“Photography is subversive not when it frightens, repels, or even stigmatises, but when it is pensive, when it thinks.”
Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida
When I became more academically interested in photography I began to question some beliefs I had in the medium. When is a photograph subversive? How can a photograph be subversive? What does it mean to be subversive? I had big desires to create subversive photographs but I honestly had no idea how to do it.
Up until that point my experience had been shaped by punk music and the more hard news style of photojournalism and conflict photography so prevalent in the 1990s. I equated subversiveness with rebellion and thought the louder one shouted the more subversive one was.
I guess this is yet another example of wisdom coming with age but I no longer feel this way. One of the major catalysts for my change of opinion was reading Roland Barthes’s book, Camera Lucida, and the discovery of this quote.
The idea that whispering and thinking was the basis of subversiveness stuck with me but, to be honest, it took me a while to wrap my head around the concept.
I’m sure this was because the mental photo album I turned to for confirmation was relatively empty of images that ‘whispered’. The images created by the Bang Bang Club and VII photo agency, my early inspirations, rarely left much space for interpretation. Yet these photographers were risking their lives (and in the case of Ken Oosterbroek and Kevin Carter lost their lives) to photograph the evils of governments, dictators and genocide. How could their images not be subversive?
My introduction to Santu Mofokeng’s, The Black Photo Album was revelatory. It was a project quite unlike anything I had seen before. It is a collection of privately commissioned portrait photographs of urban, black, working and middle class South Africans. The images were staid and often mundane and don’t differ hugely from those that would adorn the photo albums of grand parents the world over. Except for one difference, all the staid, mundane grand parents had been replaced by black South Africans.
The essay that accompanies the describes the images as,
"The images in this book record a specific historical catastrophe. They depict the rise and fall of a class of educated, urban, Christian Africans in the late 19th- and early 20th-century South Africa. The images, mostly studio portraits, are starkly different from most historical collections of African photographs. They do not classify their subjects in ‘tribal' terms nor display them in ‘traditional' dress or settings. These are family photos, commissioned and paid for by the people in them."
James T Campbell, African Subjects
While the significance of these images eluded me at the time it didn’t take me long to realise their significance. Up until then the media and my experience as a white South African had taught me that present day black South Africans were victims. They could be victims of violence, of apartheid or even of history but they were almost always represented as victims. In addition to this, as James T Campbell stated, I was repeatedly told that in the past black South Africans were tribal, primitive even, lived in rural areas and wore animal skins not three piece suits. They definitely did not resemble the middle class that I moved amongst. Such is subliminal racism, the insidious building blocks that white South Africa is built upon.
I’d hesitate to say that I’d been lied to throughout my life. These things are never as overt as that. Certain truths get emphasised and others get neglected. It is impossible to say that in South Africa the black population have not been victims. They have been and continue to be, but that does not define them. Just as these images do not define them, but these images do show a broader spectrum of what was and what could have been.
The images in The Black Photo Album are not without controversy. There is evidence that some of the images are performative and that the subjects could have possibly rented the outfits for the photo shoot. Perhaps the subjects were not as middle class as the images represent. This would be little different to the majority of photographs the world over. We make sure that we look good for the camera shutter and if this is a true representation or not has largely been rendered moot. Today at least, we are who we appear to be but I fear this has always been so.
Similarly, the images could also be used as evidence of the mental colonisation of those photographed. Why are three piece suits and tennis outfits seen as a status symbol? Is it purely because the white colonial masters wear them? To appear successful must they remake their oppressors? These questions are never simply answered. I certainly don’t have the answer but it is another layer of nuance that these fascinating images are built upon. Nolan Oswald Dennis, another South African artist, felt that, ‘Its an object of mis-recognition…The photos make me feel like blinking, like there’s something in my eyes, some kind of fog between me and the work/world.’
Personally, as a young, white South African, I know what Dennis meant. These images made me feel like I was viewing an alternative history. It made me question entire foundations of what I had learnt and had been taught. That is how alien these images were to me and that is how important these images are.
What this work taught me is immeasurable. It showed me the monumental loss that apartheid forced onto the world. It showed me that so much that we accept as truth is actually quite far from it.
Most importantly though, it taught me that it while it is important to report a known truth, there is nothing more subversive than undermining an accepted lie.