- Interview by
- Drew Thompson
The Colombia-born photographer Juan Orrantia has lived in Johannesburg, South Africa for the past 12 years. His practice and career as a photographer have gone through many iterations. He was fully aware of South Africa’s history of documentary photography and complicated history with apartheid before relocating there. However, he never could have expected the uncertainty and self-doubt that would grip his practice after arriving, and lead him to not take pictures. Traveling to central and southern Mozambique offered him an opportunity to further develop his photographic interests in the affective qualities of landscapes. It would take him several years before he published the handmade diary-like photobook titled There was heat that smelled of bread and dead fish, an exploration of sites of anti-colonial struggle and civil war in Mozambique, and the varied ways in which inhabitants of these landscapes continually live within these histories of war and displacement.
While completing this project, Orrantia taught at the Wits School of Arts and pursed an MFA in Photography at the Hartford Art School. Since then, he has dedicated himself full-time to photography and distanced himself in a formal and conceptual sense from his doctoral training as a visual anthropologist. Like Stains of Red Dirt, the title of his latest photobook project and recipient of 2019 Fiebre Dummy Award, takes its name from the color of dirt in South Africa and is a metaphor for how the place of South Africa has literally stained him and his photographic practice. In the featured body of work, Orrantia photographs life from inside his family’s Johannesburg apartment, positioning intimate scenes of cohabitation at the center of questions about what it means to see history photographically and in color. Africa Is a Country contributor Drew Thompson spoke with Orrantia regarding his longstanding interest in making photobooks, and what it means to think about photography in a place like South Africa.
You are a photographer who invests in photobooks and the making of photobooks specifically. For you, are photobooks an important mode for exhibiting and engaging with photographs?
The way I transitioned into still photography years ago was through the idea of the essay film. I was interested in the essay film as a form and concept, but not in making films. My first approach was to make still photographs, and I would mix them with audio and soundtracks that I recorded. Taking the elements of an essay film, breaking them apart, and putting them together in some way, I discovered as an approach to photobooks, or [at the very least] a way of thinking about them. The photobook, from the way I see, is an interesting space or form where you can ask questions. I like non-linearity. At the beginning I would add text, and it would support all of these other elements in the form of a book but without the restrictions of a film. The book has certain freedoms that the film does not have. Also, I was never a darkroom photographer. I was not the one who was there [in the darkroom] for hours making photographs, even though it was a way of connecting with the materiality of the photograph. So, when I started to make books, I felt that I was making something instead of taking photographs or making photographs for a screen.
In Southern Africa there is a rich history of photobooks. Can you elaborate on the types of choices you confront when editing your photographs in a photobook context?
One of the things I like about photobooks is that the meaning of photographs can change completely. There are a lot of possibilities. If you want to tell a super linear kind of traditional story, you can do it. If you want to completely mess it up and do something very random, where each image is questioned by the next one, or by the one next to it, or by the one on top of it, or by a paper that suddenly shows up in the middle of the signature. Those are the possibilities I like. Because of the way I have been working as of late, I am interested in questioning that initial idea of an image, what we see in an image. I know that someone who works in exhibition style or installation will say you can do that in an exhibition. But, for me, there is a personal choice, [and] I feel like I can do a lot of that with the book. At the beginning I thought it was because I could add text to it, and the text, like in an essay film, would be something very different from the image. [The text] would not be related, creating a new meaning by association or montage. However, the whole effect is to put them together, or cross them, or read them in some way. Now, I have gone to try and take the text out and see what those possibilities are with the images themselves and with the elements of the book itself, adding a particular paper or cover in a certain way, or even the threads that can allow me to disrupt the meanings of the images as you go back and forth. The book is something that helps me explore what I am trying to work out photographically.
In (your recent book), Like Stains of Red Dirt, you speak of how your work explores the outside world from interior spaces. How has the pandemic forced you to rethink this dichotomy of inside and outside?
When the pandemic started, I was like “The book is going to come out now and it is totally going to look like a pandemic book.” Pre-pandemic I was already discovering the pleasures of making things at home and creating my own photographs within my own enclosed space and with the elements I had available in my immediate space. So, it was both a way of playing with a different way of making my photographs, but also of using the elements within my own environment to make those photographs as well. Photographing inside was a way of approaching the way I could bring myself closer to the work that I was producing. That project basically taught me to take the pressure off from trying to “find” what I was looking for “outside.” It forced me to think from within, both conceptually and materially.
As you were taking these photographs what kinds of choices were you facing? There are no images of inside your house looking to the outside world. Such a view is largely conveyed through the way you engage with light.
Initially I tried to take a lot of photographs outside, thinking that it was going to be about “South Africa.” I photographed a lot and they really were not working. So, I started to think how the outside suddenly becomes part of the inside: metaphorically, historically, and to translate that photographically. I started to think about it through my daughter. A lot of that history [outside of my house] came in through her, literally to my life through her. That idea expanded into how this place has come into me, into forming a relationship, into my space in different ways. I was asking myself how do I look for, or how do I engage with, those traces from this place that I am inhabiting? I started to take seriously the light coming into the house, which is why I started to think about color much more.
Maybe this is a good place to shift to color. What is your relationship to color photography in the context of Southern Africa?
My initial approach to black-and-white was specific. I wanted to photograph in black-and-white because I wanted the possibilities of things that were more poetic, that could take the image that I was making into something less real. [Poetic for me] was something that would have more leeway with what we were seeing. A lot of the [new] documentary work that was coming out of South Africa was made in color. I wanted to photograph in much more of an ambivalent, ambiguous way. The grain, the tones of black-and-white, playing with blurriness would make things less defined. When I switched to color, I was really just exploring how to work with color. Fast forward a few years to when I get to do the work here in the flat, and I was really looking for the light, for those colors and their changes. I asked: What is color really doing for me? Then I started to think critically, conceptually, and metaphorically about color per se. So, that tied in one of my interests with the work, which has to do with the representation of the continent. In Binyavanga Wainaina’s piece “How to Write About Africa,” he talks about light. I wanted to use tropes prevalent in representations of the continent in order to upset them, [which was] when I started to upset the colors. But color was also a metaphor about race [and] how race is spoken about here in South Africa. People talk about color. Everything is described in the colors of racialized categories. Color was thus both a metaphor and reality. Then, this whole other world opened—of transforming or upsetting the images I was making through color manipulations.
I really like this word “upset.” How technically and conceptually did you find yourself upsetting color?
It was really using color to make an image that you know is very banal but that also tells you there is something not completely truthful, or right with it. There is something more to it in a way. Conceptually, for me, that was a way of talking about representation. For example, what is South Africa if you see an aloe plant completely in purples and pinks. Why is that not true? Why is it that pictures of the continent, say like those complicated ones made by Leni Riefenstahl, are believed to be more true? To me it was a way of opening up the question: What is one particular place when represented photographically? I am not photographing the light of Southern Africa; I don’t want to essentialize that. I upset the color. That meant literally putting these papers on the flash and changing the image that I was seeing. I would also get surprised by what I thought I was seeing. I wanted to have that element of surprise be part of my own process. Suddenly I am seeing the image I just composed but it is completely changed because it is all purple, or half of it is purple and half of it is green.
When we speak about upsetting color, the image that comes to mind is of the watermelon and cellophane paper. Your work challenges commonly held views on the everyday and the artificiality that we ascribe to the everyday through photography.
Artificiality was something that was very important to me. Some of them [the photographs] are in natural light, and some of them are in artificial light. What happens when you mix the two? I think questioning what is artificial and what is not artificial ties a lot to the history of South Africa, where [there’s] an ambivalence about race. Something that [is] so natural becomes something artificial through the way [that] it is completely manipulated by history, laws, and regimes. Categories and identities are fluid, but we tend to read them as givens (natural or artificial) depending on where we stand, or how we look.
It also was related to my thinking back to those ideas from the film essay. For example, when they start to include the tripods in the frame to make the point that what you are producing is obviously a construction. It was important for me to reinforce that we live with constructed categories, and fluid, shifting meanings. That is why in some of the images I leave the pieces of the cellophane hanging out or they become part of the frame. And, in others, they become the photograph itself. In those I am photographing the artificiality itself; it becomes my subject by photographing the means that I am using to transform the color of the photographs themselves. That image of the watermelon, for me, points to how these ideas and practices are literally embedded in the banality of our everyday lives.
Paging through the Like Stains of Red Dirt, I get the sense that the photographs are particularly constructed images, and they are precisely what you want to show. You force us to engage with critical concepts of photography, like what is the documentary, what is seriality, or what is color?
I’m trying to create images that can make us think what an image of something is. Is this really what Y or X place looks, or is supposed to look like? According to whom? Because that deals with questions in the first place which interest me, about how people and places have been defined. To me these are questions tied to notions of photographic truth and its limits. I want a fluid engagement with both real histories that produce very real effects for people’s lives, but also to remind us that things aren’t necessarily what we are told they are. When I was making the book, I was adamant about not having a linear narrative. Precisely the way I had made those images, they were moments and fragments. There was not one story I wanted to tell. I don’t want to “capture” any particular one story to tell in any particular way. I am exploring this relationship with all of these trajectories, undercurrents, and all of these come in different ways. For me, a relationship is basically moments tied together. What I have after 12 years living here is an accumulation of moments, feelings, etc. In its most basic way, that also is what photography is: a bunch of moments and fragments that suddenly transform into “narratives” and “stories.” I wanted to go to the fragmentary nature of it, to how (photographic) fragments get tied together by histories and choices. That is why I started and finished the book with a fragment of a Shirley card, because that’s also part of this representational reality.
We can talk about the Shirley card in terms of racializing photography. In your project, there are elements of engaging and questioning race and it’s artificiality and how it reveals itself through color. How did the Shirley card emerge in your work and inform how you were seeing light? How did the Shirley card factor into your technical practice?
Technically, if anything, the Shirley card is tied to ideas of balancing and creating some sense of norm about “natural” color. The idea of a natural color is itself racialized and literally embedded in photographic technology. I wanted to deal with this problematic history through my own disruption of color [and] color correcting images. If I were a “proper” photographer I would have color corrected the images and have them in their “true” natural colors. That became a problem for me because that was not what I wanted to do. In a way, the Shirley card is part of that history. In the last couple of years, people have started to talk about the Shirley card much more. There is the Broomberg and Chanarin piece “To Photograph the Details of a Dark Horse in Low Light” or Daniel Blight’s book The Image of Whiteness: Contemporary Photography and Racialization. There is also the approach by the filmmaker John Akomfrah about recognizing these inherent problems and what forms of agency they have produced. I am not discovering anything new; it [the Shirley card and its history] is something that I can rely on to make the point of color being manipulated historically, racialized, and contested. I think it is a good referent to this history that people are recognizing now about the problematic relationship between photography, particularly through color, to photography in Africa and representations of the African continent and also of the possibilities of fighting it from within. The Shirley card is a referent to this history [and] also tied to the way I was working. To wanting to question definitions or assumptions of “normal” in how we see or recognize places, histories, etc. At the beginning I color corrected a lot. In the end, I would color correct, then I would upset it, and then play with both in the making of the final image.
How do you place Like Stains of Red Dirt in relation to your work, and what comes next?
This work really pushed me to work much more photographically and to think about how I can use the medium and its limits for questions I have about the medium and my relationship to it. When I talk about the medium, I mean photography’s relationship to colonialism, to the effects of European reason in how we see and are seen. On the one hand, the work was the hardest I made as I had to confront something that in a way I had avoided. I had to confront the if and how I was going to photograph here in South Africa. Twelve years had passed [since I arrived in South Africa] and I hadn’t really photographed here. After such time I think it is fair to ask whether you are going to photograph or not. It was hard to think through why and how I was going to do it because it also meant thinking about choices over the last 10 years of my life. That has expanded into rethinking other bodies of work that I have done and messing with them. I am basically working with color and thinking about what I want color to do in relation to questions of representation and history. That expanded my interest in color itself, color’s relationship to colonialism or masculinity, for example, which are basically questions tied to the medium I chose to work with.