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Documentary Photography

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‘Documentary Photography’

In the article Between Objectivity and Subjectivity: Understanding Photography written by Pieter Swanepoel, Swanepoel states that the Photographer has been seen rather as a “lowly button pressor” than an artist (Swanepoel, 2005: 204). Swanepoel in this statement suggests that the photographer is just an opperator of the mechanics of a camera and not important to the meaning and outcome of the photograph, however many photographers manipulated their images through technical means when capturing the photograph as well as developing it. Looking at two of the works by South African photographer Santu Mofokeng, Easter Sunday Church Service (1996)(Figure1) and Eyes Wide Shut (2004)(Figure 2) one clearly sees that there is a deep thought process, as well and the social background of the photographer and the place time where the photograph is taken, that is considerated when capturing the photograph, but has also deeply influenced both photographs as well.

Born in Soweto in 1956, Santu Mofokeng was documentory photographer in the midst of Apartheid South Africa (Haynes, 2009: 34). Although Mofokeng formed part of the Afrapix Collective, in which they chose the anti-apartheid resistance to photograph, due to Mofokeng’s socioeconoic status and the conditions of apartheid towards black people, he could often not get to where the photos needed to be shot in time as he did not own a means of transport (Haynes, 2009: 39). Instead of shooting and exposing the political issues and the uproar of the black community in South Africa, Mofokeng was more intrigued with normal, everyday life in the South African townships (Haynes, 2009: 39). Not only did Mofokeng shoot everyday life, he coshe to not capture single-shots much like those of the usual photojournalism, Mofokeng created “photographic-essays” (Haynes, 2009: 39) in which there would be a large range of photographs with similar subjct matter and purpose.

Mofokeng states “If I bring in light I create, it’s not documentary,” (Campbell, 2009: 55), this statement correlates strongly with Swanepoels opinion that “The documentary photographer’s aim is ideally to remain impartial.” (Swanepoel, 2005: 205). In these two personal definitions by Mofokeng and Swanepoel, of documentary photography, we get the understanding that documentary photography is created by “lowly button pressors”, however this would exclude almost all contempory documentary photographs as alterations and manipulations are made continuously and professionally accepted in this day and age(Campbell, 2009: 55). Photographs are lense based images in either digital or chemical formats (Campbell, 2009: 53), many of Mafokeng’s photographs are taken on analog cameras and needed to be developed in a darkroom using chemicals, however due to him being a junior staff member at Afrapix at the time, the chemicals he got to use were usually old and used a few times before (Campbell, 2009: 54), however this seemed to add to the artistic style of his photographs.

Santu Mofokeng’s Easter Sunday Church Service (Figure 1) was taken in 1996 in the Free State. The photograph’s subject matter is of a group of women, mainly dressed in white. Although there are the few women not dressed in white in the foreground, they are not in focus which puts more emphasis on the women in white in focus in the background, using depth of field and this contrast creates a sense of unity. The smoke diagonally in the top right corner of the photograph gives the photograp a mysterious feeling and gives the viewer a sense that there is a veil over the photograph, occluding something we may not see. This photograph reiterates the everyday photographs that Mofokeng likes to capture, a crowd of women at a church service on Easter Sunday. Although it is documenting the service, Mofokeng took into account the smoke and the angle at which he took the photograph as well as the directin and the subject matter, Mofokend did not take the photograph of what all the women seem to be looking at or where is smoke is coming from, but rather of the women themselves making it less “news worthy” but this shows that thought went into capturing this image.

Similarly with Eyes Wide Shut(2004) (Figure 2) thought has been put into the capturing of this photograph. This particular photograph was taken of Mofokeng’s brother Ishmael whome had recently contracted AIDS and was found to have only a few months to live (Haynes, 2009: 47). Mofokeng tires to emphasise the threat of diseases through comparing them to apartheid. “If apartheid was a scourge, the new threat is virus, invisible perils both.” (Haynes, 2009: 48). Mofokeng demonstates this in Figure 2 by focusing on Ishmael and having the contrast between him and the unfocused and blurred movement in the background. The subject matter is looking straight into the lense which gives the viewer a sense of confrontation, the purpose and intention of the image is reiterated through this as the subject matters eyes have a film covering them from the virus (Haynes, 2009: 48). The blurred background gives a large contrast and gives the subject matter a sense of isolation. The background also speaks to what Mofokeng calles the “Invisible perils” as you arent quite sure why they are there, or who they are, their identity is lost through the blur but they are there while keeping to their own business. The blurred and out of focused background gives the image a sense of movement and could indicate that “things are not how they appear” (Haynes, 2009: 48).

Both these photographs, as well as many others in Mofokengs collection, had impacted the society of the time. Mofokeng didn’t document what was “news worthy” but rather what peole didn’t really take notice of (Haynes, 2009:39), and when shown a photograph of it, you start to noctice these everyday things that one didn’t before. This creates a public with empathy and understanding of the mundane things that the subject matter does everyday.Through looking at the works of Santu Mofokeng we can clearly see that he has expressed himself through his photography and put his personal thoughts and views into capturing the photographs. One sees that Mofokeng manipulated his photographs through depth of field, focusing on certain subject matter, working in a dark room as well as other technical aspects to create the photograph that he invisioned and was not a “lowly button pressor” as Swanepoel describes (Swanepoel, 2005: 204). Mofokeng also put thought into his photographs of what is needed to impact the public and how one can make others aware of certain issues that arent seen to be ‘news worthy’ or arent noticed as they are a part of ‘everyday life’. Mofokeng’s socioeconomic background and the social context of apartheid South Africa influences his photographs greatly as well, and through all these aspects we can argue that Swanepoels statement of documentary photographers being “lowly button pressors” is not correct or relevent to all documentary photographers as Mofokeng documented everyday life and the effects of the AIDS virus on his brother with thought and consideration and manipulation to the photographs to not only document but to create awareness aswell.

Figure 1: Easter Sunday Church Service 1996 Mofokeng, S. Chasing Shadows.
Figure 1: Easter Sunday Church Service 1996 Mofokeng, S. Chasing Shadows.

Figure 2 Eyes Wide Shut 2004 Mofokeng, S. Chasing Shadows.

Bibliography
Swanepoel, P., 2005. Between Objectivity and Subjectivity: Understanding Photography. In: J. Van Eeden & A. Du Preez, eds. South African Visual Culture. Pretoria: Van Schaik, pp. 202-223.

Campbell, D., 2009. "Black Skin an Blood": Documentary Photography and Santu Mofokeng's Critique of the Visualisation of Apartheid South Africa. In: History and Theory, Theme Issue. s.l.:Wesleyan University, pp. 52-58.

Haynes, P., 2009. Santu Mofokeng, Photoraphs: " The Violence in the Knowing". In: History and Theory, Theme Issue. s.l.:Wesleyan University, pp. 34-51.

Grundberg, A. & McCarthy Guass, K., 1987. The Enduring Modernist Impulse. In: Photography and Art, Interactions since 1946. Abbeville(New York): s.n.…...

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