Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Market Photo Workshop

The Market Photo Workshop certainly hasn't allowed their 20th anniversary to go by unnoticed. Last year this institution, which provides basic photography education, marked the occasion with the exhibition Short Change and in the last couple of weeks two further exhibitions, I am not Afraid and Considering the Documentary, have opened, further contributing to the celebration. All three exhibitions have made different statements. Primarily, Short Change aimed to map the social changes, or lack thereof, that have occurred in the country since the advent of democracy. It was a disappointing exhibition that promised to approach the subject of transformation in a non-literal sense but fell into an expected discourse on social inequity. These two new exhibitions more comprehensively represent the institution and are more tightly curated. They also evince a self-reflective tone; in that they survey not only some of the best work that has come out of the institution but bring to the fore the mechanics of the social documentary genre itself, the graduates predominant vocabulary.

There is no overwhelming mandate behind Christine Frisinghelli and Walter Seidl's (both of the renowned photographic magazine, Camera Austria) curation of I am not Afraid; they have simply presented a number of bodies of work by a variety of photographers - both professional and amateur. The tone of the I am Not Afraid exhibition might to some degree be read as slightly self-congratulatory in the sense that it primarily presents the work from all of the institutions' top graduates, such as Sabelo Mlangeni, Zanele Muholi, Nontsikelelo Veleko and Jodi Bieber, who have all gone on to win awards and exhibit their work quite extensively here and abroad. That the bulk of these photographers are fairly recent graduates suggests that the Market Photo Workshop has only really come into its own lately. These photographers' early bodies of work on this exhibition have been exhibited and seen extensively so they are not a revelation, but in an effort to get a handle on the Market Photo Workshop brand of photography it is perhaps interesting to note the similarities they share.

The amateurs' photography is the result of outreach programmes run by the organisation that are designed to arm disenfranchised folk with a means of expression that will allow them to voice their lives, their concerns and perhaps, even, make sense of their communities. They may not be compositionally thrilling but they are, in a way, more interesting than the professionals' work because they offer an unedited view into lives on the periphery. Such works obviously appease viewers' voyeuristic impulses, but they also offer a level of intimacy with their subject-matter that a professional/outsider cannot manufacture. In this way the banality of the images - a couple lying in bed, an empty plot of land - have a certain gravitas.

Even in Bieber's series on poor whites living in Vredapark, which saw her spend time forging a bond with her main protagonist, there is a palatable distance: while some of the photographs have the appearance of spontaneous snapshots, the otherness of the subjects is foregrounded, which suggests a separation/negotiation between the subject and photographer. This is best viewed in a photograph of a woman using a knife to "floss" between a man's teeth. Of course, with the amateurs work the burden of representation is obviated: their entitlement to frame their own lives isn't a point of contention.

The exhibition was curated and designed to tie in with Camera Austria's 100th edition and though the bodies of work on exhibition are fairly diverse in terms of their content: poor whites (Bieber), border crossings, primarily featuring Zimbabweans (Lerato Maduna), portraits of lesbian women (Muholi) and city cleaners (Mlangeni) there is a predominant trope: people on the fringes of our society. This theme obviously forms the cornerstone of social documentary work but is clearly a predominant characteristic of the work coming out of the Market Photo Workshop, leaving one with a sense that graduates are inculcated with this idea that photography is primarily a social/political tool and that the pedagogy driving this institution is one centred on a certain kind of content. It's an approach that seems to subordinate any examination of form that might probe beyond the basics of composition.

But perhaps it is all in the curating; Considering Documentary, curated by newcomer Tim Zeelie, offers a selection of works that demonstrate a palatable experimentation with form in relation to subject-matter. The work on this exhibition feels fresh, but that might be because it is not as dated as the work showing at I am Not Afraid. The only uniting theme behind this exhibition is a self-reflexive one focused on illuminating different aspects of documentary photography that one suspects is mostly driven by Zeelie. Moshe Sekete's Mea-Lies (2007) makes the most obvious observation about the genre, implying that while it appears objective and real it presents a constructed reality: photographers choose which slice of reality to capture and how to represent it.

This isn't a new idea to those who have studied the semiotics of photography but at least it demonstrates a desire to critically engage with the language of photography. There is, however, a disjuncture between the photographs and the explicit captions that accompany them. In the caption attached to Mea-Lies, the photographer suggests that the scene was interesting because, while it was taken in the fashion district, none of the surrounding imagery reflected the theme.

The caption attached to Morris Mohanoe's series Daily Lives suggests it was driven by a desire to show how Westernised culture impacts on traditional societies. Denoted by photographs that juxtapose mannequins with ideal Caucasian figures and ordinary women on the street - who obviously bare no resemblance to the mannequins or representations of the ideal figure type - the work shows the pervasiveness of Western ideals of beauty. In other words, the series has a very gendered slant on the theme that's not reflected in the caption. Do the students struggle to verbalise the themes in their work, or has Zeelie selected works that bring out particular debates?

There is some interesting work on this exhibition; Mohanoe's series on women stands out, as does his In Steel work, which is a study of barbed wire. It presents a novel way in which to probe social issues. A grainy large black and white portrait from Tracey Edser's Amelioration series is also striking. Its textured surface serves as a reminder that the image is mediated, while also underpinning its physicality. The exhibition also includes a few aural works and a video-work suggesting that the documentary genre is not particular to photography and that there are other visceral elements that photography is unable to capture. Nevertheless the video work really is more like a series of stills so it doesn't quite take the idea far enough to have any impact. - published in The Sunday Independent, February 21, 2010.

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