The picture is a beginning

Chris Webb
Donald Donham

There’s a certain humanity in the work of late South African photographer Santu Mofokeng in how he approached his subjects and the politics of representation.

Train Church, Johannesburg-Soweto line (1986). Photographs by Santu Mofokeng / Courtesy © Santu Mofokeng Foundation, Lunetta Bartz, MAKER, and Steidl.

Chris Webb (CW)
Donald Donham (DD)

A dense fog covers the shacks and electrical pylons of Tembisa, a township on Johannesburg’s East Rand, as a teenager, hands sunk deep into pockets, slumps across a dusty and desolate landscape. Above him towers a billboard for OMO washing powder, an ominous monument to capital amidst apparent deprivation. Taken in 1991, the image “Winter in Tembisa” is one of the late South African photographer Santu Mofokeng’s most haunting.

Mofokeng, who died in January at the age of 63, is perhaps best known for his images of South African township life in the 1980s and 1990s. He left behind a rich visual archive that captured the complexity of everyday life under apartheid and the contradictions of the post-apartheid era. From his Train Church series to his images of families fragmented by the HIV epidemic, his work was varied. While other greats in the South African photographic canon are often associated with a specific body of work—David Goldblatt’s portraits of Afrikaners or Peter Magubane’s images of the Soweto protests—Mofokeng’s work was diverse and enigmatic. Part of what interests me about him lies behind the lens though, specifically how he approached his subjects and the politics of representation.

Winter in Tembisa (1991). Photographs by Santu Mofokeng / Courtesy © Santu Mofokeng Foundation, Lunetta Bartz, MAKER, and Steidl.

Mofokeng began his career as a street photographer in the 1970s. In the early 1980s he landed a job in the darkroom of the Afrikaans Beeld newspaper before he joined the famed Afrapix collective which documented the struggle against apartheid and included, among others Omar Badsha, Cedric Nunn, and Gisèle Wulfsohn. He later went on to become a staff photographer for the New Nation newspaper and joined the African Studies Institute at Wits University, where he spent a decade collecting photographs of South Africa’s forgotten black middle classes (a project that became the critically acclaimed The Black Photo Album) and documenting the lives of tenant farmers.

His role in Afrapix placed him among the vanguard of South Africa’s so-called struggle photographers, those who captured both the oppression of apartheid and resistance against it. Yet Mofokeng was uncomfortable with photography that glorified resistance, replicated victimhood and obscured the complexity of township life. As the photography critic Annabelle Wienand has noted, Mofokeng’s aim was to question the role of photography in documenting the South African black experience. This involved rejecting one-dimensional depictions of black life and correcting the visual archive by depicting townships and their residents in all of their complexity:

You look at the photographs that have been made of the people, say, in the township …they are poor, they are angry, they are not normal, they are not “people” in a sense, they are victims. If I make photographs that show a certain sector of the people, say the oppressed, in a way that makes them human, makes them “normal”, it might convince the other section, maybe more right-wing, if they look at the photograph and see that they are just people like us, they want the same things that we do.

Mofokeng was deeply concerned with how his images were read by different audiences. He grappled with this in a 1992 exhibit Distorting Mirror/Townships Imagined, where he contrasted images of township life taken for the media with portraits he had taken for people to display in their homes.

“What is left out of the frame,” he wrote, “ignores the rich and full lives which are not regarded as absences by the people in the townships. Journalists often focus on what is lacking in places.” His comments evoke Jacob Dlamini’s argument in Native Nostalgia, that life under apartheid was not a moral desert for black South Africans; there were moments of joy and sadness amid oppression and resistance. For Dlamini, as for Mofokeng, townships were too often sites that were examined rather than experienced. International audiences were interested in photographs of township struggle funerals, not the complexity of these places and their residents.

Prayer Service at the Altar on the Easter Weekend at Motouleng Cave, Clarens (2006). Photographs by Santu Mofokeng / Courtesy © Santu Mofokeng Foundation, Lunetta Bartz, MAKER, and Steidl.

This concern with detail and reflexivity made Mofokeng a skilled ethnographic photographer. Part of this came from his own positionality. After all, he was documenting communities that he was very much a part of. Another came from his work at Wits University, where he collaborated with a team of social researchers on the lives of rural labour tenants in Bloemhof in the southwestern Transvaal—a history described in considerable detail in Charles van Onselen’s The Seed is Mine: The Life of Kas Maine, a South African Sharecropper 1894-1985, for which Mofokeng contributed photographs.

His eye for detail and his understanding of the relationships between people and place allowed him to produce some of his most powerful images. His interest in spirituality, for example, began with the Train Church series, which revealed how segregated transit systems also provided spaces for spiritual rituals. Between 1996 and 2014 he photographed worshippers, including his own brother, at the Motouleng and Mautse caves near Clarens, in the Free State. What became the Chasing Shadows series is a reckoning with the crisis of spirituality after the end of apartheid. If spirituality allowed many to confront the burden of apartheid, post-apartheid spirituality involved new and more intangible foes, most notably the scourge of HIV/AIDS, a reason many sought solace and guidance in the caves.

My first encounter with Mofokeng’s work was in Donald Donham’s 2011 book, Violence in A Time of Liberation: Murder and Ethnicity at a South African Gold Mine, an ethnographic account of how violence emerged not from ethnic tensions but shifting workplace relations and political divisions among mine workers after the end of apartheid. Mofokeng’s accompanying images depict the lives of mine workers in all their richness, at the rockface and in the compounds, but also in union meetings and beer halls.

I asked Donham, now a Professor of Anthropology at the University of California, Davis, about their collaboration on the project and Mofokeng’s photographic method:


You argue in the book that telling this story of violence is an attempt at theoretical construction. If I understand correctly, that a theory of violence necessarily emerges from an analysis of these narrative constructions. What role does photography play in the construction of these narratives—I’m thinking here of Santu’s photo of the mine-worker’s bed with the bible and photograph, which seems to me to be a certain construction of how mine workers presented themselves to you?


Yes, I think you are correct. One of the main points of the book was to show how “violence” was narratively constructed. And of course, Santu’s photographs also illustrate how black workers (and to a lesser extent, white ones) “constructed” their social worlds. I’ve always thought that apartheid, because of its emphasis on spatial separation, was uniquely susceptible to being captured by photography. And, of course, there is a long tradition of outstanding photography in South Africa. There is one of Santu’s photographs in which a black worker idly leans against a wall, waiting outside the door where white officials change clothes after their shift. To my eye, this scene initially meant very little. Why was the worker killing time there? Santu instantly read this scene in terms of its cultural context. The black worker was waiting for his boss to finish showering and changing into street clothes, in an all-white space he could not trespass.


Related to this, I was wondering what you think photography captures that textual or narrative analysis is unable to? Does the relationship between the photograph and the text produce an additional layer of meaning for you as an ethnographer?


It is interesting to note the degree to which photographs and text actually depend upon one another. For example, the photograph I have just mentioned. I suppose there are some photographs that do not seem to depend on anything outside themselves to accomplish their effects. But I wonder how much this assumes that the photographer and the viewer share certain cultural presumptions. In ethnographic contexts—in which bridging cultural contexts is the overriding goal—it may be that images and texts require each other.


I’m also interested in the fact that you mention that you didn’t originally plan to study violence, this emerged from the fieldwork, so part of the writing process was reconstructing the story from these narratives. Did photography help with this reconstruction and in what way?


I can’t say so, at least not directly. I was confronted by a case that I did not expect would be the focus of my research. Virtually everyone interpreted a fight in the mine compound as “ethnic”: The Xhosas had ganged up on the Zulus and killed two. And it was ethnic hatred, the sheer hatred of the Other, that had motivated the killing. It took a lot of digging to come to a different interpretation: namely, that it was the end of apartheid and national politics that had so violently divided the black work force. Photographs as such did not directly help in making that discovery, if I can call it that. But they did help, I think, in conveying the context in which black actors had done what they did. Mine compounds, in which black workers lived, in which they lived incredibly regimented lives, just next to mine shafts where they worked underground every day except Sunday, were peculiar institutions. Photographs were critical I think in conveying what it was like to live in a compound and to work underground.


One thing that stands out for me in Santu’s photographs in the book is the intimacy with the subjects, both in the mine and in social settings. What was your sense of how he went about his work? Did he have any particular approach to taking these photos? You include your own photos in the book too, and I was wondering whether you two spoke about the different ways you navigated the mine compound, for example?


I totally agree about the intimacy of Santu’s photographs. I’m thinking particularly of those he took in the bar in the compound one cold winter night. He was, after all, a complete stranger in the company of a white guy in an all-black environment, and the workers seemed to trust him. I don’t remember that he said a lot to them. He just went about shooting. We were all drinking. The images convey to me the conviviality of the evening—but also the kind of quiet desperation that lay behind the celebration, workers knowing that at 4 or 5 the next morning they would go to work again miles deep in the earth, facing the possibility of rockfalls and cave-ins.

My own photographs came out of a completely different context. I wanted to illustrate the squatter camp that Zulu workers had constructed close to the mine after they had fled the compound when the murders occurred. The camp was ruled by the Inkatha Freedom Party. I asked Santu (who was not Zulu) to take these pictures as well, but he was reluctant to do so, having been roughed up by Inkatha members on a different occasion. It was one of the privileges of whiteness that allowed me to take these photographs.

The photographer and writer Teju Cole has argued that photography and writing combine to produce a “third thing … a bid to create another world, one that borrows elements of these pre-existing worlds.” Similarly, Mofokeng’s photography often combined ethnographic and historical detail to expand on the meaning of images. As he put it in 2010 interview, “My approach has always been based on poetry and philosophy, in standing back. I don’t believe in one truth: I like to look at things from many sides.” This preoccupation lies at the heart of both photography and ethnographic research: How can we accurately capture, reconstruct and represent the complexity of the social world?

As both Susan Sontag and Walter Benjamin recognized, the camera can illuminate the social world, but under capitalism photographs are a commodity, often stripped of meaning and voyeuristic. Part of what Mofokeng’s work asks of us is to resist this tendency toward simplification and voyeurism, and to engage with the complexity of people’s lives and what is worthy of photographic attention. If contemporary photography (an aesthetic increasingly aimed at getting “likes”) strips the subject of meaning, Mofokeng’s aim was to humanize the subject. He leaves us with an archive that is deserving of further attention and a mission to look beyond easy certainties.

About the Author

Chris Webb teaches human geography at Carleton University in Ottawa. He is a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Anthropology at the London School of Economics.

Donald Donham is a Professor of Anthropology at the University of California-Davis.

Further Reading