The Camera, Trauma and the Landscape

The Camera, trauma and the landscape

By Jon Riordan

Landscape is not a genre but a medium… It is a natural scene mediated by culture. It is both a represented and presented space, both a signifier and a signified, both a frame and what a frame contains, both a real place and its simulacrum, both a package and the commodity inside a package.’ (Mitchell, pg 5)


Event oriented documentary photography and photography of the land and cityscapes represent two major genres of photography in South Africa, with the latter growing in significance since South Africa achieved democracy in 1994. One of the early torchbearers of landscape and cityscape photography has been David Goldblatt, and in his seminal book, ‘The Structure of Things Then’, he clearly illustrates the link between society, history and the landscape as he recorded events of great trauma and marginalization (Goldblatt, 1998). These themes have since proven popular within South African photography.

In this paper, after placing some notable South African photographers within the context of international landscape photography, I will analyse images created by these photographers to establish the techniques they use to explore these themes, and to assess the potential values of photography of trauma and the landscape.

In 1855, an event took place that has since proved to be one of the most significant in the history of photogaphy. In that year Roger Fenton was the first person to take a camera into a war zone. (Cotton, 2009)  The publisher, Thomas Agnew and Sons, had commissioned Fenton, to visit the Crimean War and document the events that were taking place there. In order to do this Fenton bought a wine merchant's cart, converted it into a mobile dark room and hired a student assistant named Marcus Sparling (Anonymous, 2004).

Fenton was severely hampered by the size and cumbersome nature of his photographic equipment. The exposure times necessary for the cameras of those days meant that photographing a moving subject was largely impossible. Added to this, the difficult physical conditions often did not allow him access to the areas where much of the action was taking place. (Morris, 2011)

In fact, it was these very shortcomings that led him to photograph the image that would make him famous. ‘The Valley of the Shadow of Death' is not only Fenton's most celebrated image but is also one of the most well known images of war. It captures a desolate, devastated landscape featuring not a single figure but only cannonballs, which are scattered freely across a dirt road that winds off towards the horizon. It is not surprising that this damaged landscape, a portrait of death without the dead, would become a metaphor for the ravages of war and gives credence to Susan Sontag’s assertion that ever since cameras were invented, they have kept close company with death. (Sontag, 2003) That Fenton named this image, ‘The Valley of the Shadow of Death' further acknowledges the inextricable link between trauma and the landscape. 

This link is echoed by a British historian, Simon Schama, who wrote, ‘Landscape is a construct of memory, the landscape is a work of the mind built up as much from strata of memory as from layers of rock.' (Schama, 1995)This idea has been a foundation of photography that can be traced all the way back to Fenton's ‘Valley of the Shadow of Death'. The biblical title of the image that binds the desolate landscape to the trauma of war speaks not only of death but also of the divine, and allows an apparently tranquil image to command an iconic position amongst photographic depictions of conflict and trauma.

On a local (and more recent) level this link is visible in various physical formats when travelling through South Africa’s former homelands and observing the fissures of soil erosion raking through the rolling hills.  These fractures in the land are widely present in the former homelands and vary in size from a less than a metre deep to the truly spectacular; some so huge that a large motor vehicle could easily be lost in them.

Adam Hochschild, an American journalist who traveled widely through South Africa while researching his book, ‘The Mirror at Midnight’ was particularly interested in the ravages of soil erosion. Through researching the history and laws of Apartheid South Africa he drew a link between the forced relocation of South Africa’s ethnic populations into prescribed homelands and the increased physical phenomenon of soil erosion in these areas. He writes, ‘Less than 20 percent of KwaZulu is arable, but its density of cattle and population is many times that of the surrounding white-owned land. One result of the overgrazing is severe erosion, which sometimes has stripped the soil down to bedrock. You can see the scarlike jagged ditches through which more than 200 million tons of red KwaZulu topsoil are annually washed into the sea.’ (Hochschild, pg 71)

Soil erosion outside Coffee Bay - J. Riordan

Soil erosion outside Coffee Bay - J. Riordan

The forced relocation of South Africa’s ethnic populations can be traced back to the 1913 Land Act which established the idea of ‘reserves’ as a way to segregate the black population of South Africa from the white population. (Anonymous, 2003) It was only in the early 1950s after the National Party had taken power of the Union of South Africa that these laws were intensified to the point that the ‘Bantustans’ or ‘Homelands’ were created. They were ratified into existence by the government of Daniel Francois Malan through the ‘Bantu Authority Act’ in 1951. The implementation of this Act then subjected almost four million South Africans to forced relocation to these homelands. (Anonymous, 2003)

What the writing of Hochschild emphasizes is that these forced relocations threw a delicate ecosystem out of sync. Many of the people who were forced to move into the homeland areas were completely urbanized and had little experience in farming or rural living. Added to this is the fact that while much of the land in the former homelands looks fertile and lush it is in fact distinctly fragile and not particularly fertile. The combination of these factors has proven to have greatly increased the occurrence of soil erosion in these areas.

For such reasons, Hochschild’s choice of the word ‘scarlike’ is particularly apt. As a metaphor for the damage the apartheid government caused by displacing and splitting these established communities (also as a further reference to the truth of Schama’s assertion) one need not look much further than these physical scars upon the land.

Through these examples one is able to understand that ‘landscape’ is a construction. The most obvious and important distinction to make is between the physical land and the ‘landscape’. JB Jackson described, in his book ‘Discovering the Vernacular Landscape’, how it was incorrect to conceive of the landscape as, ‘A portion of the earth’s surface that can be comprehended at a glance’ but felt that a loose description of it as, ‘a composition of man-made spaces on the land’ held some weight. He then writes, ‘For it says that a landscape is not a natural feature of the environment but a synthetic space, a man-made system of spaces superimposed on the face of the land, functioning and evolving not according to natural laws but to serve a community.’ (Jackson, pg 8) This idea is furthered by Deborah Bright’s statement that, ‘landscape is … a record of human values and actions imposed on the land over time. (Bright, pg 2). By acknowledging that a landscape is not only a created space but one created by and for a community, through studying the landscape, one will have greater understanding of the community that is responsible for it. Jackson portrayed the landscape as: ‘A rich and beautiful book that is always open before us. We have but to learn to read it.’ (Jackson, pg 34)

This begs the question, how do we read the landscape? In order to answer this question we will need to look at how it has been done in the past. Since the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the art of landscape painting was the major avenue through which the landscape was recorded. (Bright, 1985) With the invention of the camera in the mid 1800s, photography rapidly gathered significant popularity and momentum in the sphere of landscape studies. At first artists used the technology as a drawing aid such as when William Henry Fox Talbot used the camera lucida to help draw a landscape in Switzerland. (Clarke, 1997)  It was due to this search for a new realism in art and an increasing awareness and interest in the processes of the natural world, that photography rapidly developed as a new way to explore the landscape. (Clarke, 1997)

The earliest landscape photographers were primarily based in Britain.  These photographers followed quite a specific aesthetic, which was strongly influenced by the already established tradition set by paintings. Most notably was the idea of the ‘picturesque’ which, ‘as a cultural index… sought visual confirmation of a timeless Arcadia; a unified image of social life.’ (Clarke, pg 55)  This contrasted more and more with the visual styles that were developing amongst the growing photographic population in America. The ‘picturesque’ had little place as this population spread westward into the new world and its ‘pure’ landscape. The frontier culture of the time examined the land as if it had no ‘cultural footprint’ and was epitomized by the survey photographers sent into the western territories by the government of the time. The function of these photographers was to capture the phenomena of settlement and political control of the land, contributing to the conflict between the visible and the invisible that continues still in the history of landscape photography. (Bright, 1985)

In many ways the modernist photographers who became popular in the early to mid 1900s continued this dialectic. Ansel Adams, a photographer whose images of the American West grabbed the popular imagination like few before him, has come to epitomize this group. The work of Adams aimed to capture the beauty and majesty of the American West showing to the world that this landscape was ‘America’s proud claim to monuments as great as Notre Dame or Saint Peters.’ (Goldberg, pg 26)  It was a style of photography that sought to provide evidence that America’s glory was alive and well and had not been buried under cheap housing and parking lots. Yet it was by focusing on the grandeur of the land rather than the encroaching reality of the modern age that Adams continued the conflict between the visible and the invisible.

In the mid to late 1960s there was a major shift in the world of photography as a new generation of photographers expressed skepticism towards the preceding generation. Many of these photographers saw the work as overblown and excessively expressive. Nicholas Nixon, a photographer of this new generation, felt that the work was overly sentimental; that ‘Ansel Adams and Minor White seemed sappy.’ (Salvesen, pg 17)  This new generation of photographers was epitomized by the 1975 exhibition, ‘The New Topographics’. The exhibition marked a significant change in photographic styles leaving behind the grandiose style of Adams and instead focusing on a dry, deadpan aesthetic. One of the participating photographers, Robert Adams, claimed, ‘That’s what I’m after, a normal view of the landscape. Almost.’ (Salvesen, pg 37) In contrast to Ansel Adams these photographers aimed to depict modern America without glorifying or condemning and it was this claim to objectivity that would greatly guide their work.

Nearly four decades later, this exhibition that was not immediately accepted by the public and critics, still holds great influence over the photographic world. In fact I feel that its influence is particularly evident in much of South Africa’s modern landscape photography with regard to the choice of subject matter, the aesthetic used by the photographer, and through the continued utilization of a detached and visually objective viewpoint. In reality it is a very established aesthetic, one that has become popular throughout the world and that has led to a blurring of boundaries between a number of photographic genres most notably landscape and documentary photography. This was anticipated by the curator of the ‘New Topographics’ exhibition, William Jenkins, when he said that one of the exhibition’s central purposes was to, ‘…postulate, at least for the time being, what it means to make a documentary photograph.’ (Salvesen, pg 52) It is this blurring of the landscape and documentary genres that I feel allows photography the greatest possible chance of ‘reading’ South Africa’s landscape and exploring how historic traumas can be interrogated through the medium of photography.

One of the most telling aspects of this style of photography is the eschewing of what Henri Cartier-Bresson termed, ‘the decisive moment’.  Indeed, this is a style of photography that focuses on subject matter more commonly associated with social documentary photography but that moves at a speed more commonly related to landscape photography. It is photography that has more in common with the work created by Roger Fenton in 1855 than it does with the work created by Cartier-Bresson a century later. In fact, one of South Africa’s most famous practitioners of this style, David Goldblatt, uses a camera, that while slightly modernized, is not very different to the camera Fenton would have used One cannot help but feel one of the reasons for this avoidance of ‘the decisive moment’ is the realization that, according to Roberts:  “the ‘decisive moment’ does not represent the imagined moment of temporal intensity of the pre-photographic event… but, rather more circumspectly, the moment of temporal conjunction, the moment when the internal elements of an observed scene appear, subjectively, to cohere pictorially.’ (Roberts, pg 283)

The 5,000 members of the black farming community of Mgwali were to have been forcibly removed and resettled here after their land was declared a "black spot" by the apartheid government in 1983. However, the people of Mgwali resisted strongly and in 1986 the removal scheme was dropped. The lavatories were gradually stripped of their usable building materials by people in the area and all that is left now are concrete bases over some 1500 anatomically shaped holes in the veld. 22 February 2006.

D. Goldblatt

A notable example of this trend can be seen in Goldblatt’s image entitled, ‘Remains of long-drop lavatories built for the "closer settlement camp" of Frankfort, Eastern Cape.’

This image perfectly illustrates the avoidance of the ‘decisive moment’. It is an image that could have been taken at any given time and barring a change in the lighting, cloud cover and perhaps the vegetation given seasonal fluctuation, it would essentially remain the same image, as these are not integral parts of the image. What is integral in the image is the landscape, the small settlement in the distance and disused long-drop toilet. Interestingly, Goldblatt had photographed these toilets before when he visited the area in 1983 and photographed the newly constructed toilets for the book, ‘The Structure of Things Then’. (Goldblatt, 1998) The image from 1983 depicts a raw, striated and unpeopled landscape in black-and-white; in the distance, 1,500 new toilet structures stand, sentinel-like, in the cleared grid. It is a striking image but it lacks the layers of the image from 2006.

This type of photography has developed a number of terms of reference; Peter Wollen, an English film theorist, has termed it ‘cool photography’ and John Roberts has called it, ‘late photography’ (Roberts, 2009).  Goldblatt understood this concept from an early point as evidenced by him saying in 1950, ‘Then I began to realize that I wasn’t terribly interested in events. As citizen, yes, but as photographer, not. I gradually developed the sense that it was the underbelly that drew me --- the values and conditions that gave rise to the events.’ (Goldblatt , 234) In avoiding the events and the visually ‘decisive moments’ Goldblatt acknowledges that one does not always gain the greatest understanding of a situation through these ‘hot’ images. It suggests instead, the idea that, “the singular event always comes late, insofar as the singular event is part of a continuum of other ‘singular events’. There is no primary ‘singular event’ to any given event, which defines and identifies that event.”  (Roberts, pg 289)

It is partly this ‘lateness’ that allows the 2006 image to stand out. By eschewing the traditional ‘decisive moment’ Goldblatt has created what is effectively a ‘historically decisive moment’. In this image Goldblatt has extended his earlier image; it is no longer an image illustrating the physical preparations the Apartheid government instigated in order to further oppress South Africa’s black population. It is now an image that explains this history but also asks, ‘How far have we come since then?’ It asks whether it is acceptable that 12 years after democracy was established in South Africa people are still forced to scavenge in abandoned lavatories for building materials? On top of which it is also an image that witnesses how government policies, structures and human interactions become represented within the landscape. It is a remarkably aware image that illustrates how once a photograph is taken its meaning is not set in stone but that ‘it could embrace the past, present and future: the photograph was a document of history and possibility.’ (Linfield, pg 18)

The destruction of District Six under the Group Areas Act Cape Town, 5 May 1982

D. Goldblatt

A second Goldblatt image allows one to investigate a further aspect of the ‘Landscape as Memory’ theory as well as the notion that ‘landscape’ is not found purely in rural areas. If landscape is, as Schama proposes, culture before it is nature, where is this culture ever more visible than through the city? (Schama, pg 61)

Goldblatt’s image, ‘The Destruction of District Six under the Group Areas Act, Cape Town. 5 May 1982’ illustrates one of the defining events of life under apartheid. The complete destruction and dispersal of an entire community was such a violation that, ‘the considerable area of prime urban space thus cleared was eschewed by private developers, and remained for years a largely unused wasteland.’ (Goldblatt, pg 47) The image does not focus on the act of the demolition but instead focusses on its aftermath and does not spare the viewer of the extent of the trauma suffered by the community, some who had lived on this land for as long as seven generations, and the landscape.

In the image, as in many of Goldblatt’s images, the graveled foreground is largely empty, allowing the viewer to experience the sense of loss and devastation. As one is drawn into the image one becomes aware of a strange merging between the ruins of District Six and the skyscrapers of the city behind it. In this way, Goldblatt is indicating that District Six was as much a part of the city as the skyscrapers of the foreshore still are. The damage caused by this act by the government soon became apparent when private developers essentially ignored the land leaving it even now, as a ‘largely unused wasteland’.

In a recent article for the Daily Maverick Ryland Fischer wrote, ‘District Six today stands as evidence of Apartheid cruelty at its worst. Anyone who drives into Cape Town’s CBD cannot help to notice the prime land lying barren…’ (Fischer, 2012) As the furrows of soil erosion in the Transkei illustrate memories of Apartheid relocations,, this derelict land forces one to ponder the land’s capacity for memory.

On the other hand, could the occurrence of great trauma, such as the destruction and dispersal of an entire community, sever the bond built up between the land and its memory? In a process that recalls Freud’s theory of repression of memories of a traumatic event, the dynamic of a historical disconnect is suggested when one reads the oral histories taken from former residents of District Six. (Baer, 2005)

Many speak of the trauma far exceeding just that of being kicked out of their house or an area of a city, these former residents repeatedly refer to the trauma as violating their identity and agency. Some even claimed that, ‘the destruction of District Six had such an impact on them that [they] became conscious that they had previously lived or must have lived in another world, physically and morally, a world opposite to the racially differentiated world they were forced into.’ (Geschier, Pg 41)

Looking across District Six towards the city centre. 2013

J. Riordan


This hypothesis is vividly illustrated when these histories are viewed in conjunction with an image of my own that looks across present day District Six towards Cape Town’s city centre. From this perspective, the foreground is rubble and detritus strewn, but it is now the rubble of devastation, the detritus of neglect.

As the viewer stares towards the city centre, he cannot help but notice the derelict land forming the foreground and middle ground of the image but it is the rigidly erect palm tree that dominates the image. The tree forms a stark indication that while ‘landscape’ might function as a memory, nature and the land form an irresistible cycle where ‘death is merely composted in the process of rebirth’ (Schama pg 6). In its totality the image brings to mind Walther Benjamin’s assertion, ‘In the ruin, history has physically merged into the setting and in this guise history does not assume the form of the process of an eternal life so much as that of irresistible decay.’ (Benjamin, Origins, p 178-9)

An interesting counterpoint to this argument was made by Rudyard Kipling in his children’s book Puck of Pook’s Hill. In this story the fairy Puck provides two children with encounters with historic characters that had inhabited the land where they lived before they did. (Kipling, 1906) It is a whimsical interpretation of the idea that the land holds memories of all that came before yet when one walks through the desolate rubble and patchy grassland that District Six has become it is impossible to feel any connection with its history, unthinkable that any fairy would have the power to make this reconnection.

A problem that the South African government is facing with regards to land redistribution is that a returning population often cannot understand why things cannot return to how they once were. The Rural Development and Land Affairs Minister, Gugile Nkwinti, is clear on this point when he states, ‘However, things can never be the same.’ (Fischer, 2012).                                                                

 In this regard, Schama makes the interesting point: ‘It should be noted that once a certain idea of landscape, a myth, a vision, establishes itself in an actual place, it has a peculiar way of muddling categories, of making metaphors more real than their referrents; of becoming part of the scenery’. (Schama, pg 61) Schama is suggesting that as much as the memory of the landscape can be disconnected through extreme trauma it can be rebuilt through a tradition of myths and memories. This is where art and particularly photography can play a key role through exploring history and interrogating the present as well as by creating the myths and memories that can be referred to in the future.

 Another photographer who bridges the urban and rural divide is Sabelo Mlangeni. He appeared in the public eye with ‘Invisible Women’ a collection of images dealing with the female cleaners responsible for cleaning the centre of Johannesburg. One of the aspects that interested him with this project was how the women felt about leaving their husbands and children behind when they came to the city to find work.  It has become abundantly apparent that during the apartheid era migrant labour was one of the greatest social traumas faced by South Africa’s non-white communities. Yet in 2013, the migrant labour system has remained ‘largely unaltered’ in post-apartheid South Africa. (Creamer, 2012) Since finishing Invisible Women Mlangeni has moved into the rural areas of South Africa and worked on projects that have explored further the effects of migrant labour in this country.


Mkhuphula, 2006’

S. Mlangeni


One such collection of work is, At Home, a set of images exploring the rural counterpoint to urban migrant labour. Mlangeni describes it as, ‘A series of images of what is left behind in the villages when breadwinners leave to seek work in the city and towns. I document the landscapes and those left in the countryside, “the forgotten” in the fast moving society of South Africa.’ (Mlangeni, 2011) In the essay accompanying the the exhibition catalogue Sean O’Toole remarks how the collection is marked by a ‘definite sense of placenessness’. (O’Toole, 2011)  This is particularly evident in the image, ‘Mkhuphula, 2006’ . In the image one can see two figures returning from fetching buckets of water from a river. As O’Toole mentioned, it is a placeless scene with the rugged landscape of trees, stones and hills that lacks any discernible feature to distinguish it from the generic South African term, ‘the veld’. Added to this placelessness one could argue that it is also a timeless image. Fetching water has been an integral part of life since time immemorial and despite the many great advancements in modern South Africa we still have close to five million people who are forced to fetch water from rivers or springs. (Kasrils, 2003)

This sense of timelessness and placelessness is a theme that runs throughout Mlangeni’s collection of images. He creates a perception that those left behind in these rural villages have been forgotten and displaced. While Mlangeni speaks positively and even wistfully about the peace and respect that is present in these communities he also admits, ‘Villages have become the waiting place in South Africa for those who are too young, or too old, or waiting to become adults, or to die.’ (Mlangeni, 2011)   

 In an interview Mlangeni spoke about his ideas of photographing the traditional Zulu Reed Dance from an alternative perspective – that of capturing the emptied space where that dance had occurred. He said: ‘I want to see what remains when everyone has left’. (Diserens, 2011) This is statement is illuminating not only in the context of ‘At Home’ and his photography of these villages but also in letting us know that Mlangeni is as interested in photographing people within their living environments as he is in photographing their absence.

It is difficult to compare the images of Goldblatt and Mlangeni as the two photographers employ vastly differing styles. Goldblatt utilizes a style most similar to the photographers who featured in the New Topographics exhibition which has been described as, ‘analysed observations’, (Salvesen, pg 32) whereas Mlangeni’s work has a much less precisely analytical (but no less deliberate) style which moves away from a studied analysis towards an instinctual assessment of his subject matter.

 This is a style also followed by Santu Mofokeng, another internationally recognised South African photographer.  Once again, there are differences:  in Goldblatt’s images, every detail in the photograph  appears in crystal clear focus making one think that everything from a small stone to a treed hill has a dedicated meaning whereas Mofokeng’s images often appear as murky and indistinct leading one to imagine that the unseen is as important as the seen, that the metaphorical is as important as the literal. It is no secret that one of Mofokeng’s favourite movies is Stanley Kubrick’s ‘Eyes Wide Shut’, a film in which much is made of the border between illusion and reality, a feeling one often gets from Mofokeng’s images. (Vogel, 2011)

 Early in Mofokeng’s career his photography focused on people and their experiences of South Africa.  Yet after 1994 he felt that he lost the reason to enter these people’s lives and decided to investigate the stories held in South Africa’s landscape. Mofokeng feels that what is important is not who owns the land but ‘who owns the view of the land’. He says, ‘Landscape is not about geography…It is about your view, where you live, where you die, that is your landscape.’ Yet above this Mofokeng views the land as a ‘metaphorical biography’ (Diserens, pg 126) and in this biography trauma has played a significant role.

Bradford Concentration Camp Graves

S. Mofokeng


Much of Mofokeng’s work, particularly that body of work entitled, Trauma Landscapes, has focused on ‘shadowed grounds of negative rememberance’ (Mofokeng, 2011), areas throughout South Africa and the world that have witnessed and experienced episodes of immense trauma and tragedy. In South Africa this has seen Mofokeng visiting such landscapes as the graves of concentration camp victims and the infamous site Vlakplaas outside Pretoria. These images, as can be seen through image above, are similar to the style of the New Topographic photographers, still with an exaggeratedly ‘objective’ gaze, yet without the polish or crispness of those photographers. It openly claims that this is a shadowed part of our history, and asks, even if the history is contested,  does the land itself remember? For this is his central question, ‘Does nature have a memory? Does the pasture of Bradford echo the songs of the concentration camps of the Boer War?’ (Vogel, 2011)  Mofokeng’s unadorned images might seem to leave this question unanswered but one can imagine given his interest in the metaphorical and the spiritual, that he believes that it does.  (Diserens, 2011)

 Mofokeng’s image also engages with Walther Benjamin’s theory of, ‘The Optical Unconscious’, which emphasized the photograph’s ability to make one aware of a level of reality that is there but cannot be perceived. (Baer, 2011) The photographer who inspired this theory was a Frenchman named Eugene Atget (1857-1927). What set Atget apart as a photographer, was that he moved away from the portrait, which was the fashion at the time, and focused on deserted streets in Paris. These images inspired Benjamin to compare Atget’s images to photographs of a scene of a crime. (Benjamin, 2008) Does this not bear comparing with Mofokeng’s images? Benjamin extended this comparison when he said, ‘The scene of the crime, too, is deserted; it is photographed for the purpose of establishing evidence. With Atget, photographs become standard evidence for historical occurences, and acquire a hidden political significance. (Benjamin, 2008) This hidden political significance is apparent in the Bradford Concentration Camp Graves image yet, like so many images of this style, it is only revealed by the inclusion of the image’s title. As Benjamin wrote about Atget’s images so many years ago, these are images that require a directed approach to grasp their meaning, ‘For the first time, captions have become obligatory.’ (Benjamin, 2008)  It is not that images such as ‘Bradford Concentration Camp Graves’ cannot be appreciated without an explanation but it becomes apparent that to fully appreciate their ‘hidden political significance’ more often than not some guidance is necessary.

 As I have stated this quest to explore these ‘shadowed grounds of negative remembrance’ prompted Mofokeng explore this country as well as Japan, Vietnam, Germany and our neighbour Namibia. In this he is a member of a rapidly growing group of photographers. A question that often gets asked of these photographers is, ‘Why travel to a foreign country to photograph areas that have experienced great trauma when there is so much that can be done in South Africa itself?’ Santu Mofokeng felt that he needed to investigate these landscapes in order to reclaim the land for himself, stating that, ‘landscape appreciation is informed by personal experience, myth, and memory, amongst other things. Suffice to say, it is also informed by ideology, indoctrination, projection and prejudice.’ (Mofokeng, 2008) He also wanted to explore how other countries were dealing with spaces of such negative connotation. To which he found that there was no ‘universal model to follow’. (Mofokeng, 2011)

A number of other South African artists have traveled to other countries in pursuit of secrets  within the world's landscapes. In 2004, ten years after that country’s horrific genocide, Pieter Hugo traveled to Rwanda. Guy Tillim has made many visits to the Congo exploring its natural and man made landscapes, and his images of the dilapidated buildings bear witness to the unfulfilled hopes of the postcolonial population. (Enwezor, 2008) Jo Ractliffe visited Angola a number of times to contemplate the notion of ‘landscape as pathology’ in which she wanted to explore how past violence can still be perceptible in the present. (Ractliffe, 2010) So why are South African photographers interested in investigating the atrocities that tarnished the landscapes in these far-flung countries?

There is no single answer but many of the reasons given are refreshingly simple. Pieter Hugo felt that he wanted to find out, ‘ ‘How does one regard landscapes where this type of atrocity has occurred.’ (Hugo, 2004) Through this question Hugo acknowledges the argument that the landscape is a ‘metaphorical biography’. He also engages with the question as to whether ‘Nature has a memory?’ It seems that he feels that instead of the trees or the earth holding memories of the atrocities it is the viewer who remembers what has happens and it is how this memory affects their reading of the landscape that he wants to interrogate. Equally, Hugo hoped to explore ‘How does one interpret the events that took place in Rwanda in 1994? How does a divided society which has gone through something as terrible as this manage to co-exist?’ (Hugo, 2004) What is most pertinent when regarding these questions is not so much the answers but that he expected to be able to find answers to this through exploring the areas landscapes.

One could make a similar argument in the case of Jo Ractliffe. She has stated that her first impulse to visit Angola was when she read Ryszard Kapuscinski’s book, Another Day in the Life, which detailed the final period of Portuguese rule in Angola. It piqued her interest in a subject, which as a South African of her generation, she had had some tangential exposure to. When Ractliffe describes what Angola meant to her when she read the book she speaks of ‘the border’ and uses words like ‘secret’, ‘abstracted’, ‘myth’ and ‘romance’ creating an image of the unknowable, an almost intangible concept. (Ractliffe, 2008) Given Mitchell’s assertion that, ‘Landscape is not a genre but a medium… It is a natural scene mediated by culture. It is both a represented and presented space, both a signifier and a signified, both a frame and what a frame contains, both a real place and its simulacrum, both a package and the commodity inside a package.’ (Mitchell, pg 5) it is no great surprise that in order to explore the concept of ‘The Border’ she turned to photographing the landscape of that country.

In South Africa the land is an increasingly contentious subject with many of South Africa’s most pressing issues such as employment, land ownership and crime often being directly linked to it. This is particularly evident in the example of farm murders. (Goldblatt, 2005) This significant and complex subject has been an area of focus for a number of South African landscape photographers.

In the closing example of this paper, I would like to examine the work of three photographers who have grappled with this subject. These three photographers have each photographed the ‘Witkruismonument’ (White Crosses Monument) in Limpopo. In 2003, local farmers tied 1500 crosses to fence posts along the N1 near Limpopo in remembrance of murdered farmers. Soon afterwards the National Roads Agency decreed that since they were being displayed on state land they would have to be moved. A neighbouring farmer thereupon made land on his farm available and so the crosses were placed on a visible koppie above the road. (Goldblatt, 2005)  Since then, the number of crosses has grown from 1500 to over 4000 each apparently representing a victim. (De Kock, 2012) Predictably, the visually striking monument has proven popular with photographers exploring this topic and we shall now examine 3 of these images to explore what they may illustrate regarding the photography of such sites.

‘Hill of Crosses’ Along N1 Highway outside Polokwane

O. Oberholzer

Of the three images it could be argued that Obie Oberholzer’s image is the most straightforward with regards to modern photography. The image centres on the hill, which is lit by sunlight while the tree-covered foreground and background are in shadow and use colours that are considerably brighter than is popular today. Oberholzer’s composition is also at odds with prevalent styles: he avoids the flat, studied style that is more commonly used and instead employs a style which is modernist in approach and marked by an awareness of, as described by Vicky Goldberg, ‘a kind of perpetual, minute to minute evolution, written in time and light.’ (Goldberg, pg 24) In fact, Goldberg used these words to describe the early modernist work of Ansel Adams. This is fitting for two reasons, firstly, Oberholzer’s landscapes, which are as brightly coloured and vibrant as Adams’ were studied and monochromatic, are as zealously constructed as those of Adams. (Beckett, 2002) Furthermore, as with Adams’ work, the photographer tries to imbue the scene ‘with a philosophical presence and whose basis is, once again, the transcendental.’ (Clarke, pg 65) By cutting off the sky in the image, Oberholzer has placed the hill in a closed space, which is echoed by the shadow that surrounds the hill. The purpose of this could be to emphasise the feelings of reverence that the image evokes. Essentially, by isolating the memorial within the image Oberholzer has turned the image itself into a memorial. This is accentuated by the obviously reverential tone of the image allowing one to imagine a feeling of the sacred and of sacrifice.

Farm Murder Landscape

S. Mofokeng

The second image could not differ more from the first. ‘Farm Murder Landscape’ by Santu Mofokeng is monochromatic and distanced. The image views the hill in the distance over a foreground of dark trees and bushes. This foreground of trees prevents the viewer from entering the image and isolates the collection of crosses in the image’s background. (Baer, 2005) This allows the image to ask the important question, ‘If the landscape is the trees, grass and hills; what is behind it all?’ The image flirts with Heraclitus’ conjecture that history is a continuous narrative (Baer, 2005) something that was summed up by Shakespeare when he wrote, in The Tempest, ‘What’s past is prologue’. (Shakespeare) As Shakespeare implies, the image suggests that if the landscape is ‘built up as much by memory as it is by stratas of rock’, these crosses and the traumas they symbolize, are as significant as the grass and trees, the soil and the rain.

Rietvlei, Near Polokwane, Limpopo Province. 19 June 2004

D. Goldblatt

The final image is by David Goldblatt and also deals with the idea of ‘landscape as memory’. The most striking difference here is that with Goldblatt’s image, the viewer is placed right amongst the crosses, creating, as a result of this proximity and closeness, a sense of intimacy. While Oberholzer’s image insinuates viewing the crosses and hills as a memorial from a respectful distance and Mofokeng’s implies that we are, as viewers, cut off from the memorial and the events that brought it about, Goldblatt’s image, and its proximity to the memorial, seems to imply that this is an issue that affects us all as human beings. This is then extended by the way Goldblatt has photographed the crosses; allowing them to blend and sometimes disappear into the richly coloured vegetation. The suggestion is that these structures are indeed a part of the land, and therefore a part of social history that will be remembered as part of the landscape.

And finally, the question remains, ‘Why should we photograph trauma?’ As William Shakepeare observed,  ‘What’s past is prologue.’ (Shakespeare) History is not just something that is past and should be forgotten. It is the path that has led us to where we are today and it is a path that we should examine and learn from. This is amplified by Ignatieff’s assertion that, ‘Entropy makes remembering an obligation.’  (Ignatieff, pg 4) If we are to leave the sleeping dogs of history to sleep soon there will be little to remember. For every example like the soil erosion in the Transkei creating a lasting natural memorial to trauma there are countless more of entropy destroying memory. When photographing the aftermath of the collapse of World Trade Centre as a commission for the Museum of the City of New York, Joel Meyerowitz said, ‘I felt if there was no photographic record allowed, then it was history erased.’ (Meyerowitz, 2006) Yet as I have shown these images do more than just remember past traumas. Goldblatt’s image of stripped toilets in the veld do more than merely remind us that that land was once earmarked for forced relocations. It inspires us to think aboutthe present day conditions of the Frankfort population. Similarly, Mlangeni’s images of modern rural villages communicate to us the present reality of the inhabitants, as well as reminding us of the past that forced the inhabitants into this reality. Michael Ignatieff asks if it is possible for us to redeem the dead through memory? (Ignatieff, 2002) Maybe this is possible but ultimately this responsibility lies not in the photographs but in us, the viewers for as Ariella Azoulay has written, ‘It  is our historic responsibility, not only to produce photos, but to make them speak.’ (Azoulay, 2008)




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