From object to image

2008-11-18 00:00

WHEN John Söderlund talks about the people in the photographic portraits he will be showing in his exhibition in the Tatham’s Schreiner Gallery as “objects”, it sounds very strange. So much so that I eventually interrupt him to query the word. After all, many of them are friends of his and he has already told me that the subjects of his photographs all have a degree of significance to him personally. So are they really “objects”?

He explains that he is talking as though wearing his other hat, as a psychologist. “I’m talking about what are ‘psychic objects’ for me. The significant people for the way I understand myself,” he says. “We try to make sense of where we live and how we live by drawing on our internal objects.”

He agrees that to speak of people as objects is an “objectifying” term, but it also describes how we all manipulate our own internal representations of other people. However much we like or admire them, we still make them significant to us for our own selfish, self-serving reasons. It is the way people operate.

And, now talking as a photographer, Söderlund explains that taking portraits is a complex process — he describes it as a bit like therapy. “When someone sits for a portrait, I hate it when they smile,” he says. “They are presenting a social front. I tell them not to smile, but in the first frame I shoot, just about everybody smiles. By the 10th frame, the smile has gone, by the 20th, they are uncomfortable — and I often shoot up to 30 frames.”

“They have tried to present themselves in one way and I want them to look like the way I have internalised them.”

A large number of the portraits are of people Söderlund knows well — he even had a “portrait party” where he invited everyone to come and be photographed. But others are faces he has seen on street corners. One is a man who was asking for money at a traffic light in Johannesburg one Christmas day. “He had an agenda about how he wanted to present himself,” says Söderlund. “And I have personal baggage about people who ask for money at robots.” It makes for an interesting exchange.

Besides the 40 or so portraits, the exhibition will also include a smaller number of panoramic images, which are up to two metres long. Here Söderlund has used a tripod to take five or six shots that can then be digitally stitched together to create the image. They range from sand sculptures on the beach, to cross-dressers at a cabaret and children sitting outside a trading store.

For Söderlund, these multi-shot images add another dimension — the world in which he finds himself — to the portraits and the personal relationships they embody.

• John Söderlund’s photographic exhibition, Found Objects, will open in the Tatham’s Schreiner Gallery at 6 pm on Thursday and will run until the middle of January. Gallery hours are 10 am to 6 pm, Tuesday to Sunday.

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