Three photographers changing how South Africa sees itself

In order to contextualise contemporary photography, it is important to acknowledge the work of collectives and initiatives that have contributed to shifting the narrative of South African photography towards a more dignifying portrait of the country.

An example is DRUM (1951- 2001), a magazine that garnered praise for showcasing the strength of Black South Africans in their struggle against apartheid. Another example is Afrapix, an agency that brought black photographers together during the 1980s to articulate a new vision for the country.

Their work enabled the creation of a comprehensive visual record of the intense years just before the end of apartheid.

Lidudumalingani Mqombothi

This photographer and filmmaker who was born in the Eastern Cape has shot some noteworthy images in Johannesburg and other cities.

I began looking at his photographs when he won the Caine Prize for African Writing in 2016, and over the years, his photographs have grown gradually more reticent, as if seeking what the light is gently revealing. Many of his recent photographs are landscapes and neighbourhoods, and in a country like South Africa, such subject matter is fraught with history: the Native Land Act of 1913, the Sophiatown evictions of 1955 and the pass laws of the apartheid years.


His photography, with an immense patience behind the lens, seems to speak to a much more nuanced objective rather than mere protest or anguish. Looked at intimately, the land seems like it would have become something other than what history determined for it.

It is difficult to look at images from South Africa and separate them from the politics of struggle and national reclamation. They show creative expression and the beauty of life as they portray Black people and urban spaces in South Africa who deserve increasing visibility. These kinds of images keep an entire country from fitting into a neat set of assumptions and stereotypes. Images of a place or people ought to defy expectations of what they should look like.

[Santu] Mofokeng’s images – blurry and dark, purposefully hard to make out – are not meant to capture the mundane. [They instead] capture South Africa’s complexity.

Imagery from South Africa has always attracted a great deal of critical and popular attention, some – or perhaps a good deal of it – of which is voyeuristic. Still, these images show a country not lacking in creativity and talent, but one with many examples of how the human spirit always remains steadfast even in the face of great opposition.

The finest of these images – by photographers like Ernest Cole, David Goldblatt, Gille de Vlieg – continue to serve as memorials and victory songs. Even so, Elizabeth Edwards, a professor of photographic history, in her review of the exhibition Figures and Fictions: Contemporary South African Photography (2011), says when we think of South African photography, the association cannot only be “tough, grainy, black-and-white documentary and photojournalism” as the canon is expanding.

Lidudumalingani says: “[Santu] Mofokeng’s images – blurry and dark, purposefully hard to make out – are not meant to capture the mundane. [They instead] capture South Africa’s complexity.” The same can be said of Lidudumalingani’s photographs, which seem like a visual version of poetic language: they patiently observe before they instruct. The images portray fields, posts, wire fences, grief, light, misty hills and the shadow of trees on walls. They attend to the material and metaphorical worlds, bringing us close enough, but still creating enough mystery – from a distance – for the audience to realise that the world cannot be surmised at a glance.

Opening song, Johannesburg-Soweto line, 1986 ( Santu Mofokeng Black and white photograph)

Andy Mkosi

Andy Mkosi was born in Cape Town and grew up in two townships: Langa and Gugulethu. She began to pursue professional photography in the mid-2010s with images of urban life suffused with joy, though not glib, as they are mindful of the grief and harsh legacies of the past.

ANDYMKOSI, My Loves. Photo courtesy of ANDYMKOSI

They nestle their strength in how joy and beauty can coexist beside mourning. Several of her photos are in black-and-white and her handling of light makes this choice seem almost symbolic, as though she were trying – through sheer visual presentation – to pair both sides of life.

For example, her photo collection titled There Is Beauty in Mourning is of a recently widowed woman in Kensington, Johannesburg. In another photo series, Scapes and Spaces, Mkosi portrays neighbourhoods and buildings, illustrating them with light. Her talent is evident in how she moves the charge of the image from subject and composition to the very DNA of the photograph, the very stuff of its making. The sensibility behind the camera is as large as the subject being captured.

The Treatment Action Campaign members and supporters at the premieres office. They were returning for a second time to address their grievances with the MEC for health, Dr Makhura. 10 August 2021

Lebohang Kganye

In her book Landscapes Between Then and Now, Nicola Brandt says: “Artists and photographers are now drawing on highly imaginative and cross-disciplinary approaches and media in order to investigate deeper truths and…new practices of self.” This statement captures the artistic practice of Lebohang Kganye.

Born in 1990, Kganye utilises photographs, literature, cut-outs, film and performance in her work, which is cross-disciplinary. She employs varied media to explore personal history and ancestry. Her work is very much invested in family and memory and how they shape a person’s sense of self.

I went on [a] journey in search of her. I […] put on her clothes and started going to [places] where [she] had been photographed…

When she was 20 years old, she lost her mother. She then took to photography in her project Ke Lefa Laka: Heir-story (2013) to examine her mother’s life and her relationship to her. “I went on [a] journey in search of her,” she said in an interview with 1000 Words magazine. “I also realised that a lot of the clothes she was wearing in these photographs of her as [a] young woman were in the house. I […] put on her clothes and started going to [places] where [she] had been photographed to re-stage […] and mimic[…] the same poses [and] visually emulate my adoption of the role of [a] mother to my sister after our mother’s death.”

She intervened in her own story using photography to recreate the relationship between her and her mother. The project offered insight into how images can fill the gaps in memory and human interaction even across generations. It is intimate and personal, but speaks to a global sentiment. Her work speaks to how we look at imagery from different countries: a country is as much private or public as its history is.

The approach, subject and style of these photographers and artists are varied. Perhaps if there is anything clear in their work, it is that there cannot be easy uniformity or a single notion to summarise a country.

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