Tuesday, August 31, 2010

The Politics of Images: Bonani Photography conference

A couple of weeks ago I participated in a conference dedicated to photography in Cape Town dubbed the Beyond the Racial Lens: The Politics of South African Documentary Photography, Past and Present. As I was one of the last speakers at the conference I attempted in my talk, titled Circling sights of Trauma: Representations of Abjectness in Contemporary South African Photography, to address some of the issues that had dominated the three-day conference and comment on the photographic works on display in the adjoining Bonani Africa exhibition. 

While judging the 60-odd essays for the competition a number of glaring commonalities became apparent to me. Perhaps the most obvious, and to a certain degree predictable, and one which dominated discussions at this conference was  the photographers inclination to train their lenses on societies or individuals located on the supposed ‘fringes’. During the conference Thembinkosi Goniwe rightfully lamented the fact that the more carefree and ordinary aspects of black life aren’t given expression.

Referencing a photograph taken by Bob Gosani in 1954 which features a pair of untroubled lovers locked in an embrace I suggested that such representations had existed during the most difficult period of our history. However, they weren’t innocent depictions;  in that era they also functioned as  “a political statement; a statement of defiance. By demonstrating that love continued to flourish in spite of oppression made clear that apartheid and the Nationalist government couldn’t control every aspect of life. Thus such images implied that the system could be overridden. Depictions of love in our era carry a different message. I believe that they articulate a kind of erasure, a denial of a hidden truth. Thus it is no longer a visual motif of defiance but one of denial.”