Photographs are perceived to represent reality in their reference to a subject; their ability to create these physical, indexical connections to reality in viewers’ minds means that photography is often unquestioningly used as “visual recorder” or as a “documentarian” of socio-political experiences.

When a PR audio-slideshow (in the Guardian) for an exhibit of images that document contemporary South Africa at the Victoria and Alfred Museum in London is coupled with the title “Under South Africa’s Skin,” only features three white South Africans and opens with one of Pieter Hugo’s hyena men and musical sounds that one would associate with “Africa,” the viewer may pause to wonder: whose reality is being represented here? This is especially jarring since the exhibition itself features the work of a number of black South African photographers. (Something we picked up when we did a preview post a short while ago.)

 We first hear Jodi Bieber describe herself as “a patriot to my country, to be honest.” The first thoughts that come to mind are questions about why someone would need to position themselves using the charged terminology surrounding belonging, authenticity, and nation. But Bieber, to her credit, goes on to illustrate that her work is intimately involved with countering visions of South Africa as a location “lumbered with HIV-AIDS, crime, corruption, and poverty.” She asks:

How many times do you see someone at Maponye Mall, an upmarket mall [in Soweto], who’s just walking up and down with their shopping trolly, doing boring things like shopping. For me, that’s really how I experience South Africa…in some way, it is a frenetic place…it’s very alive. If you are creative, I think you have a lot to talk about.

So: reflections in which the denigrated Other is shown going about their daily errand of food accumulation—essentially illustrating that the privileged versions of the Other are just like the European self—aids in the removal of their difference.


Graeme Williams tries to “show my feelings towards change within South Africa in a visual manner.” His work typically avoids capturing that “decisive moment” photographs are traditionally meant to “get”; instead there’s a number of points of interest and points of focus: the viewer’s eye is “pulled to various parts of the frame.” That multiplicity of foci mirrors how he views the changes in the country: part of the change is moving in a positive direction, while “another may be stagnating.” Here, again, we hear the photographer’s desire to exhibit belonging: “It’s my society…I wanted to feel that I was closer to my subjects. The photographs were taken…when I was about a metre from the subject…I’m not trying to photograph them as separate from me, but rather that I am within their life.”


Hugo’s work features a portrait in Messina, a border town between South Africa and Zimbabwe: a white couple who have been taking care of a young back boy for “the last few years”; another is a portrait of a five Xhosa boys who have just gone through circumcision and initiation into manhood, wearing “what appears to be very tweed English jackets and outfits.” Also included are Hugo favourites: the Hyena Men, and the computers/obsolete tech-object dumpsite near Accra. Hugo explains his penchant for including subjects who engage in direct gaze-back-at viewers: “I am an active participant in the process…I am looking…[for] the gaze requited. What one has is the desire to look, but also that one is being looked at.” As I’ve mentioned before in a post about the dump site images, the returned gaze of Hugo’s subjects elicits a problematic desire to view these Others as persons on a field that is level with that of the viewer—but the viewer is typically a gallery-frequenting elite, as distant as can be from the pollution and pain of smelting copper from wires in desolate, burning grounds. Instead, we feel dread, fear, difference, and pity: all of which, of course, creates a chasm when regarding the pain of others.

For more info, see Figures & Fictions: Contemporary South African Photography

* Images to illustrate this in this post:
Pieter Hugo, ‘Pieter and Maryna Vermeulen with Timana Phosiwa’
Jodi Bieber, “Gail’ (from the series Real Beauty), 2008
Graeme Williams, ‘Soweto’ (from the Edge of Town series), 2006.

Further Reading

No more caricatures

Engaging seriously with Winnie Madikizela-Mandela’s life could help us understand how South Africa got where it is and where it’s going.