The anthropological documentarian in a world of bite-sized narratives

First day of the school holidays and 33 degrees Celsius; children from Bridgton township cool off in an irrigation canal near the abbatoir. South Africa, Dec. 8, 2003 Source: (EKM Digital Collection)

"The Measure of Humanity: 45 Years of Documentary Photography in South Africa" at Adamson-Eric Museum in Tallinn presents a comprehensive overview of the career of the recently deceased South African photographer Juhan Kuus.

The photographs currently on show at the museum give us a glimpse into the recent history of South Africa, the underlying themes of which are lost in mainstream media, because they simply are not bite-sized enough. Although the reason behind this exhibition taking place here in Estonia, is his Estonian heritage, this turns out to be largely unimportant when we see the work of a man with rare insight into what it means to be a photographer and what it means to be fascinated by one's people.

As the title of the exhibition says, Juhan Kuus' career spanned four and a half decades. For this reason alone, his images give us a vital in-depth view of a sizeable chunk of South African history from a single person's perspective. In many ways, Juhan Kuus presents us with his view of what it means to be South African (therein Zulu, Xhosa, Afrikaans, colonial, White, Black, immigrant etc.) in South Africa and how he has seen this change over the past decades. His work is a compendium of anthropological enquiries into the people of his homeland saturated with firm intent on his part. This, in turn, is accompanied by the need to document with the aim of showing the multi-faceted whole behind the headlines of the early nineties.

The problem with press photography

The exact purpose of press photography may be up for some debate. Which ever branch of documentary we look at, it seems apparent that the main characteristic is the representation of some kind of truth and, indeed, the placing of this truth on a pedestal or stage for it to be seen by an audience (or readership). Ideally, the aim of any journalism should be to convey contemporary topics and occurrences truthful and objectively, whereas capitalism dictates that circulation, number of viewers and click count (advertising revenue) play a more driving role in the content of any journalistic medium. This can lead to the all too prevalent problem of readership dictating the news and not the news itself determining the news. We can probably have just enough faith in the news corporations not to follow the demands of their audience (and advertising partners) to the point at which they start actually orchestrating real life events to adhere to their predetermined headlines. This being said, they can manipulate the stories they cover by selecting which events they report on and which sources they rely on.

During the early nineties, as the end of apartheid seemed to be looming, South Africa became a hotspot for international news. Foreign journalists flocked to the area as the tension rose to a climax. The new president F.W. de Klerk announced the repealing of discriminatory laws, which lifted a 30-year ban on anti-apartheid movements. The legalising of groups such as the African National Congress, headed by Nelson Mandela, eventually paved the way for the first non-racial democratic election in South Africa's history. Along the way there was much oppression by the white government and rivalry between various anti-apartheid groups. The most famous of these rivalries was the one between the African National Congress and the Inkatha Freedom Party, both of which are rumoured to have had their secret financiers.

Perhaps the most well known photographs of this period in recent South African history were taken by the so-called Bang Bang Club (Greg Marinovich, Kevin Carter, Ken Oesterbroek and Joao Silva) and photographers affiliated with the group (perhaps most famously James Nachtwey). The way in which images such as theirs were presented in newspapers made them examples of conflict-photography in its purest form. The media printed their images and portrayed the photographers themselves, like the name suggests, as following the bang-bang – going wherever the clashes occurred. Their images fit the role of conflict-photography remarkably, leading to two of them winning Pulitzer Prizes. Their images are masterful and ground-breaking in their brave adherence to Robert Capa's famous adage, "If your images aren't good enough, you're not close enough." That said, the photographs themselves don't tell us an awful lot about the context. They show us scenes of violence we have seen before. There is no new way of inflicting pain that does not conjure up similar images from the past, although our reaction is no less strong for this reason. Thus we are manipulated into a reaction, which is more instinctive than it is cognitive. The truth of the situations suffer as a result of the simplification of intricate subjects into bite-sized morsels aimed at arousing a reaction. Of course, no blame for the one-sided portrayal can be levelled at the feet of the photographers.

The problem lies with newspapers and other news channels whose approach to issues with local importance, but comparatively secondary global interest, feed on simple, easy to understand (and convey) narratives. They focus on the results and less on the deeper why's of the situation and thereby, select and favour images with an instant hit-value over those of insightful and coherent correlation to the actual situation. The mass media machine does not have time for investigative journalism or anthropological research to determine the causes of the newsworthy within the mundane. Here today, gone tomorrow describes well the media which encourages a constant rolling news feed much like the news tickers which run incessantly at the bottom of the screen during TV news broadcasts. The news has become, above all else, an object of entertainment and thereby a commodity. And the most efficient and streamlined commodity is one that can easily fit in a box and one of known quantities. Unknowns and questions are not concrete or stable enough and, therefore, need to be simplified until they fit and adhere. Well-rounded truth is simply collateral damage.

Anthropological photography

In this light, Juhan Kuus does not fit the role of press-photographer or journalist. Although for many years he did work for the French photography agency Sipa Press, which sells its images to newspapers and news corporations, he is more of an anthropological photographer. His images convey what many newspapers would deem non-events or situations of "inactivity" – there just doesn't really seem to be anything going on in the photographs that could sell the advertisements on the opposite page. If images of poor homeless people, cultural festival goers, youngsters playing football and portraits of prisoners aren't noteworthy enough then this exposes a certain agenda-bias inherent in all news reporting. This seems to suggest that journalism is searching for specific news and therefore has a preconception of the front page – the stage has already been set, in a way, with ready-made narratives based on an accessible common mythology. We, the audience, already know what we think of South Africa and now all we need is some evidence to back up our misguided views.

Images of violence are always somewhat ambiguous and sensationalist; we can easily sympathise with the protagonists subjected to physical harm and rally against those holding the weapon. Oppressor-oppressed is a comfortably vague common mythology – we can all relate to it on some level. Whereas, once you give each of these sides a unique back-story (and back-stories are seldom simple) and suggest that perhaps the real perpetrators are lurking somewhere out of the frame, the scene becomes an intricate web of cause and effect, which demands a little probing and thought to even attempt to understand. But once the image itself has a back-story, we have already made a step towards real news and not just a clichéd "Colonel Mustard in the drawing room with the lead piping."

Another issue with mainstream news reporting is the singular nature of the information. It is all about the image and the headline, not images and headlines. There is a certain hegemony inherent in modern news reporting which disallows all other views and searches for the universal answer. All too often single images from conflict areas become the face of a certain story. With such limits, we project a lot of our own presumptions onto it – we make educated guesses as to the narratives enclosed in the still. In this way the photographs tell us more about ourselves than about that which is photographed.

If we were to see 100 images from South Africa in 1993 and most of them were of conflict, then we guess that South Africa in 1993 is conflict, whereas logically there must have been a lot more going on just out of shot, so to speak. This is where work such as that of Juhan Kuus shows its value, because his vast portfolio has more depth than a newspaper feature or a photographic essay. It is a research project looking at the people of South Africa, capturing an entire cross-section of humanity. He seems to use every opportunity to convey the humanity within every person that strays before his lens. Be it a little girl looking into the camera, a group of homeless men or even a right-wing militiaman; all are subjected to the same photographic process – all are exposed as human before his lens.

He and other photographers like him make an attempt to present us with the whole picture. His consistency in sticking to the same subject and the same country, when many in his position would seek challenges and fame elsewhere, is reminiscent of Philip Jones Griffiths' work in Vietnam. While Griffiths found it hard to make a splash in Western newsprint, his five-year research into the broader story of conflict in Vietnam led to the masterpiece that is Vietnam Inc. (1971). In a similar way, Kuus also refuses to be an in-out photographer, continuing his obsessive research into more than just bang-bang. Although the attempt to capture a whole truth is doomed to be a failed mission from the start, this direction must be the right one – more information can only ever be a good thing. In Kuus' work we see family life, swimming pools, festivals, political rallies, strikes, gay-pride events, farming, whites, blacks, militants, children, homeless people, rich, poor and indeed conflict; but South Africa suddenly leaps out from behind the headlines or history textbooks and becomes a real, diverse place. It is all suddenly contradictory and complicated. Whereas news reporting told self-contained and direct A-B narrative stories, Kuus' photographs are anything but straight-forward – we see non-segregated swimming pools that seem to be working well, we see white gay-pride in a land which some newspapers would have us believe reeks of white conservatism and we see harvest festivals taking place while somewhere violent protests are breaking out. How can this all fit into one narrative? It doesn't. Life, quite simply, is more complicated than that.

Kuus' photographs fill in the gaps between the highlights and, although many of his images would have trouble selling newspapers even in South Africa, what he and others like him show us is necessary to understanding the wider context behind the headlines. Without photographs like his, front page images of conflict have little chance of conveying anything beyond the well-known symbols and myths of modern conflict and war, thereby arousing the same old reactions as if copy-pasted from past events. What we need is a whole; not just photographic quotes taken out of context.

Editor: Editor: Dario Cavegn

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