Jo Ractliffe’s documentation of apartheid was distinct

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On the last weekend of the photographer’s first survey exhibition, Ractliffe reflects on her approach to photographing South Africa during apartheid’s later years

The South African photographer and videographer Jo Ractliffe came to photography amid the warmth of the anti-apartheid movement. It was the 1980s, over 30 years since the passing of apartheid’s first piece of legislation, the Prohibition of Mixed Relationships Act, in 1949. The particular artist joined an era of anti-apartheid image-makers, following around the heels of Ernest Cole (1940-1990), South Africa’s very first Black photojournalist. And Jesse Goldblatt (1930-2018), a photographer committed to documenting the assault of the period and the occasions leading up to it.  

Ractliffe, however , developed a style that was her own. She experimented with types and subjects distinct from her contemporaries, notably photographing landscapes and animals in order to communicate her social and political commentary. And she did not stay still. Journeying, especially by car, became a defining part of her exercise, hence the title associated with her first survey exhibition , in show at Art Institute of Chicago until 2009 August. The show brings together 130 images from 12 series and spans the last 35 years of Ractliffe’s practice. Collectively, the work takes us through apartheid’s tumultuous final years and into the post-apartheid period and the aftermath of the Angolan civil war.  

On the exhibition’s last weekend, Ractliffe discusses her practice to date.

The Brave Ones. In the series Signs of Life. 1995 © Jo Ractliffe. Thanks to Stevenson, Cape Town and Johannesburg.

British Journal of Picture taking: Your photographic career began amid apartheid. What required you to interrogate the situation simply by focusing on the landscape as opposed to the traditional documentary approach employed by many of your contemporaries? The reason why do you think the landscape can be so powerful; why can portraiture be problematic?

Jo Ractliffe: I didn’t start with such clear intentions, nor was it a question of landscape versus portrait. My first pictures explored a range of interests: from street photography and landscape to interiors and portraits — many pretty much in the mode of what you call ‘traditional documentary’. However , early on, I understood that my photography might go hand in hand with in the expanded spaces from the landscape, particularly the Western Shawl, Karoo and the West Coast. These are sparsely populated non-urban lands with complex chronicles, which extend back to before white settlers travelled across them staking claim. And also to before the apartheid government’s project of forced removals, dispossessing people of their lands and homes.  

The residues of those and more recent histories of violence and catastrophe still live in these scenery in subtle and ephemeral ways. That was interesting to work with. But my photographic passions and approach seemed fairly out of step with the politics turmoil of 1980s S. africa. For example , my photographs of the township, Crossroads, which I took in 1986 soon after the particular declaration of the State associated with Emergency, lacked the visceral immediacy so characteristic associated with photography at that time.

I remember guy photographers documenting bulldozers wrecking people’s shacks on one aspect of the street while I photographed the wasteland left within their wake. Frustrated by the lack of link in my ‘straight’ pictures, We began exploring photomontage with the Nadir series (1986-1988). [The work combines images of aggressive dogs symbolic of violence and savage police control with photographs of squatter camps, forced removals, relocation settlements, and garbage dumps to visualise the unrest during the apartheid government’s final years.] I experienced I could better express the response to that moment by means of this medium.  

With regards to making ‘portraits’, I am uncomfortable pointing my camera at someone. It’s not strictly a meaning issue or an anti-portraiture thing. Although I have questions about the nature of the swap, particularly as in most of the contexts in which I work, relationships are seldom equal or even mutually beneficial. But additionally, there are instances where not photographing people would be problematic. For example , inside my project, The Borderlands (2011-2013), I worked in places that had undergone terrible symptoms of forced removal during apartheid and people were finally coming back home. In this context, eliminating people from my images felt like evicting them using their homes all over again.

Nadir 11. 1988 © Jo Ractliffe. Courtesy of Stevenson, Cape Town and Johannesburg.

BJP: And can you tell me about your continual interest in animals, which are present in several of your series? What compels you about them?

Ractliffe: It began somewhat by accident. Dogs and donkeys, in particular, seemed to show up whenever I was photographing; they were simply part of the panorama. In the Nadir series, I used to be conscious about making dogs the work’s central protagonists. I used to be also inspired by the dogs in Russell Hoban’s science fiction novel Riddley Walker (1980) and Ryszard Kapuściński’s Another Day of Life (1976). Equally, if you look at much of the task coming out of South Africa during the eighties, you’ll see that dogs, within their myriad variations (hyenas, police, dogs, feral street dogs, etc . ), were portion of the visual lexicon of that time.

BJP: Absence, capturing the ‘aftermath’, sits at the heart of your practice. Can looking away from an event or situation be more powerful than focusing on it? Precisely why has this approach become a defining element of your work?  

Ractliffe: I don’t think about such things in binary, ‘either/or, ’ terms. Photographs can be powerful within myriad ways. A lot depends upon what context into which the image is put to work as well as the interests it serves. I tend to work with a series or extended photo essay, building the body of work over time and constantly shifting the particular edit until all the pictures find their fit. Yet it’s a slow plus introspective approach. One certainly not suited to the kinds of situations to which you might be referring.

The phrase ‘aftermath’ came up right after my work in Angola; We hadn’t thought of my work in those terms before. I’ve spoken about an interest in conflict plus violence and how past chronicles of violence manifest within the landscapes of the present. I’ve also spoken about an interest inside short lived things and the ordinariness from the everyday. And about a desire to question the constructs of photographic representation and accuracy. But , after Angola, it appears I acquired the tag of ‘aftermath photographer’ perhaps because that work has had more of an international reach than other projects.

Western world Coast. 1987 © Jo Ractliffe. Courtesy of Stevenson, Hat Town and Johannesburg.

BJP: You have made most of work in your homeland of South Africa, apart from your Angola work. How did the experience of working in Angola shape a person as a photographer?

Ractliffe: I’d been working for over 25 years before I 1st went to Angola in 2007. Curiously, my experience there, five years after the end of the civil war, transported me returning to 1980s South Africa. Perhaps the connection emerged given the current end of the Angolan City war. The experience also triggered questions about photography plus representing conflict, similar to those I’d had all those many years earlier.

I decided to work together with medium format, black-and-white motion picture. It had been a while since I got worked that way, and it had been something of a relief to return to it, especially the marvelous experience of rediscovering the image in the darkroom during printing. Every trip was roughly six to eight weeks in duration, and I wasn’t able to process the film until I got house. The approach necessitated the slow and focused mode of looking that, together with the extended and repeated journeys over long periods, echoed how I worked in the early 1980s. I understood better what I had been trying to do all those years earlier. It felt like I’d come full circle.

BJP: When your retrospective opened last October 2020, arguments surrounding the enduring problem of racial discrimination and police brutality had become more intense across the US. Photography’s role in inciting awareness and change regarding these issues was also and is still in question. Your work tackles an alternative period of history. What does the exhibition bring to the table when thinking about photography’s role in everything taking place now?  

Ractliffe: This reminds me of the types of questions people were asking about photography during the 1980s inside South Africa when there was an urgent need to speak directly to the particular social and political events of the time as they unfolded. Frequently in such moments, photography favours the language of direct address; the particular unambiguous message, which is very different in the more reflective work that comes afterwards.

I’m thinking about the idea of the photograph like a complex yet open-ended space where meanings aren’t fixed but fluid. Questioning the constructs of photographic representation is really a concern that underpins every aspect of my practice, whether We are responding in the moment or showing on something years later. Photographs are contradictory items. They provide multiple versions associated with ‘reality. ’ It’s important we challenge how we perceive and receive images. Also, the value of a work does not necessarily depend on its relevance in the moment. Sometimes the process of looking back through pictures plus unravelling historical complexity affords us a deeper understanding of things now.

BJP: Your own retrospective at Art Commence of Chicago takes the form of a visual road trip, plus driving has always been a central part of your process. So what do you hope the event communicates about your work and the subjects you have addressed?  

Ractliffe: Almost all of my function has taken the form of a journey. These journeys have mostly been on the road, although there happen to be the odd boat or even train rides. Driving is inextricably linked to how I make photographs, and it has been because the very beginning. Pretty much every series showcased in the show was made this way, save one that includes a train ride through the Switzerland Alps ( Snow White , 2002), and an additional of photographs made in my backyard during the evening right after I’d driven home from work ( Real Life, 2002-05).

I believe of the road as a moderate in my work. And in this exhibition, the road also forms something of a spine backlinks what might sometimes appear to be a disparate range of photographic interests and approaches through the years.

Hannah Abel-Hirsch

Hannah Abel-Hirsch joined Uk Journal of Photography in 2017, where she is presently Assistant Editor. Previously, she was an Editorial Assistant at Magnum Photos, along with a Studio Assistant for Susan Meiselas and Mary Ellen Mark in New York. Just before which, she completed the BA in History of Artwork at University College London. Her words have also appeared on Magnum Photos, one thousand Words, and in the Royal Academy of Arts mag.

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