Friday, February 4, 2011

Just a click away

Photographs are literally a click away. Pressing one’s fingers down on a camera preserves an image, a memory, and potentially history. Photographs of rural life capture nostalgia, sentiment, and sometimes a real human life. Rurality, as we know, diverges greatly not only within America, but also between countries where rurality may be a way of life. In this blog post, I would like you to consider the contrasting photographs of rural America and rural South Africa, and my humble attempt to discern what can be learned from these photographers’ eyes.

South African photographer, Zwelethu Mthethwa’s camera documents the rural-industrial peripheries, where many South African migrants live. His philosophy is one of exchange and collaboration - and in an interview he states, “It was important that I offered them the chance to decide how they wanted to be photographed, and in this way it became, in a sense, about giving them back their dignity and authorship.” Looking at his photographs, it is evident that he gives each individual an assertive voice. The men, women, and children are positioned in the center staring directly at the camera, while surrounded with their possessions. The undeniable conclusion is that the camera gives these individuals in a world that is undergoing industrial changes. In fact, Mthethwa says in his interview that for many of these people, the photos became a living document.

It is important to note, however, that Mthethwa’s photographs separate the place from the individual. In fact, most of his photographs are just about the individuals, rather than the land. Perhaps this is because Africa is quickly industrializing, and land is less nostalgic than maintaining the individual identity of one’s culture and family.

In contrast to Mthethwa’s photographs are photographs taken by various individuals documented in SlowExposures. SlowExposures is a festival created by Chris Curry and Nancy McCrary as a way to capture the rural South through photography. Specifically, the goal of the program is “to remind visitors and residents to ‘slow down’ and allow the images to surprise, educate, reacquaint, and challenge their perception of the rural South.” Similarly, the photographs taken of the rural South portray individuals in the center frame, staring squarely at the camera – almost directly challenging our assumptions of them.

One difference, however, between the photographs of Mthethwa’s and those of these photographers is that SlowExposures seems to enhance the beauty of the surrounding areas of the rural South. Many of the photographs play upon the beauty of the area and the objects that are part of the region – such as doors, homes, animals, and even junk. Perhaps, as we have discussed in class, this is based on preserving our nations nostalgia or preserving our environment. Regardless, it is hard to deny that these photographs evoke a feeling of a long lost era that wants to be recaptured.

Mthethwa and SlowExposures seek to do the same thing – capture places, regions, and a people that tend to be forgotten in our world today. In fact, I would go so far as to say that their photographs are important because they do capture a memory of a time and place that still exists, and this allows us – the people who have steamrolled ahead – to be aware that the rural still is evolving and still maintains a place in this world.

1 comment:

RH said...

The photos are great; I definitely agree that Mthethwa is adept at humanizing his subjects. It is really easy to assume things about people from a far-away land and different culture, but I think photos like his, that show people in their homes or doing their work, really help bridge the gap. You can see that even though differences certainly exist, we ultimately share much of the same human experience.