Wednesday, 17 August 2011
Into the Light
Into the Light is a travelling exhibition to showcase the work of the Ubuntu Community Chest, an important umbrella charity in Durban, South Africa that celebrates its 80th year during 2011. The exhibition will be at several galleries during the last months of 2011, starting at the Corner Café, and moving to Artspace Durban, and then to the Fat Tuesday Gallery.
I’m sitting quietly on the floor, camera in hand, at a rehabilitation centre for children with severe disabilities in Durban, South Africa. Staffers are trying to get the children to eat. I’m trying to be as unobtrusive as possible, but the camera is an obtrusive and large mechanical device, even if most of the children don’t know what it is, or what it does. The young boy I’m sitting next to on the floor, doesn’t want to eat, and pushes the food out of his mouth. A few toys placed into his hand by a caregiver are flung on the floor. He looks at me, not knowing who I am or why I am there and my presence clearly disturbs him. He bursts into loud, uncontrollable tears and nothing or no-one, not even his parents can console him. I gently move away, slipping into the shadows, waiting perhaps, sometimes for what seems like ages to somehow attempt to become part of the normality of the scene and be an accepted part of the daily goings-on.
At another institution, a home for the elderly, I’m taken in to visit an elderly lady and her husband. They are having an afternoon chat. I’m invited to join in the conversation, and while I’m listening and participating, I’m feeling both uncomfortable with sharing their intimate teatime, and at the same time, concentrating deeply for that fleeting tender moment that I just intuitively sense will happen. All of a sudden, there it is, a few words exchanged between them, a soft and tender moment; a loving glance that defies the presence of the camera, and is only broken once the shutter clatters across the gentleness of a sun-filled room. I have the moment, one of exquisite gentleness between two people who must have spent a lifetime together, and for that moment their connectedness was so strong that they forgot all about me, an intruder on their intimacy.
Every year for the last nine years, I have spent time doing work pro-bono for the Community Chest, an umbrella charity body in Durban, South Africa. This venerable institution has been in operation for eighty years this year, assisting nearly 100 often-struggling charities in KwaZulu Natal, an overpopulated and economically challenged province in the newly democratized South Africa. It’s one of the few bodies that have been able to distribute funds, know-how and care with none of the corruption and misappropriation of funds so common to the developing world. It’s an organization that is almost entirely reliant on volunteerism, an important concept in building societies anew in an unbalanced country like South Africa, with huge and growing gaps between rich and poor, and where state funds often don’t end up benefitting the people who need them most. Those people in need comprise the very young, some with terminal cancer, HIV, those who are orphaned, to the old, sick and helplessly frail. And there are also groups of people with limited abilities making and assembling products for industry, learning to cope in an unrelentingly capitalist world that often forgets those of less ability in a quest for cheaper skilled labour to march to the tune of the never-ceasing production line.
Although I find working for the Community Chest a challenging task, it’s probably the assignment I look forward to most. The challenges are in many ways similar to those faced by all documentary photographers, and in taking the images, I find that I have to face issues that make me question my own morality as a photographer.
For a start, people with disabilities are more vulnerable to the exploitative potential of the camera. Photographer Diane Arbus, who perhaps redefined how we see people at the margins was, despite being lauded for her contribution to modern photography, also criticized by many, most notably Susan Sontag, for not only being exploitative but placing people in a context of despair and hopelessness. I have always tried to be ultra sensitive to the way I have portrayed people who often don’t have the voice to say no to the intrusion of the camera; searching for the subtle expressions of fear and mistrust, trying to interpret emotions that would make me back off rather than invade the extra private and unexplored inner worlds of the people I see through my viewfinder. I have been careful, for example, not to convey hopelessness by minimizing the way people fit into photographic space, by using an ultra-wide angle lens to somehow diminish their stature and scale in their surroundings.
In a very real sense, then, these are classic documentary works of photography in style and execution rather than gimmicks to distort and manipulate the emotions of the viewer. They make no attempt to judge the external context, to place people in a world that is either filled with hope or devoid of meaning and prospect. I become the documentary voyeur; I let the eyes and the body language communicate directly with me and in so doing allow the viewer to interpret their own emotional response rather than attempt to construct that world for them as is so often the nature of contemporary portraiture.
The viewfinder itself, hidden behind prisms and mirrors and lens elements forms a substantial emotional barrier between the photographer and the photographed. It’s the shield that allows me to see in a way that for that brief moment isolates me from the temptation to construe emotional judgments at the time I make the image. It’s only afterwards, reviewing the material, that I often experience moments of deep emotional strain, and mental exhaustion; when all the work is done, and in the silence of my office, late at night, I ponder on the images that are now forever etched onto my mind and the hard drive of my computer.
When I spoke at the opening of this exhibition at the celebration of the Community Chest’s 80th anniversary, I reminded people that these images were just a frozen moment in time; and that since the images were taken, some of those photographed may have moved on to a better life, or died, or in some way found themselves in a different emotional or physical space, be it better or worse. After the talk, one of the directors of an old age institution came over to me and talked fondly of a man in one of my photographs who had died a year or two ago. I had not known this, and director went on to say that this picture had really brought such good memories to him of this elderly man. “His wife would so love that image, “ he said, “ she only has memories, and no photographs at all.” I was happy to promise to send her a copy. If I have just touched the soul of a single person in this body of work, the effort has been more than worthwhile.