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.