I think Sabelo Mlangeni is probably the best young(ish) photographer in South Africa. If you don’t know his work go and look at his projects, Country Girls, At Home/Ghost Towns (links included at the end of this post) and even his first project, Invisible Women, made when he was still studying at the Market Photo Workshop. It is very hard to think of anyone else who has so consistently produced nuanced, thoughtful images that actually expand our understanding of modern day South Africa. This image, Shuanny Hifive, No 20 Freeda Road, is one that underlines this class.
It's a disquieting image. Sinister even. The child's expression is where the image's power lies. It's unflinching, assertive, or is it aggressive, whatever it is its utterly captivating. I want to look away but I can't. Is there a subtle playfulness in it or am I just imagining it because it is a child? I think I've seen this expression before. It's what you see when you're noticed by someone you wish hadn't noticed you.
This feeling is put into context by Mlangeni's description of the project:
The series started at a fenced cottage community, now turned into an old-age home. I have become familiar with many of the people in Bertrams but they still don't allow me inside their homes, with a few exceptions. As a result the images are mainly photographed from verandas and the streets, and the distance between the subject and myself is not often visible. There is a guardedness amongst the subjects which I find interesting because it brings up questions of representation and of the outsider, especially as [being an outsider] is an unknown experience for me.
There is so much to be fascinated by in this image (and the entire project). To my knowledge it is the first instance in South Africa where our very racial/economic balances have been flipped. In contrast to the many wealthy(ish), white photographers exploring the living spaces of South Africa's disenfranchised population we now have an empowered, immensely talented black photographer exploring and photographing spaces that are predominantly or entirely white AND where the subjects are financially less powerful than the photographer. It is honestly a powerful illustration of South Africa's evolution.
It is also quite interesting that Mlangeni refers to being an outsider as an unknown experience for him. Given South Africa's strife torn race relations one would think it's impossible to live in South Africa and not be acquainted with the feeling of being an 'outsider'. Mlangeni's images illustrate this by how closed off many of the images in the project are. In this image, like many included in the project, the two subjects are photographed in front of their residence. This is represented by a face brick wall and a curtained window. There is no entry to this space for Mlangeni or for us as the viewer. Mlangeni refers to this within his short commentary on the project, 'I have become familiar with many of the people in Bertrams but they still don't allow me inside their homes, with a few exceptions. As a result the images are mainly photographed from verandas and the streets...'.
In this image there is so much ambiguity floating, hovering, just beyond comprehension. I'm sure thats not a real gun. Really. I am sure. Can someone confirm that that gun isn't real? That man, is he naked? He isn't naked but it somehow looks like he is. He looks like he could be smiling and laughing or is he actually egging on the child in his confrontation with the 'outsider'. It is an image that could invite multiple readings and it is certain that these readings will be influenced dramatically by our socialisations within South Africa.
An interesting counterpoint to this image is the following image by Obie Oberholzer:
There are immediate similarities between these images, they both contain a man and a boy and there are guns of some description in both. Yet, I would argue that the differences are much greater than the similarities.
Firstly, the gun in the second image is obviously real. Secondly, in this image it is the man that takes centre stage and it is quite apparent that the young boy is almost a prop for the man's intentions. Thirdly, there is an overt acceptance of the photographer in this image. It is obviously set up, there are flags, guns and matching uniforms (although this could easily be everyday dress) and the subjects allowed themselves to be posed. Importantly, the subjects also allowed the photographer onto their property so instead of the image looking into the subject's property from the outside, the image is allowed to look outwards from the property onto the surrounding landscape implying a sense of ownership or, at least, access.
Finally, there is the difference of expressions. In Mlangeni's image there is a sense of honesty in the child's expression that I feel is completely lacking in Oberholzer's. The second image is absolutely heartbreaking in the sense that it gives the impression that the child is being taught to behave like this. He is standing in such a stereotypical pose of defiance that its hard to believe it's real. It is easy to write off this display as horribly misguided pageantry.
In Mlangeni's image, on the other hand, there is a discomfiting degree of reality held in the child's eyes. In fact, if anyone other than Mlangeni had taken this picture I would assume that it was intended to shock but Mlangeni has always followed the path of nuance, empathy and engagement. Within this image there is an amount of wildness that feels much more akin to a Roger Ballen image than it does to Mlangeni's normal work and it is this that sets the image off. This energy that is directed straight towards the photographer and thus the viewer.
When I view this image I can't help but reflect on the possibility that despite Sabelo Mlangeni having reversed both the camera and South Africa's traditional power balances he is still the 'outsider' and so, as viewers, we get to experience (ever so briefly) how it feels to be looked upon as the "other".