The Other Camera

The Other Camera exhibition positions itself against dominant visual representations of Africa, its people and cultures that are either overly romantic or pessimistic. Through the colonial ‘scientific’ eye and ethnographic photography, African subjects were in general viewed as ‘tribal’, ‘different’ and ‘exotic’. These ‘afro-romantic’ portrayals abound in western consumption of African cultures, lifestyles and traditions and proliferate in museums, art galleries and educational institutions. Allied to this is the flipside of African representation, of ‘afropessimism’, where a plethora of images show Africa as a disaster zone - at war, desperately poor, in need of aid and simply a picture opportunity waiting to happen for the international news trade.

In South Africa the ‘other camera’ is ubiquitous. You will find this camera at most events, rituals, traditional celebrations, and social occasions. With its strong migrant and urban historical links, the ‘other camera’ evolved into a distinct genre and claims a different view of what it means to be African. The photographers who work in this way are called ‘street photographers’, generally hustling for a living in an informal sector marked by intense competition and narrow margins. They often mix two distinct styles – the documentary approach, photographing events and rituals as well as the set up portrait, either in a studio or on the street. These images are integrally part of modern African culture, linked to assertions of identity, class and status. In a fundamental sense, they challenge the more traditional views of representation – of outsiders imaging the lives of ‘others’, particularly of indigenous communities.  Significant to note is that many of these images were taken at a time when the apartheid system was at its virulent worst – dehumanizing and oppressing people classified as non-white. The portraits in this collection resist and defy such social forces and through their  pose, posture, and style emerge a picture of confident cosmopolitanism and dignity. This exhibition celebrates the vernacular vision, and reflects how insiders photograph themselves and their fast-changing typographies.

Unsurprisingly, this genre of photography has generally been quite hidden from mainstream culture. The collections assembled and digitized for this exhibition are also well off the radar of traditional cultural and heritage institutions and can be considered very rare for a few reasons. Firstly these museums and cultural institutions generally did not consider these images ‘worthy’ of collection or as part of social history, heritage and popular memory. Secondly, as they were mainly intended for private use, they are seldom archived once the photographer has passed on. Two exceptions are showcased in this exhibition. The Ronald Ngilima collection remained in the family and has been made available for research to Sophie Feyder of Leiden University. The Daniel Morolong collection in the Eastern Cape was collected by the Fort Hare Institute for Social and Economic Research. The Bobson studio, originally based in Durban, was recently located in New York, and an unknown photographer from Marabastad in Pretoria was discovered by filmmaker Angus Gibson who printed up a collection for a film he was making in the late 1990’s. On his return to the studio, he was told that the photographer had died and his family had destroyed his negatives and prints. All that remains are the prints Gibson made for his film. The album of Lucky Sipho Khoza, who was murdered in about 2000, was collected by the designer Garth Walker. Other material emerged from the work of street photographer collectives - Iliso Labantu and Isoliswe.

Many established black photographers in South Africa began their careers as street photographers. Notably, Ernest Cole, Santu Mofokeng, Juda Ngwenya (who became chief photographer for Reuters in South Africa) and William Matlala, former trade unionist and labour photojournalist who features in this exhibition. The Other Camera opens a window on how these photographers coped and dealt with outside perceptions of themselves, how they continue the practice of their own story-telling traditions, how they reclaim ownership of their own cultures, histories, experiences and how they survive as photographers with a sense of their own agency.

The Other Camera cannot be seen in isolation from the fast-moving changes faced by the country and the continent, globalization and technological developments. Impacting heavily on the genre of street photography today is the advent of the camera cellphone. We explore this approach through a series of images taken by young black high school students from the Ikamva Youth Project in Khayilitsha township, Cape Town. The camera allowed students to position themselves in a changing landscape as well express their hopes, dreams and desires. While this technology has played a major role in the democratisation process, notably during the Arab Spring and similar world events, it may well become inadvertently the death knell of this under-researched, underexposed, unrecognized and precarious genre. The citizen photographer has, it seems, become wedding, event and portrait photographer too. Sadly the once ever-present studio practice is also in decline. As Prem Mistry, one of the last specialist studio photographers near Durban noted recently, “When I die, the profession will die with me.”

Paul Weinberg, cruator

Paul Weinberg is a South African-born documentary photographer, filmmaker, writer, curator, educationist, and archivist. He began his career in the early 1980s by working for South African NGOs, and photographing current events for news agencies and foreign newspapers.
He was a founder member of Afrapix and South, the collective photo agencies that gained local and international recognition for their uncompromising role in documenting apartheid and popular resistance to it. From 1990 onwards he increasingly concentrated on feature rather than news photography.

Weinberg has built up a large body of work which portrays diverse peoples, cultures, and human environments “beyond the headlines.” It demonstrates a sustained engagement with indigenous people throughout southern Africa, particularly in rural settings.

His images have been widely exhibited and published, both locally and abroad. He has published more than ten books, the latest being Dear Edward, a conversation with his great grandfather and a journey to discover his roots in South Africa. He has also initiated several major photographic projects, notably Then & Now, a collection of contrasting images by eight South African photographers taken during and after apartheid, which is travelling the world, and Umhlaba, an exhibition on the 1913 Land Act.

In 1993 Weinberg won the Mother Jones International Documentary Award for his portrayal of the fisherfolk of Kosi Bay on South Africa’s northern Natal coast.

He has taught photography at the Centre of Documentary Studies at Duke University in the United States, and holds a master’s degree from the same university. He is currently senior curator of visual archives at the University of Cape Town, and lectures in documentary arts at the same university. Weinberg also founded, with David Goldblatt, the Ernest Cole Award for creative photography in southern Africa.