Sometimes it seems like the real thing is shaking around him, like a landscape in the heat, and take a thickness that was not known to him. So something is happening. Like lightning. Lightning flashes, slow flashes, like a memory that comes back to memory. Santu Mofokeng, during a career spanning nearly four decades in which the Foam, the Amsterdam Museum of Photography, dedicates a retrospective, tirelessly sought these flashes of reality through his black and white images. He photographed Soweto, the township where he grew up in the 1950s. He photographed the floating moments where all forms of spirituality arose, but also the countryside, the domination of black employees. He photographed, before it became a topic of general concern, the effects of climate change; or the ghosts of immense past suffering, from Auschwitz to South Africa. He photographed, as a master, this country which celebrates this year the twenty-fifth anniversary of its first free elections.
An arm tank for Johannesburg
It was in Soweto that everything started. Soweto, the initially desolate area, separated from Johannesburg by the sanitary cordon that conceptualized the brains of apartheid, to constitute, at a sufficient distance from the economic capital of South Africa, a vast reservoir of arms. Soweto, where Santu Mofokeng grew up, was recently expelled from the "Non-Whites" (another term coming out of the diseased heads of power) of various neighborhoods deemed to be too close to those where they are tolerated only to serve . Entire families are deported, brought by truck, and thrown into the veld, the cold icy countryside in winter, sweltering in summer.
The bureaucrats had the perverse idea of building houses, small, uncomfortable, strictly identical, which we will call the "Matchbox"matchboxes: it is both a joke and the sad report of living conditions that are not. Beside, others arrive who do not even have these junk roofs to shelter, and have to manage with the means of the edge. Carton, cans, some corrugated iron. All is well. There are always newcomers to Soweto who end up in slums. Today, we have invented another term to describe these slums, by one of those wonders of negation of the real that the administrative language cherishes more than anything: the "informal settlements" (informal settlements).
Santu Mofokeng is not there to give in to these lies or to "document" misery. He got rid of this illusion very quickly. Within the vast enigma of South Africa, he continues, at age 62, a work of human encyclopedia. Everything remains arduous, complex. How to make palpable this country of imprisonment, without yielding precisely to the confinement of the systems of representation? Miserable blacks, whites in shorts, anger, violence: these clichés are not fictions, but – and maybe it's worse – they aspire everything, even the best wishes. It is also for this reason that Santu Mofokeng is a major photographer: he belongs to the very small family of seers. No eyes. There is a lightness and delicacy in the clichés that make something precious to every human being. For that, we would like to kiss him.
Read also (subscribers edition): The revolt of the schoolchildren of Soweto
There are so many pitfalls when one tries to approach the essence of a nation where everything has been crushed by the machine to crush the meaning. The catalog of South African ideas is a labyrinth in which it is so easy to get lost. In his early days, the young man of Soweto learned the technique in the bastions of the white press, where he was – as of course – destined to remain only an accessory actor. He chose, rather, to devote himself only to the essential.
After touring the streets of Soweto to take portraits and photograph weddings, in 1985 he joined the Afrapix collective of whites and blacks opposed to apartheid. He also meets, including that of another seer, David Goldblatt. This is the moment when he could become a photographer of the fight or photoreporter. But that's not exactly what he's looking for. And because he does not own a car, and can not work fast enough to the demands of the news, he finds his way. He draws a methodology, another approach. Later, he will summarize it as follows: "Slowness has become my strength. "
Read also (subscribers edition): The good conscience in purgatory
Stories, Santu Mofokeng, at FOAM Amsterdam. From February 15 to April 28, www.foam.org