The Camera, Trauma and the Landscape

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.

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The Landscape and Tradition

It has been written that landscape is a connector of the soul with being and throughout history; features of the landscape not only have been an inspiration for worship but also integral as spaces for worship. The Egyptians worshipped a personification of the Nile River and used the river as the vehicle for an annual religious festival, while the Celts in ancient Ireland believed that the mountain Croagh Patrick was the dwelling place of deity Crom Dubh and this mountain was the focus of an annual harvest festival.

The integration of natural landmarks did not end with ancient times and nowadays Irish Catholics have claimed Croagh Patrick, stating that St Patrick fasted at its summit for 40 days before banishing all the snakes from Ireland. Today it is the site of the most important Catholic pilgrimage in Ireland with almost one million visitors climbing it a year.

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