This is an essay I wrote for the Msunduzi Museum magazine ‘Ulwazi’, related to an exhibition of my photographs which they hosted and showed in their gallery space. The photographs were commissioned by the Pietermaritzburg Agency for Community and Social Action (PACSA), a rare commission in today’s South Africa;
In about May 2014 the Pietermaritzburg Agency for Community and Social Action (PACSA) approached me with a request to participate in their annual Film Festival and produce an exhibition of still photographs, which would frame the festival, based on their theme of ‘People Live Here’.
We discussed the broad streams or thematic aspects, such as income generation; services such as electricity, water and sanitation; gender, youth, food and health, and based on these considerations around which PACSA delivered its services, the focus of the project evolved. I had carte blanche in who and where I photographed, which is every documentary photographers dream. PACSA were keen for the photographs to reflect more then their actual work and rather the context in which their work emerged and evolved.
South Africa is without doubt a diverse country and all of the above themes are widely reflected within its society. But there is no disputing the fact that it is also characterised by extreme inequality, the results of which, for the have-nots, are the source of much of PACSA’s activity and engagement. Therefore this essay of photographs focused on these marginalised groupings, the images produced depicting, in a representative way, the lot of the greater majority.
Twenty years into South Africa’s democracy, in as much as a growing Black middle class has emerged, so has the inequality – the highest degree globally, and that ought to be a mark of shame – become a hallmark that defines and delineates our society. This gap is not set to change anytime soon, and no amounts of governmental and business sector interventions at the present rate will make a difference.
PACSA has its work cut out addressing this sad legacy. Fortunately for PACSA though, the resilience of the South African people is legendary, as, thankfully, is that of organisations like PACSA. This winning combination, some of which is reflected in the exhibition, is the seed, which is needed to sow the change necessary in our society.
Photographs of poverty, a reality so prevalent in our society, are grim and soul destroying. The photographs were, while not shying away from the realities of unemployment and inadequate incomes and the effects thereof, an attempt to reflect the dignity with which people and organisations face these challenges. Poverty is a fact of life arguably for the majority in our society, as is the resilience and strength which people bring to bear in facing and indeed living this fact.
As a photographer who often has to venture into these wells of deprivation, it is also an honour and a privilege to be exposed to the generosity of spirit that so vividly characterises the nature of the people of the South. It is with thanks and gratitude to the people depicted, some of whom have revealed to us their harsh predicaments and vulnerabilities, that the exhibition is possible.
An interesting and personal aspect of my involvement in the work showing at the Msunduzi Museum, after it had shown at the Festival in the Colin Webb Hall, UKZN Pietermaritzburg Main Campus, is that I had occasion to recall my own familial connections to the then Afrikaner presence in Pietermaritzburg, which is of course the precursor as the Voortrekker Museum to the Msunduzi Museum. The story goes like this; Robert Dunn, a great-great grand father and 1820 Settler, arrived in Port Natal in 1834, reportedly on the first ship-load of civilians to migrate from the war zone that was the Eastern Cape, to join the band of white men who had established a settlement in the Port Natal bay.
These people of course preceded the colonial settlers and occupied the bay area with Kings Shaka, Dingaan and Mpande’s consent. When the British arrived in the early 1842 annex Natal in 1843, Robert Dunn had sided with the Retief-Maritz contingent of Boers who had established and were based in present day Pietermaritzburg. This action cost him dearly and he fell out of favour with the conquering British and was to lose his life a few years later. His son John Dunn, who left Port Natal some years after Natal had been annexed and his fathers death, never forgot the disadvantage his fathers choice had caused, and although he was never able to entirely disengage from the British and the colonizing English, he chose to ally himself with the Zulu, becoming an advisor to Cetshwayo and a Chief in his own right in the region of Zululand. He was of course caught up later in the Anglo-Zulu war from which he was unable to remain neutral, in which he sided with the British.
This KwaZulu Natal region is, as are all the regions of South Africa, rich in history, which continues to unfold before our eyes. Documentary photographs are one way of arresting the march of time and allowing us the privilege to ‘look back’ and make sense of it all. The process of reviewing our situation through image documents is one, which allows for reflection and growth, as we see where we were and determine where we would like to be in future.
I would like to thank both PACSA and the Msunduzi Museum for making the exhibition possible and hosting it at short notice. This recognition of the role of photographic images in transmitting information and thereby altering human consciousness is appreciated by this photographer, and the work made such an impact that it is soon to be shown in Europe, where it is necessary for a global audience to see the effects of neo-liberal economic practice on localized South Africans.
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