Karima Effendi (KE): When it comes to training and professional development, how important is the idea of exchange as demonstrated in the Joburg Photo Harare masterclass?
Cedric Nunn (CN): Exchange is key to the development of life in general, and in our specific regional context where countries were separated by ideological differences, fostering connections through exchange is critical. We need to be made aware of our commonalities and shared interests.
If you think of Zimbabwe, there are “perceived” differences between us (South Africa and Zimbabwe). We have a particular understanding of the processes that happened in Zimbabwe, which comes from these perceived differences.
But when you travel on the ground you get a different perspective. These exchanges allow for that process to take place and allow you to do your own research. Exchanges did that for me. I went to Mozambique for the first time in 1990 and it radically altered the way I saw the country. The same happened when I went to Zimbabwe in the eighties: it also altered my view.
Today in the region we have fewer ideological differences and more in common. For example, we no longer have Marxism in Angola and Mozambique anymore. We’ve all embraced a neoliberal model; we’re all experiencing the same malaise. Our commonalities are around these similar experiences and problems that we now share in this context.
KE: How do social and political forces impact on the training that you do, and how can training respond to these forces?
CN: Social and political forces impact on society in general. Our society is shaped by these forces. In particular, the economic aspect of these forces is manifest. No photographer training or working in these conditions is exempt from their influence. To ignore these forces is to be misled by those who control them and, at worst, to be used as a tool.
Studying and understanding these forces is key to my educational and personal work because documentary photography and reportage deal with the very essence of socio-political and economic processes. And so when you’re engaging with this kind of work, you’re reflecting on these processes.
But, you can do so in critical or uncritical ways, in passive or active ways. For young people, the better they understand these forces, the more they can be articulate in their responses. My forte, and what I brought to the masterclass, is analysing and understanding the “hows” and “whys” in the society. I think this analysis is greatly lacking in training, to be quite frank.
Although I wasn’t privy to the second and third phases of the masterclass, my sense was that the young people were, initially, not critically bringing their viewpoints to bear on photography or looking at the interests they were bringing to their consideration of images.
When you look at photography, you bring your own interests to bear on that process. You could be bringing working class interests, middle class interests or religious interests. The participants brought many of these different interests. My competency in the masterclass was to get them to analyse critically their own interests when analysing photography.
KE: How did masterclass participants react to the challenge of bringing a more rigorous critical regard to images?
CN: I was very impressed by the masterclass and think people generally are going in the right direction. There was a great deal of enquiry and zeal. People have some critical awareness, but it needs to be enhanced and taken forward. Sometimes that process is just developing an understanding of political and social forces. Many people in the class, for example, didn’t understand the differences between neoliberalism, capitalism, democracy and other ideologies.
But, the process of bringing together a select group of trained and relatively experienced photographers, and of subjecting them to the scrutiny of their peers and more experienced photographers, is no doubt of great value.
The participating photographers have imbibed only a certain amount of information. They have had various levels of success in terms of implementing what they know. I found that everybody had very interesting projects that could be improved on. Their approaches were sometimes limited purely by their inexperience and, as young people, by their youth. Their engagement with the world was also limited, which seemed to be a consequence of being young.
There were imbalances in the class: some people showed a technical ability but not great analytical ability, while others had more enhanced analytical ability and less technical experience. The training allows for a feedback process at an early stage to correct imbalances and refocus and enhance efforts.
KE: I’d like to talk about the practicalities of training for a moment. Can you tell us about the forms and codes that influence your training methods?
CN: I have absolutely no formal training in photography, so I’m unable to comment on codes and styles. My approach is organic and informal as befits my growth, and responds to my personal research and experience. At this stage the approach is hard to quantify.
I believe I started my presentation to the masterclass with a quote by Einstein that has been a favourite of mine for a while. In it, he says that the biggest obstacle to his learning was his education. Most educational institutions are there to endorse the status quo, to confirm and enhance it, to keep it in place and to grow it. Even though we might have philosophical and academic engagement with these institutions that build our knowledge, dissenting thought is lacking and very hard to have in this system.
And, it’s only people with a certain amount of income who can access that kind of education. For many people, to get educated they have to become seriously indebted, and some spend their entire lives paying back that financial debt to institutions. When you’re in debt, it’s very hard to engage with dissenting ideas. You need that education or job, so you won’t endanger it by being critical.
I see it in young people too. Sometimes they come to my training with the expectation that I will show or tell them how to get a job. But I don’t do that; that’s not what I’m here to do. Working in this medium – documentary photography and reportage – means that if you are not engaging critically (with a particular social system), you are being complicit in that system. I see my role as reminding people of that aspect, which tends to fall through the cracks.
Notwithstanding these last points, I value the impact of education – while remaining critical of education models which reinforce the status quo. I believe in a method that equips people to educate themselves in an ongoing process.
KE: Considering the progression of your career, how have you used photography as a way of responding to socio-political forces and as a tool for change?
CN: My recent mid-career retrospective, titled Call and Response, speaks to the idea of being called on to respond to socio-political imperatives that are key in shaping our society. As a photographer, you cannot simply endorse a system. You need to engage critically with it and ask if it’s the only model that can work, and then look at what the alternatives are. If the system does not satisfy you, then you must have the courage to pursue the alternatives. And I mean “courage”. When you are in a system that supports you as a photographer, it takes real courage to bite the hand that feeds you.
Photographers are working in the realm of media, and the media must ask itself why it presents a totally different perspective to the research that comes out of the region (Southern Africa) itself. I would argue that it is because of class interests. The media reflect elite class interests and it’s difficult for them to own up to this. They defend their “independence”, and yet the facts remain.
I started off wanting to make a living out of this profession and it’s very difficult. It’s not easy to make it into a career. But this profession is much greater than a “mere job”. And I know it’s hard, because a job is a big thing in our society. But in the bigger scheme of things, we have an obligation as photographers that is higher than us.