Figures and Fictions: Santu Mofokeng

The sublety and beauty of Santu Mofokeng's photographs makes the power and authenticity of his images all the more telling. In this film he remembers and reflects on a career stretching back deep into the apartheid era

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Video Transcript

Before 94 I felt I had the rationale to invade people’s spaces. Basically I was trying to show what life was like under Apartheid. Then after 94 and then basically when CODESSA was happening we exceeded to market the criminal market forces and capitalism and today if I say that people are poor and capitalism is very bad… there’s no point because what is the alternative.

I was hopeless as a photojournalist because I don’t drive, I never keep deadlines and therefore I do things differently. I’d photograph in places where I’d normally go instead of looking at Africana’s for instance, say look how ugly these people are or whatever. It was more inward looking. More like a metaphorical biography, a fictional biography. Life on the farms was going on quietly… and townships, especially colored townships, they were not the focal point of the news, they were not the story at the time. The title of the show was ‘Like Shifting Sand’ and I’m looking at farm laborers, I’m looking at colored communities, I’m looking at life in the township, looking at places where especially TV crews, they don’t go.

What I like about this image – this is Soweto right? – and you are trying to show domestic workers in the township. This is the Madame, and she’s giving instructions as you can see, but it’s her eyes and her position in the image which makes the difference between them.

Many photojournalists will go into a situation and you photograph it and then you get out. I was making pictures of people I have to live with which makes a difference. If I see a poor and I then I show photographs of him looking poor, people wouldn’t be happy because this is not how they see themselves, how they see their own lives.  If you look at journalism, speaking of Soweto… you describe the Soweto as coming, you describe it in the what, in a lot of ways focuses on what is lacking. You don’t recognise what is there.

And it was when working on these, on this project that I realised that there were some images, which were not talking to me, some very old images, sometimes you find them framed or you find them between sheets in the photo album. And it’s when I begin to investigate these images that I realise my ignorance about our history. You go to the South African library and if there are any images of black people they are under contiguous, like Christian weddings, never, never images of people standing proudly, of families. The idea for the project was to excavate these images and set them within what is known.

After I came back from ICP… I go through a kind of hiatus. For four years I couldn’t make pictures, so I began chasing shadows. Go looking at the caves and looking at spirituality as a kind of way of trying to answer the question, ‘Why did Apartheid take so long?’

I was looking at spirituality, which is a kind of crutch that help people cope with Apartheid. And tension becomes very big, maybe something that made it possible for Apartheid to continue for so long because they said, ‘Okay, white man is invisible but basically maybe after death, after death he’ll get his comeuppance’. I can’t say I developed that language consciously. Even a fresh light is an imposition. You are going to document something and you bring in your own light, you are actually disturbing the truth.

Therefore, working in the caves, it’s inevitable if you are not using flash that you are going to get movement in your images, or the illusion of movement. You find yourself in the caves, and I don’t know whether the influence is Biblical, where you have smoke, you have fire, and then there’s water, and all those things they merge in the image.  What I try to do is to try and grab or play around with this idea of spirituality, and as you can see, that’s impossible. You can’t see spirit. Hence the title, ‘Chasing Shadows’.

In the past, basically in the past until 1994, I foregrounded on social issues, and now, after 94, I look at landscape and not looking at social issues, but the work is still political. When the picture looks very nice and then you find that the writing is very disconcerting, you have the first impression to say, ‘this is a beautiful photograph and this is a nice landscape’, and I try not to look too much at the aesthetics of the image. I look at the picture as a kind of, as a beginning to have debates around these issues. If I saw the picture, it’s the story that goes, the text that goes with the picture. A photograph is an infidel.

To fix meaning on a photograph is really very hard. You can domesticate meaning by putting a caption, but generally, it depends who, in who’s hands the photograph is.



'I was hopeless as a photojournalist because I don't drive, I never keep deadlines and therefore I had to think differently.'  Santu Mofokeng


Santu Mofokeng puts a modest spin on a career which has seen him progress from staff photographer on New Nation magazine  30 years ago to his current legendary status as one of South Africa's most distinguished and original photographers. In this film shot in his home in Johannesburg, he talks about the ethical philosophy that underpins his work and guides us through some of his most memorable and haunting projects.