Arts and Culture 2007-2015


HALF ART: Jonny Steinberg and "The Other Camera"

First appeared
Friday, 27 February 2015


Jonny Steinberg is coming home, and we are all quite excited about it.

That “we” represents various demographics: readers of this newspaper, to which Steinberg is a regular contributor; fans of his numerous and award-winning books; staff and students at the University of the Witwatersrand, where he will soon be joining the Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research (WISER).

But over the last fortnight, after BuzzFeed published a piece by Steinberg titled “Why I’m Moving Back to South Africa”, another “we” has linked itself to him by sharing the article widely on social media. That “we” is constituted by informed, reflective, patriotic, guilty, angry, arrogant and somewhat angst-ridden white South Africans like me. 

The article bears the hallmarks of Steinberg’s work: it is honest to the point of making the writer vulnerable, exposing his prejudices. It is sincere and self-examining, redeemed from narcissism by a deep and considered engagement with the lives of others. In this case, the life is that of Asad Abdullahi, a Somalian who found his way via Kenya and Ethiopia to South Africa – where he has faced xenophobia and violent crime in making a life for himself and his family.

Abdullahi is the subject of Steinberg’s latest book, A Man of Good Hope. In his BuzzFeed article, the author shares Abdullahi’s tale while assessing his own decision to leave a comfortable life amongst the dreaming spires, quiet canals and Edenic pastures of Oxford and return to Johannesburg, “a city that heaves with umbrage”. Johannesburg offers physical threats, antagonism towards those who are “white and well-heeled”, and daily reminders of a “palpably unfair” gap between haves and have-nots.

Yet it also offers “a chance to stand outside myself and watch my bourgeois life prodded and pushed and buffeted around by lives quite unlike my own.” And this is where, for me, a less immediate and more insidious danger lies. It is the danger of reinscribing the dominance of whiteness: allowing a country and its poor, black majority to be seen primarily as a means of heightening the consciousness of its wealthy, white minority.

This is not Steinberg’s intention. On the contrary, he wishes “to surrender myself to a world so much bigger than I am and to the destiny of a nation I cannot control.” The enthusiastic reception of the article by white South Africans may, however, have the opposite effect.

Part of the problem is the heavy metonymic weight ascribed to emigration and immigration. While the question of “staying” or “going” (and sometimes “returning”) may weigh on many South African minds, and while a book such as Kevin Bloom’s Ways of Staying uses this dilemma to good effect in exploring the nuances of white identity, I can’t help but feel that it has become a rather overdetermined symbol.

People move; they always have. Migration is central to the human story, prehistoric and ancient and modern. Sometimes it is forced and, indeed, the plight of refugees is a signifier of regional or global politics and economics. But people who move voluntarily do so for a host of reasons: jobs, family, restlessness, adventure. These decisions often don’t fit into a perceived national narrative.

Something similar is at play in The Other Camera, an exhibition of “vernacular photography” at the Origins Centre (Yale Road, Braamfontein, until 18 March). Curator Paul Weinberg aims to “confront the dominant visual representations of Africa” – images produced by, and reproducing, the Western colonial gaze through which Africans are either exoticised or portrayed as victims of “a disaster zone”. By contrast, the photographs displayed here resist any easy attempt to explain or define their black South African subjects.

This “other camera” is used in studio portraiture, in commissioned community photography and in street reportage. Some of the images are contemporary, but most of them are from collections and archives, dated between the 1950s and the early 1990s. These are not “pictures of apartheid”. They tell of individuality, of private and public lives not beholden to a history of segregation, oppression and depravation.

In many cases, the photographer is unknown; in almost all instances, the subject is anonymous. This is liberating. We can guess at their stories, but their true desires and fears remain mysterious. 



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