Jo Ractliffe on capturing Southerly Africa’s violent legacies associated with apartheid, and Angola’s city war

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Roadside stall on the way to Viana, 2007 in the series Terreno Ocupado © Jo Ractliffe.

The particular South African photographer shows on her Deutsche Borse-nominated guide, Photographs 1980s – at this point

Jo Ractliffe’s event –  Photographs 1980s – now – is controlled, enigmatic even. The black and white images were taken in South Africa from the 1980s, and in Angola from 2007-2010. These are periods in which both countries had, or recovered from, violent change. This isn’t directly visible. Most of her images do not show people. If they perform, they don’t show their particular faces, or they show them looking elsewhere. Many of her photographs are landscapes, by which human existence and violence is discernible only by means of traces. “A lot of my work is [made] in places exactly where terrible things have happened, ” says the South-African artist “But where there is not any blood on the ground. ”

The girl exhibition, currently on display as part of the Deutsche Borse Digital photography Foundation Prize at The Photographers’ Gallery (TPG), doesn’t provide easy answers. There is a brief text at the start and short captions beneath each picture, often simply stating the date and place it was made.  

Photographs from different times and locations are freely mixed in the hold. Where images from particular bodies of work are grouped together, there’s simply no explanation of the series or project. Viewers are generally left to draw their own interpretations, and that’s deliberate. If you give too much details, people stop looking and start to read, says Ractliffe, “then they look to understand what it is they are looking at”.

“That’s not my experience when I’m photographing, ” she points out. “When I’m photographing, I don’t know what it is that will I’m looking at. I have to rely on my own way of seeing stuff and discovering meaning within the space, learning to read the area. And I think that’s much more fascinating for a viewer, to have to come in and trust them selves. ”

Piet Basson’s bible, Riemvasmaak, 2013,
From the series Signs of Existence © Jo Ractliffe.

Video club, Roque Santeiro market, 2007
From the collection Terreno Ocupado © Jo Ractliffe.

Co-published by Steidl and The Walther Collection in 2020, Jo Ractliffe, Photographs 1980s – now , is the book that won her the Deutsche Borse nomination. It provides answers but also many more questions. The hefty 470 pages long, it includes work currently in the TPG show, but also much more. Projects such as Real Life (2002-2005), made in Ractliffe’s own back garden; or Everything is Almost everything (2017) and Signs of Life (2019), more recent work including personal images, one-offs, and photographs that refuse to be modified out.  

The guide is divided up into series, each introduced by Ractliffe, but her writing is informal and diaristic rather than authoritative, even when introducing subjects such as the Border War among South Africa and Angola. She freely admits to questions. Walking into the Roque Santeiro market in Angola’s capital Luanda in 2007, the girl writes, she found their self beset with the same dilemmas she’d had about making photographs 20 years earlier.

Photography is far from an easy medium for Ractliffe; images aren’t transcripts of reality, and image-makers aren’t goal witnesses. “I used to go nuts with that stance, ” she says. “It’s at all times about a position”. It’s a good intriguing approach for a photographer who came of age inside 1980s South Africa, an intensely political time and place.  

““As a white, middle-class girl, I thought, ‘What do I know what it feels prefer to have your house bashed straight down and you and your family up-rooted and taken somewhere else? This felt really impertinent to be making those kinds of documents. I’m not saying that from the moral position. There was a necessary project in photography in that case. But I think there were people who were far better equipped to accomplish than me”

Created in Cape Town inside 1961, Ractliffe grew up along with Apartheid in full swing. Marriage or sexual relationships across racial lines was firmly outlawed, and Black South Africans were violently evicted from their homes. Ractliffe caused local community organisations but found she couldn’t make the pictures that seemed to be needed. Equally, she couldn’t shoot photojournalism that directly engaged with all the brutality.  

“As a white, middle-class girl, I think, ‘What do I know what it feels like to have your house bashed down and you and your household up-rooted and taken elsewhere? ’” she says. “It felt really impertinent to be making those kinds of files. I’m not saying that from a moral position at all, due to the fact I think there was a necessary project in photography then. But I think there were people who had been far better equipped to do it compared to me. Also I’m timid, photographically, I’m not someone that can rush in. ”

Instead she made quieter images, driving for mls up the West Coast in search of “a picture of nothing”, shooting stray dogs, or dead animals, or ramshackle buildings. In 1986 the lady photographed Crossroads , a series recording the views after bulldozers ruined peoples’ homes. In 1988 she shot the Vissershok landfill, where people and animals scavenged for waste.  

House on the hill, Riemvasmaak, this year
from the series The Borderlands © Jo Ractliffe.

Mural in an abandoned schoolhouse, Cauvi, 2010 from the collection As Terras do Fimdo Mundo © Jo Ractliffe.

Doll’s head, 1990-95
From the series Shooting Diana © Jo Ractliffe.

A friend labeled her early photographs “blandscapes” but Ractliffe was undeterred (and is showing them in the exhibition). In 1987 she abandoned documentary, creating a series of montages featuring dogs in apocalyptic though possible surroundings. From 1990-95, the girl shot everyday scenes with a vintage Diana, a lo-fi, plastic camera. She integrated one of these photographs in the TPG show, a creepy look at of a disembodied doll’s head, which she describes as “that dark image used just before democracy”.

In mil novecentos e noventa e seis, Ractliffe began making N1 Incident/End of Time. Driving through the Karoo desert from Cape Town to Johannesburg, she attempted to take a photograph through the car windscreen every 100km. En route she found things donkeys shot dead by roadside and, while having a hunt, heard a tyre fall apart like a gunshot. She was basically so rattled she didn’t detect the next 100km marker. The cake you produced series suggests human drawback, and the impossibility of the so called objective eye.  

On your 02 June 1999 she went to Vlakplaas, a livestock west of Pretoria for the Apartheid government’s militia suffered once tortured and eradicated its opponents; her sketches of it testify to a declining, she says, to “the banality of the façade, the losing of that place to live up to the image it evoked in my imagination”. She drove round the taking photographs with a lo-fi Holga, and exhibits finally, the shots as a single extensive strip.  

When Ractliffe went to Angola in the year of 2007, she felt compelled accomplish something more “straight”, a single responsibility towards the people where there. Even so, she avoided really easy conclusions. Ractliffe’s work requests the idea of the decisive crucial moment and even the single image; she’s interested in repetition –  ditychs and triptychs – work in which each shot is equipped with an slightly different view. She displays the world, but also the limitations attached to photography, and the sheer subjectivity of both her own perform the job and her audience’s interpretations.  

Her book posesses a short story, an interview, coupled with nearly 50 pages created by essays and reviews. Both equally offers a different perspective, some close to her own interpretation, some very far from it. “Things happened to be so binary [under Apartheid], ” she observes. “It was literally black and white. I know I’m quite strong on the unfixedity of things, and maybe that is partly a reaction. ”

Diane Smyth

Diane Smyth is a freelance reporter who contributes to publications for example Guardian, The Observer, Typically the FT Weekend Magazine, Inspiring Review, The Calvert Proclamation, Aperture, FOAM, IMA, Aesthetica and Apollo Magazine. Before heading freelance, she wrote as well as the edited at BJP as 15 years. She has and also curated exhibitions for corporations such as The Photographers Gallery additionally Lianzhou Foto Festival. You will ever have follow her on instagram @dismy

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