Figures and Fictions: Graeme Williams

Graeme Williams began his photographic career as a photojournalist documenting the struggle to end apartheid. This film explores his mission to find a new character for his work after the trauma and bloodshed of 'the struggle' era

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It is a very strange time because prior to ninety-four you always had a very clear reason why you were a photographer. Your starting point was this big apartheid thing which hung over you and in a way it was a restriction but in a way it made life easy because you always knew where your starting point was. 

Towards the end of ninety-four I had a real strong feeling that I’d never really wanted to be a photojournalistic type photographer or to cover war and violence.  I made a very strong stand almost to say, ‘OK I’m going to stop that completely,’ and I never did that sort of hard photojournalism news again. 

I spent a brief period in London in 1988 and I remember going to Mandela’s seventy-ninth birthday concert at Wembley and there was a real sort of feeling in the air that Nelson Mandela was going to be released fairly soon.  I made a decision to work with a wire agency, Reuters, because it gave me enormous access to the events and to also know when things were happening. 

Suddenly the violence in Johannesburg started and it started with a few deaths a day and rose rapidly to fifty deaths a day.  I had never seen a dead body before and it was an incredible shock and I also felt a responsibility because I was the one holding the fort really. And so suddenly I was thrust into this role of photographing violence and I suppose a sort of localised war, and it was never my intention. 

The violence and the extreme political changes that happened carried on for five years, between eighty-nine and ninety-four.  Because during the apartheid time the townships were built very close to the cities but were significantly separate there was a distinction between what was township area, black people were allowed to live, and the sort of suburbs where the white people lived.  The result of that was that I would sometimes get up early in the morning and be in the townships photographing violence until mid-morning and then I would wander home and trifled into a life of going shopping and possibly having a barbecue with friends.  At the beginning you consider your life at home with friends as your normal life and your life photographing as this abnormal existence, but as one continued to do it ones’ existence was sort of almost driven by adrenaline.  At some point you almost felt it flipped over the edge and that became my sort of real life. 

Towards the end of my hard news type work, in about ninety-four, there was an intended coup in a place called Bophuthatswana in the North-West of South Africa and I was in the situation where I was photographing a right white winger shooting a woman who was running between checks and he shot her and I had photographed him and then some other right wingers saw me photograph him and came up and as I was putting my camera down the one hit me under the chin and then put a shot gun in my mouth.  Luckily an older person walked past and said in Afrikaans, ‘Don’t shoot them, beat them up.’  So, it’s one of the few times I was pleased to be beaten up.

I think following the violence it was a very distinct period where I really had to come to terms with being back in the world and operating on a quieter level. Purse 1994 it really changed and for me it was a strong sense of having to find the reason again why I was a photographer and what I wanted to photograph.  It took me a long time; it took four years in order to really get going or to really feel I was gaining some direction in terms of my work.  So after photographing so much negativity and violence and harsh politics that were happening here it felt that this was an opportunity to possibly re-look at how I’m going to portray a country which is so full of complex emotions and feelings.  The way I approached my work was to try to avoid the initial surface impact that news and photojournalistic photography gave.  I had to have those other aspects, which made one feel slightly off balance, slightly ill at ease, slightly unsafe.  I try to bring a sort of sense of lyricism or softness on one level but at the same time matching it with a deeper river of anger and violence. 

There was never one obvious subject to the photograph; it was always made up of different aspects.  I think that particular technique was important for me to get across the way that the country was such a mass of positives and negatives that if one really engaged with all the sort of things that happened in the country it would drive you nuts actually.  So, I wanted to get across that sense that you could never really get a grip on exactly what was happening. 

Living in this country I think most of us live in a posttraumatic stress situation.  What I really came to understand about my motivations for working is that it felt it needed to be about how I felt about my life, my country, and my immediate surroundings.  It was more a sense of how was I able to communicate a feeling or a mood.

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Graeme Williams had never intended to be a photojournalist. But as the clamour for Nelson Mandela's release grew in the late 1980s and the violence broke out in Soweto and the townships, Williams felt duty-bound to 'hold the fort' by joining a news agency and reporting on the struggle.

His dangerous work for Reuters grew into a vivid portfolio of violent war photographs over the next five years but when Williams signed off as a photojournalist in 1994, he initially struggled to find a new direction for his work. This film shows how after four years of post-traumatic struggle, Williams arrived at a genre of photography with a newly mysterious and ambivalent tone.

Figures & Fictions: Contemporary South African Photography
12 April – 17 July 2011
Sponsored by Standard Bank
The Porter Gallery
Admission charge will apply

‘It was an opportunity to relook at the way I portray a nation that’s so full of complex emotions and feelings. I try to avoid the initial impact of news and photojournalism, to bring a sense of softness and lyricism on one level, but matching that with a deeper river of anger and violence'