This is an extract from a body of work currently in production that focuses on Masculinity in South Africa. Supporting text is at the bottom of this page.
Explicative extract on the work:
My love for photography has developed out of my lifestyle based around questioning that which is unknown or does not make sense to me. Photography offers a platform on which I have developed a methodology to question, explore, analyze, conclude, and contribute to the subject on hand.
The idea to do a project on masculinity first arose while attending the World International AIDS Conference in 2009. Sitting in a plenary session about the topic of Isoka – the ultimate male status within Zulu culture – I suddenly realized the role masculinity has, and is still playing within the South African landscape. Since then I have been researching Isoka and masculinity with the intention of producing an exhibition based on this subject matter. Finally, the time is right to do so! I have since learned that the general state of masculinity in South Africa is far more interesting than a single ethnics groups understanding of it, and by looking at the state of the nation we manage to tie a narrative of the country into this story which has been tackled by very few on such a broad spectrum. This project looks at the subtleties which provoke major issues as opposed to trying to understand the major issues without fully knowing the foundation on which they are build. These are my findings.
About Masculinity, and the South African context
A learning that was the most influential to this project was that masculinity is socially constructed. It is in a constant state of change and is influenced by social, political and economic pressures. Men need to achieve certain qualities to make them feel like a man, and it is during excessive pressure to achieve this, or the denial of achieving these qualities that men turn to hyper masculine tendencies to attain their personal recognition as men. The ‘hyper masculine’ man is one who desires a dangerous lifestyle, one who is prone to violence, and one who feels the need to be dominant and controlling over women.
With this taken into account the history of South Africa has a very different image. Let us start with the example of the Isoka – the man who is admired by all women and envied by all men. In tribal Zulu culture a man achieved his status in the community by successfully governing a household. The more wives he could look after the more he was doing for his community, and the more his ability to provide was exemplified. Thus, being a ‘man’ and performing the strengths of ones masculinity was a positive act, and the community was dependent on this paternal structure to function. A man worked hard to achieve wealth, so he could look after women of the community (who would become his wives) and his family which would sprout from this equation.
This family dynamic which held the community together was torn a part when gold was found in South Africa. Colonials forced African men out of their homes to work on the mines. Away from their homes and trapped in hostels were there were no women, and also having entered a monetary system for the first time (and at the very lowest rank!) these men were denied any opportunity to manifest their status as men. Naturally, hyper masculine tendencies set in. Working on the mines was extremely dangerous in itself. Even today there is a higher risk of dying while working on the mines than of HIV. (This is significant as HIV becomes a major emasculating factor in more recent times.) Men also turned to violence to release this stress. And having no money or an opportunity to improve their position turned to crime to improve their livelihood. And as the Isoka understanding of wanting to look after many wives drifted further and further out of reach, its definition slowing changed to how many women one could sleep with. As this was all happening under the domination of the white man and their greedy quest for power and money, the suppression of one race’s masculinity to boost another race’s masculinity brewed hatred between these conflicting men. In the most basic definition, the symbiotic relationship between manliness and social existence, had been replaced with a parasitic one that consumed without any intention to give back.
It took many decades, but finally this system was overthrown in the 1994 elections, and South Africa now has an opportunity to develop a symbiotic existence again. The nation is still in a state of change, even eighteen years down the line, but there is hope. The landscape of South Africa, as in all parts of Africa has changed and will never return to its original state. There is the introduction on urban living and cities, there is the western influence and with that new religious beliefs, lifestyles and goals, but there is also a strong affinity to hold onto ones traditional beliefs and culture. The current day challenge is to work out the balance of these influences in a way that lets Africa redefine itself on this new landscape. On the subject of man in Africa, it is a matter of removing social, political, economic pressures that force hyper masculine tendencies, and in so doing create a modern environment with the strengths of a traditional belief system.
The youth of today who have grown up with in the presence of the hyper masculine Isoka have retitled this type of man who is violent, and abusive towards women lamanyada or ‘Dirty Isoka’. If the youth can recognize that this type of man is not good, I believe there is a chance for change. This was the concluding fact that motivated this research.
Documentary in South Africa
As with all of my work, there is a deep personal element of self exploration in this project. Where I have fond many frustrations within South Africa and challenges it faces, I too have found issues within the realm of documentary as I have become more engulfed in the industry. This has led me to a point where I have noticed an interesting over lap between the two, as well as this subject matter.
If the race classification system of Apartheid South Africa were to have an equivalent in the documentary photography world, I would be marked as a middleclass white male. This would box me into the most prominent category and I would share the stage with photographers who are the best represented and looked up to industry. This includes the likes of the members of the Bang Bang Club, Pieter Hugo, Mikael Subotsky, David Lurie, Paul Weinberg, Guy Tillim, and the list goes on, extensively. The middleclass white male documentarian generally photographs social issues (and South Africa has an endless supply to photograph) but what is interesting is that it is practically always of poor black populations. Very few have chosen to focus on their immediate environments. The few photographers who have photographed their own environments and spring to mind are Santu Mafokeng, Alf Kumalo, Ernest Cole, and Omar Basir who are all interestingly enough black or coloured, and poor. So there is a link in subject matter, but few have actually tried to look at South Africa from both sides of the field. This to me is troublesome because while South Africa calls out for unity, we are not looking for unifying factors in our visual representation. And if unity is not present in our representations, it means that the documentors are still distancing themselves from the subject matter, and therefore the ultimate goal we are working towards by revealing and provoking discourse about. For as long as this is present, we will only be able to tell one side of the story.
This project is an opportunity for me to challenge these boundaries. I am working on a subject that I undeniably fall into – being a male. There is also scope to venture within and beyond the boundaries of my other classifications. There are rich and poor men, as well as men in all race groups. Masculinity is my only link to all aspects of South Africa, and as it was pointed out in the previous chapter, masculinity plays a serious role in the history of South Africa, and is still feeling the effects today.
This project will look at men in their attempts to attain and maintain their masculine identity on the South African landscape. It will reveal the social, political and economic challenges that define South African masculinity and in so doing will shed light on contemporary issues such as crime, violence and HIV. It will look at the modern African man of all class and race backgrounds and explore what goes into the making of a man. By its nature this will speak of either the failures or successes of the system and individuals that we can learn from.
Methodology – About the work
This assignment has changed form a number of times as I have learned more about the subject. From documenting Isoka, to constructed theatrical portraits of alpha males, to shooting males doing what makes them feel most manly, I finally realized that the most interesting part of masculinity was not the alpha males, but the everyday struggle of men to attain and maintain their masculinity within their respective environments. I also learned that the best way to document such a diverse group of people was through a traditional documentary style that focuses on a ‘feel’ of what it is to achieve manliness. All of the images are binded by feeling, be it vulnerability, frustration, ego, fear, power, success, anything that expresses the on and off-stage emotions of what a man goes through to achieve the addictive self-satisfaction of masculinity.
Technically there is very little holding these images together. Lighting, compositions, use of line, and noise are all quite erratic due to the diverse times and environments that men choose to express themselves. But by utilizing the strengths of the photographic medium I believe I have managed add to the feeling that binds the various images through these varying effects.
While I moved away from documenting alpha males I still used alphas as an introduction into groups of men. Once I was acquainted into the group I had more freedom to shoot at will. This freedom of movement has been very important in documenting as the nature of the subject matter depends on the willingness of the participant to drop their guard and reveal themselves before the camera. All of the alphas also gave interviews before photographing commenced. These were both fascinating, and also shed a good ubderstanding of the environment I was about to enter.
As a body of work, this is all about the different stages, emotions, and actions taken to be a man. The work has very little to do with the represented individuals in the images. I see them as mere examples of men in South Africa, performing within the South African environment that is influencing their identity in one way or another. The story of masculinity is far greater than a series of individuals so I feel it is not possible to summarize it with the specific context of the people in these images. For the same reason I feel that presenting a ‘feel’ more than a specific story is a more powerful way of representing this subject. The underlying factors such as social, political and economic issues will always be present in the visuals, which will come through powerfully when viewed side by side, but in order to tie all of the corners of South Africa together – that are never considered to be connected – we need men, and the realization that we all desire the same thing.
Where documentary is going, and the notion of truth
Photography launched into the art scene as being the medium which produced the closest depiction to reality, and therefore truth. Even today this is still the root of most discussion related to the strengths and weaknesses of the medium. The bottom line is that, in-camera, the photograph is accurate to detail but not to truth. Out of camera the photograph is subject to manipulation. Manipulation has been around since the dawn of photography and will always be a part of the medium. This starts with your choice of camera and film, moves into how much contrast and colour correction is done in post production, has the option of inserting or removing objects from images, and finally the size of print, medium to print onto, where the image is shown, and how it is presented to its audience are all manipulations of the image.
In a discussion about the truth, I have already ventured away from the truth to a degree. In-camera the photograph is not totally accurate to detail. It is subject to the rendering of the camera, and a 3 dimensional image being squashed into 2D pictures. It is also subject to the photographers interaction with subject matter and choice of timing, angle, composition, and use of line to decide and persuade the viewer what to make of the subject he is presenting. The bottom line is that there is no such thing as truth in photography, and truth in detail is at the most, negotiable. All a photograph has to stand on is the integrity of the photographer and their choice of visual narrative to express a subject matter through their own experiences, inclusive of their own bias. That being said if one wants to seek truth in photography it can only be through a personal quest for understanding: by carefully analyzing the information presented, trusting your sources, and ideally (if it is good photography) motivate the viewer to look deeper into the subject matter. Photography at the end of the day is the opinion and experience of an individual and no more. And if it is being shown by a third party – for example a magazine or gallery – it is the opinion of the third party with their own objectives to show such work.
The understanding of photography, and what is liked in the medium, has had many facelifts over the years. From being the medium that was most accurate to detail, and was only done by a few elite professionals, it progressed to a point where photographs became more accessible both to take and also to print. It entered the digital age, and the age of Photoshop where it became very accessibly, easy and cheap to own and use a camera. It was also more easy than ever to manipulate images. No going into the discussion of ethics, the interest in aesthetic shifted around this time from one that depicted reality, to one that could depict a fantasized reality, or not real at all. In the present day, where it is broadly understood that a photograph is not a true representation of reality, the trend is looking at bringing photography back to the basics. Particularly with the technological breakthrough of camera phones and particularly the iPhone, and Instagram software, more photographers are looking at minimizing manipulation to create striking images and turning towards what the camera cant do – compositions, use of line, and lighting. In short, in a time where the most common saying is that ‘anyone can be a photographer’ because everyone has a camera, the professional still has an opportunity to stand out because this movement is stating that the real art of photography lies not in the equipment, but in the eye.
Bringing this discussion back to truth in photography, this also proves that the strength of photography has nothing to do with the equipment, or product, or how it is used, but rather with the vision and integrity with which the photographer works. It is also no wonder that in a time where anything can be manipulated, people are demanding more than ever the need for truth. Photography can offer truth, but this truth is present in the message that is brought across, and not the physical renders. The down side is that it will take an educated audience to comprehend and read visual media in such a way to gain this truth out of work.
Very little photography is published by photographers. It almost always goes through a third party who has an objective of their own. Magazines and Newspapers want to tell stories but this is often the story of a journalist, or to justify the beliefs of an editor. Art Galleries are commercial ventures with the primary aim to make money, so they will represent art they can sell, not necessarily the best or most important art. Work used by Non-Government Organizations, Corporate Social Investment, and Advertising are out to promote their message and product. All of these industries play on the idea of truth, but are not actually worried about it at all. It is therefore also up to an educated audience to observe the objectives of the third party and why emphasis is being placed on specific work. And in an age of technology that places power in the individuals hands, and in a time when the masses are seeking truth, there is an opportunity for the photographer to move with the times to create his own platform to offer the truth.
Why this project will work
After much research on masculinity and photography, and consideration for the multiple elements that affect a documentary as a final product, I have concluded that I have found a strong balance between narrative and aesthetic. I feel that enough knowledge has been gained to understand the strengths and weaknesses of the medium of photography. This in turn will be able to assist in guiding the message that I want to portray in my images. Although the photographs are not staged, they are by no means reportage shots. I consider each image a chapter to a story that I have constructed. They are not true to the men in the pictures, but true to the state of man in South Africa and the understanding I have managed to attain over my years of research and personal experience as a man. In my approach to this I would like to be recognized as a thinker, and secondly a storyteller. It is inevitable that stories will arise from this work, but ultimately I want this to be an opportunity for me to share my thoughts, and challenge my audience to rethink the way they perceive men in South Africa.
This is a body of work that is historically important to speak of South Africa from an angle that has been highly overlooked. A better understanding of masculinity will also help us work with the challenges we are facing in the present day.
Within the South African documentary context this will be one of the few bodies of work that challenges a topic across all class and race boundaries and opens the opportunity for us to see ourselves united by what we have in common, and not divided by our differences.
On a personal level, this work cant get more closer to home. I am dealing with who I am, and not an ‘other’. I am furthering my understanding of myself as well as exploring the lives of others. I can speak from personal experience about what I document and can relate to my subject matter on the topic.
I also believe that the current state of documentary photography is looking for new ways of seeing things, and they are looking for truth, and this project will offer a fresh approach to documentary, will create a platform that will best express my understanding of masculinity, and in so doing contribute to the collective truth of masculinity.