibition.
From there, it is seemingly a long journey to the work of photographers like Berni Searle or Nonsikelelo Veleko and the V&A exhibition showcased this wide diversity of people photography. At the same time it also highlighted the role of photography as a competitive trade in a country where a pitch to photograph the cameraless is strill highly valued. There was certainly plenty to talk about over lunch.