Video:Figures & Fictions: Santu Mofokeng
Before '94 I felt I had the rationale to invade people's spaces to photograph - basically I was trying to show what life was like under apartheid. Then after '94, then basically when CODESA was happening, we exited to market economy, market forces and today if I say people are poor and capitalism is bad, there's no point because what is the alternative?
I was hopeless as a photo-journalist. I don't drive, I never keep deadlines, therefore I have to think differently. I'd photograph in places where I'd normally go instead of ... looking at Afrikaners, for instance and say, look how ugly these people are or whatever. It was more inward looking, more like a metaphorical biography, like a fictional biography.
Life on the farms was going on quietly. Townships, especially the coloured townships, were not the focal point of the news, they were not the story at that time. The title of the show was 'Like Shifting Sand'. I'm looking at family, I'm looking at coloured 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? Trying to show domestic workers in the township. This is the madam, she is giving instructions, as you can see, but it's her eyes and her position in the image which makes the difference between them.
Many photo-journalists - you go into a situation, 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 say you're poor and I show photographs of you looking poor, people wouldn't be happy because it's not how they see themselves, how they see their own lives. If you look at - I'm generalising - if you look at Soweto, you describe Soweto in language that focuses on what is lacking, you don't recognise what is there. It was while working 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. If there are any images of black people, they are under categories like Christian wordings, never images of people standing proudly or families. The idea for the project was to excavate these images and set them within what is known.
After I came back from IASP I go through a kind of hiatus. For four years I could not make pictures. So I begin 'Chasing Shadows', 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 helped people cope with apartheid. Change becomes very big. Something that may be possible for apartheid continue for so long because they said, OK, white man is invincible, but basically - maybe after death he'll get his come uppance.
I can't say I developed that language consciously. Even a flash light, it's an imposition. If you are going to document something and you bring in your own light - you are actually disturbing the truth. And therefore working in the caves - it's inevitable, if you're not using flash, you're 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 we have smoke, we have fire and then there's water and all those things they merge in the image. What I was trying to do is to try and grapple or play around with this idea of spirit, spirituality and - as you can see, that's impossible. You can't see spirit, hence he title 'Chasing Shadows'.
As I was saying, in the past, basically in the past until 1994 I took focussed on social issues. Now, after '94, what I do is look at landscapes and not looking at social issues, but the work is still political. When the picture looks very nice, then you find that the writing is very disconcerting. You have the first impression to say that this is a beautiful photograph, it's a nice landscape, and I try not to look too much at the aesthetics of the image basically. I look at the picture as a kind of ... as a beginning to have debates around these issues - it's not the picture, it's the story, the text that goes with the picture. The photograph is an infidel.
To fix meaning on a photograph is really very hard. We can domesticate the meaning by putting a caption, but generally it depends in whose hands the photograph is.