Histories of us

2008-03-08 00:00

Acclaimed Durban photographer Paul Weinberg is the man behind Then and Now, an exhibition and book which looks at documentary photography before and after the collapse of apartheid.

Weinberg asked eight SA struggle photographers (himself included) to provide ten images from before 1994, and ten from the period after.

The fruits of Weinberg’s labours are currently on display in the Durban Art Gallery. And the result is not what you might expect. Rather than cleaving our recent history in two, the exhibition offers a portrait of a reality in which the past and the present are intricately interwoven, and in which the photographic response to liberation often resounds more in form than in context.

I spoke to Weinberg about this lovingly curated project and about documentary photography in general.

Peter Machen: In this age of media bombardment, photoshop and youtube, do you think that the documentary images still has much power?

Paul Weinberg: I think documentary has certainly been redefined and is more open to interpretation than ever before. Reality TV has made documentary into entertainment, if you like, so there are a lot of challenges that come with “documentary”. I would rather talk about photographs specifically than get bogged down in semantics. These images are a collection of personal representations of reality. Images that evoke memory and articulate the human and social landscape will, I believe, always have power if well executed.

PM: Many of the images in Then and Now are richly incidental rather than obviously spectacular. And I was thinking about the American photographs from the second gulf-war, how they were basically art directed but presented as fact. I kind of repeat my previous question by asking: Do you think that documentary images are capable of maintaining their authenticity against such a contrived media reality?

PW: This is a good question. I think what makes this collection quite different from the Gulf War photographs you speak about is the personal selection of the photographers themselves. This is their take. There is a strong sense of agency here, beyond commercial and ideological formats.

Off the beaten track, rather than the overtraded stereotype. Authenticity is the key word. Documentary images are seriously challenged in a world that, as you have suggested, struggles with compassion fatigue.

PW: In the catalogue, you talk about the crisis you faced as a documentary photographer in 1994 when your central subject matter kind of dissolved. Of course, as we have come to realise now, it didn’t so much dissolve as become infinitely more complex, and while the war against apartheid came to an end, other wars and battles remain part of our South African reality.

And some of those battles remain remarkably similar 14 years later. I am thinking specifically of the Landless People’s Movement and their many protests and engagements with the authorities, often resulting in violence. Images of these protests and the ensuing violence are seldom seen in our mainstream media. Do you think this is because they are under-photographed? Is there a market in the media for such images?

PW: Lets separate a few things here. The post 1994 moment made us re-examine — it made us break down those well worn positions of oppressor/ oppressed, black/white etc. It is, as you point out, a far more complex landscape which I think offers new vistas for creative expression. In a post-apartheid moment rich and poor cannot simply be expressed as black and white. It’s about class and these contradictions didn’t disappear with apartheid; they assimilated and re-morphed.

In this context much has changed and too much is the same. It’s not a one dimensional story — the impoverished still wait for delivery while those who benefit from the opportunities availed to them, cross the bridge. Is there a place for struggle images and these stories? Absolutely. It will always boil down to how well these stories are told and their struggle against a narrative that just wants to escape from reality — this happened during apartheid and happens now.

But personally, many of us have moved on —- we are not at the frontline anymore and choose to tell stories in a different way, metaphorically or symbolically. You can get very burnt out on the frontline if that’s all you do. George Hallett says it’s time to be more playful and celebrate with the camera in his interview. I think he speaks for a lot of us — it doesn’t mean to say we don’t care, just that we are trying to explore other vistas of experiencing our country in a different time.

PM: Do you think that the recent embrace of documentary photography by the fine art establishment in any way undermines the discipline inherent to documentary photography.

PW: I think these discreet definitions need to be reviewed. People tend to like pigeon-holing us.

Many of our celebrated photographers from this collection — David Goldblatt, Guy Tillim — are on the world map, collected in art galleries and museums. They come from the documentary tradition but speak on many levels to a wide and diverse audience. David has been collected by the Museum of Modern Art in New York for example.

There is so much crossover. I don’t think you can talk about these genres separately anymore, and that’s a good thing. The conceptual art approach has tended to conflate and confuse categories. For me it all boils down to how images work and their inherent value.

PM: In a similar vein, while aesthetic considerations were often viewed with disdain during the struggle, much of the documentary images from that period are very beautiful, even if it often a terrible beauty. Do you think that documentary photographers are ever capable of truly renouncing aesthetics?

PW: In those days I think we tended to see art-for-arts-sake as secondary to telling the story and getting the message out there. But again, we only need to look at where photography inherited much of its language from — the art tradition. We were influenced, and continue to be, by aesthetics.

We are family — and if we consider ourselves as story tellers which I do — it’s about how powerfully one can tell the story. Ironically, war and the struggle of the human condition is a very engaging backdrop for the power of the image. Fortunately, in this anthology photographers show a myriad of powerful images beyond the theatre of war — there is much about the celebration of the human spirit and engagement with the landscape.

PM: Do you think that the freedom to be more creative and considered as a documentary photographer in post-1994 South Africa is liberating? Or is it perhaps a burden?

PW: Personally, it’s liberating. I was relieved in 1994 that I could express myself beyond a political format. Previously many of us got trapped in continuously reworking the South African stereotype expected from international magazines and newspapers. So post-1994 opened up vistas of possibilities to explore, and in which to be creative.

PM: Finally, you’ve been documenting South African reality for three decades now. As a documenter, an observer, you have in a way been paying more attention than most people. Which gives me special leave to ask you the following question: How do you feel about our current reality, life in South Africa in 2008?

PW: I’d just like to say “eish” and walk into the sunset. What David Godblatt said in his interview — that, as a photographer, he has always been looking and observing — is pertinent.

A new dispensation didn’t change his enquiry. There was a big build up to the 1994 moment. I was one who had entertained what I see now as idealistic values of non-racialism and what we had fought so hard for.

Many of my comrade friends who were rabid socialists are rabid capitalists now. Mandela and his vision of reconciliation wasn’t easily absorbed by Mbeki, and the prospect of living in Zumaville is far from encouraging.

Its a confusing landscape. When I was in the States a few years ago, there were two contradictory narratives of SA which people wanted me to confirm — the rainbow nation or the crime capital of the world? “An Uncomfortable Paradise,” I told them.

•Then and Now runs at the Durban Art Gallery until April 20. The book is available from local book stores.

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