“I see tomorrow with today’s eye”
– Golden Shovel of Optical Ill, “The People”
I struggled to hear and find the voices that were surely hidden somewhere in the photographs exhibited at These are our People. The title seemed to suggest, at least, the identity of those voices – our people.
Billed as exhibition of the photographic work of a few young and talented Johannesburg photographers, the event, hosted in Newtown in the shell of what used to the popular club Carfax and is now a bare-walled and billowy cavern, promised the discovery of something new.
This could have been the celebration of these young photographers blazing a new trail in an art form more readily associated with posh museums and pristine galleries.
By chance or by design, the photographs, pegged eye-level on wire coil that zig-zagged across the dim-lit room, seemed like the resumption and renewal of a struggle not only to be seen, but to see, on one’s own terms.
A similar struggle fuelled the fires that flared violently 36 years ago on the streets of Soweto on June 16, 1976.
Was this a struggle now taken on and refashioned by young black South Africans? Of new eyes putting the world into pictures?
Were these the people?
Filmmaker and organiser of the event, who introduced himself as Bucks, viewed the significance of the event along different, though not divergent lines.
He explained that while the exhibition was about “showcasing the work of talented photographers”, it was also about providing a platform for people to “experience this form of art (photography), something that maybe they were not used to seeing”.
The people then, might have been those curious enough to come to the exhibition? People who experienced the photographs through looking and seeing.
The people for whom this art was meant for?
What was this curiosity, and was it satisfied?
One inevitable paradox posed by the photographic medium and its exhibition, is the double process of seeing : what the photographer sees in taking the picture, and what others see in the picture.
One of these people, Brian from Tembisa, a DJ at the event, said he saw in the photographs – specifically a set of two portraits of a young albino woman by Thato Mohube – a story about youth and beauty and how these “were not always what you expected”.
What Brian saw in the photographs on display were the stories of other people, stories he said he felt other people would relate to.
The photographers themselves had varying conceptions of the people, of how they might be captured and represented in their shots and to what ends.
Kamogelo Mokoena, a strategic communications student at the University who had only started taking photographs seriously a year ago, said that she “loved street photography” and that this formed her main focus.
“People are the streets,” she said while showing a photograph of human faces interspersed between those of the sidewalk statues found all around the CBD.
“It’s about liking where we live”, Mokoena said, which is why she preferred to taking pictures of the environment around her.
Brian Molepo, who specialises in black and white portraits, said that the unique thing he tried to do with his photographs was to “capture the spirit of his subject”.
His exhibition consisted of portraits of people caught in various moments – quirky, emotional, unawares, revealing.
He said that it was his “eye” that made the difference, and “how he saw what he saw” was the main thing he wanted to come out from his photographs.
While multiple representations of identity and ideas of the people came across implicitly in different ways throughout the event, it was a theme that was not explicitly drawn out by the emcee of the event or the photographers when he invited each of them on stage to say a few words about their work.
Nor was this theme implied in the placing and sequencing of the different collections of photography.
In a way it felt like an opportunity missed.
But for a poet named Naledi, who recited a short poem in between this commotion of images and ideas; of buildings and bodies; it seemed like a chance gained.
With a delicate hand she gathered the scattered threads of this metaphor of the people within her brief performance.
And just as quickly as she had gathered these threads, they turned to sand in her palm. Sand that she urgently tossed back on to the photographs.
And as if that sand were gold dust, something new shone from within photographs.
Those people at These are our People are on to something.