Reading and Writing about Visual Experience: Resisting documentary objectification in new South African photography
Tuesday, Thursday: 2:00-3:30pm
“How do we find identity if we don’t experiment? How do we say the things we desperately want to say, even though they are not fully formulated?” – John Fleetwood, The Journey: New Positions in African Photography
On March 21, 1960, photojournalist Peter Magubane returned to the Drum magazine offices after covering the Sharpeville massacre for the publication. On this day, the apartheid police opened fire on a non-violent anti-pass protest, killing 69 and injuring 180 people. His editor, Tom Hopkinson, looked at the pictures Magubane had taken – many of them far from the eye of the storm – and tossed them aside. “My editor gave me one hell of a tongue lashing and said I must get closer to the picture,” says Magubane in the book Black Photo Libraries. “He wanted to see the bullet piercing the body … Tom said if he didn’t believe I had the makings of a good photographer, he would have fired me on the spot.”
Magubane’s image of Sharpeville following that exchange, published in Drum, is an iconic one in which a line of coffins about to be submerged into graves covers the image’s entire depth of field. The photo, while depicting the aftermath of violence, portends the arrival of yet another wave of mass deaths three decades ahead, this time for the East Rand, a compendium of gold mining towns and townships adjacent to Johannesburg.
Graphic scenes of political violence would continue to be the unwavering focus of the Bang Bang Club, a group of white photojournalists who documented the Black townships throughout much of the 1990s, from the lead up to democracy and beyond. It is only in recent years – the 21st century – and at the hands of Black photographers that we begin to see photos of Sharpeville and the East Rand that mitigate this, even going so far as to valorize expressions of joy.
While the people, buildings and the overall terrain of East Rand townships such as Thokoza and Katlehong continue to bear the scars of the conflict-ridden Nineties, a new generation of photographers is resisting knee-jerk objectification by experimenting with form and medium (specifically writing). Students will be introduced to the touchpoints of this groundswell; the antecedents guiding its proponents and the fraught process of giving language to it in a country as racially polarized as South Africa is.
This course fulfills the second half of the Reading and Composition (R&C) requirement. Through the reading and analyzing of photographs and complementary texts, students will engage with the context of the emergence of new modes in South African photography, critique and self-writing. Through the composition of increasingly complex essays–culminating in a 10-12 page research paper–they will analyze how these photographers disturb the timeline of South African photographic praxis and begin to center their own interpretation.