Memory Against Forgetting
REVIEW: KARIN SCHIMKE
If you know your journalism history – or just any South African history – there are certain names that conjure (perhaps a little too romantically considering the social political circumstances) the golden era of the journalist. The era correlates with the the magazine Drum’s heyday.
Todd Matshikiza. Jürgen Schadeberg. Nat Nakasa. Henry Nxumalo. Can Themba. Richard Rive. Bessie Head. Arthur Maimane.
They were Drum. Drum was them. Photographer Peter Magubane is quoted as saying that the Drum newsroom was “a different home; it did not have apartheid. There was no discrimination…it was only when you left DRUM and entered the world outside of the main door that you knew you were in apartheid land. But while you were inside DRUM magazine, everyone there was a family.”
Drum was the “other” South Africa back in the fifties, when it was mostly only the lives of whites mainstream media reported on. Drum presented black people not as downtrodden, shackled, the white man’s burden. Nor did it condescend.
What it did was tell stories.
One of its storytellers, until now, was unknown to me. Quivertree publications and Kalim Rajab have plucked the name of Ranjith Kally from the brink of obscurity to reproduce his photographs in a book rich with narrative.
Rajab’s family was friends with Kally. Kally and Rajab’s grand-uncle Kumroo were “on particularly intimate terms” developing photographs together in “our family darkroom, housed within our cinema, the Shah Jehan”. In later years, Rajab’s mother co-authored a book with Kally. In his introductory essay, Rajab expresses the hope that this book will stand as a “fitting testament to the contribution this fine photographer made to the struggle of ‘memory against forgetting'”.
The title of this coffee table book works well on three levels: it is an act of resisting a great photographer’s threatening obscurity, it is a reminder of what a strange country South Africa’s past is and – particularly poignantly for journalists – a memory of a time when photojournalism rode high.
Now that anyone with a smartphone camera’s filter setting can “be a photographer”, this reminder of the noble, difficult and dangerous art of photojournalism struck me in my nostalgic core.
Photojournalism – as opposed to street or documentary photography – distinguishes itself by being entirely of the moment and connected to current events. It uses journalistic standards of objectivity and contextualisation. But there is a further aspect of it: good photojournalism has, at its invisible heart – the one beyond the image – a narrative.
That this story is captured so quickly, usually under trying circumstances (crowds, violence, threats, carrying clunky and valuable equipment) makes good photojournalism unique and its practioners admirable beyond their often butch and beefy mythology and self-image.
The cover image of Memory Against Forgetting was well chosen. It shows a makeshift court in Mtubatuba where a magistrate of the then Department of Bantu Administration presides over a dispute between chiefs about cattle theft.
The photograph’s composition – with the most powerful person dead centre displayed against a white backdrop so that his black jacket creates a close frame around his supercilious facial expression – is wonderful. The turned-wood legs of the table contrast with both the bare feet of onlookers and the gritty floor of the room. The angle suggests that the photographer is on the floor, looking up at the magistrate, implying to the informed viewer that the photographer too, is “beneath” the magistrate. The expression on the face of the policeman to the left of the magistrate is a study of conflicted, tenuous power. This is the power and magic of good photojournalism – that a single click of a shutter can capture so powerfully and artistically a real moment in time.
There are many other photographs in the book that capture stiller, more solitary moments. Some single-figure portraits are luminescent beyond what could be captured by ambient light, like that of Albert Luthuli standing at a window in his spaza shop in 1960, just after he’d received news that he’d been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Or that of Alan Paton leaning on a garden gate, or of the photographer’s father reading ancient Vedic scripts – an exceptional picture that succeeds in capturing quiet religiosity.
The shot of Sonny Pillay and Miriam Makeba working together at a piano, and the shot of Jann Turner leaning on the shoulder of Fawzia, Rick Turner’s widow, are both saturated with emotion.
Most memorable for me – and a photograph to which I returned several times – is the picture of a woman in tribal dress waiting in the corridor of the Durban magistrate’s court in order to give evidence. She is sitting on the floor. In her lap is a chubby, scrubby haired baby. While the mother’s attention is on the surrounding hubbub, her face taught with expectation, the baby peers directly at the camera.
And this is where photojournalism intersects with art: where it draws the viewer to return again and again to a singular image which, for inexplicable reasons, lead to inexplicable emotional responses.