Jo Ractliffe has long been one of my favourite photographers. Her more recent photographic projects like As Terras do Fim do Mundo and The Borderlands were hugely inspirational projects for me with their stark explorations of the landscape and the memories they hide. Yet, there is something about this image from Nadir, one of her very first artistic projects, that catches my imagination and refuses to let it go.
It is relatively obvious that this image is not a standard photograph but is instead multiple images layered upon each other through the processes of photolithograph and screenprinting. She was inspired to explore these mediums by the frustration she felt at photography's inability to wholly contain the range of experiences she wanted to illustrate.
This is a feeling that I admit to experiencing. As a photographer who has trained and worked in documentary photography and photojournalism I can't help but get frustrated at the medium's inability to convey some of the complex stories I want to tell.
In Nadir #15's case the subject matter within the image, such as the snarling dog that is so reminiscent of apartheid era police dogs, and the time frame within which it was created immediately indicate that the image is commenting upon the fraught social conditions of South Africa in the 1980s.
In these years there was a full revolt, bordering on civil war, occurring in most of South Africa's townships and the National Party government had called numerous states of emergency throughout South Africa. It was such a violent and unpredictable time that perhaps Ractliffe thought that even the very powerful photojournalism of the time wasn't able to illustrate the experience of that period of South African history. Perhaps the images of marauding white policemen and battered black bodies had become so ubiquitous that they no longer conveyed the horrifying sub-conscious feelings of ruin and fear so many people living in South Africa felt.
Perhaps as Hunter S Thompson said, “The best fiction is far more true than any kind of journalism.”
And so, we are left with Nadir #15, an image complete with such iconic symbols of apartheid South Africa as the snarling police dog, the burning landfill and battered bill boards. This tortured wasteland seems to have more in common with Mad Max than the relatively modern state that 1980s South Africa was. In this image Ractliffe has created a whole new space, one that connects with the mental anguish of the time even if it is not a 'true' representation of it's physical reality.