Photo essay: Representations of a fluid spatial identity: the GCR in a photograph
- Date of publication: 1 December 2013
The ultimate wisdom of the photographic image is to say: “there is the surface. Now think – or rather feel, intuit – what is beyond it, what the reality must be like if it looks this way” - Susan Sontag.
In 2013 GCRO ran a photographic competition to document perceptions of the Gauteng City-Region (GCR) through the eyes of its residents. The competition gave students and staff at all tertiary institutions across the city-region the opportunity to present their perceptions of their city-region through photography and stand a chance to win prizes. The competition attracted over 600 entries. The judges were the renowned photographers Jodi Bieber and Roger Ballen, and the Chief Curator of the Hector Pietersen Museum, Khwezi Gule, who were tasked with selecting the entries to exhibit and the five prize-winning photographs.
The selected images were displayed at an exhibition, entitled ‘Portraits of a City-Region’, in April 2013. As its title suggested, the exhibition showed the GCR to be a place which has a strong ‘personality’, with which we are constantly building new relationships. The photographs together stood as clues to the many aspects of this multifaceted and complex spatial identity.
This essay critically reflects on the photographs submitted for the competition, and through this the value of photography more generally in representing the GCR. Photography has grown in importance in the social sciences research environment since its emergence in the early 1800s (Roberts, 2009). Various visual theorists including Sontag (1973), Carey (2006), and Barthes (1981) have debated its relevance as a medium of representation. Drawing on the insights of these theorists, this essay argues that photography is relevant in representing the Gauteng City-Region precisely because, like any photographic image, the idea of the GCR has no fixed or given meaning but is instead open to multiple interpretations.
STRUGGLES WITH [VISUAL] REPRESENTATION
Multiple readings: ambiguity and clarity
According to Sontag (1973, 1972) and Schwartz and Ryan (2003), photographs are loaded with messages. Schwartz and Ryan (2003: 5) argue that “the meanings of photographs of local landscapes are neither obvious nor fixed”. There is no universal meaning to a photographic image. It has as many meanings as its viewers because each one interprets it differently in his or her own way, influenced by their individual experiences and personal biases. In addition the meanings viewers give a photograph could accumulate or change over time, adding to its complexity. According to Berger (1972: 0), “the relation between what we see and what we know is never settled”. This suggests that there is no right or wrong way of reading images (Sontag, 1973).
While the image in a photograph is always open to multiple interpretations it is not radically indeterminate. First, photography is a political medium in that the photographer directs viewers’ attention to what they should be looking at, confining their sense of vision within a specific frame and focusing their attention on the moment reflected in the photograph. Viewers are not furnished with other contextual facts around the moment in order to clarify the context. Instead, they only have an abstraction of reality from a larger context. For example, we do not know the events leading to the bursting of the water pipe in the image below. All the photographer reveals is this snapshot in time. Through this, the photograph is able to highlight everyday elements otherwise easy to overlook. This activates the imagination of the viewer and forces them to wonder how the portrayed subject came to be in the state it is in. Photography becomes a political exercise because, for that moment, the photographer directs the viewer to what s/he deems important, implicitly asking the viewer to ignore everything else.
Some competition entrants captioned their images as a way to ‘guide’ the viewer as to how their images should be read. To some extent, these texts anchor the imagination of the viewer. They reduce the range of possible interpretations the image would otherwise lend itself to. Before reading the captions, readings of the images are potentially much more vivid. To me for example, the winning photograph (below) has a sinister element in it, some level of gangsterism suggested by the black suits and hat together with the smoking. To Jodi Bieber, one of the competition judges, the image triggered a sense of nostalgia through the warm and dream-like light. When reading the caption, ‘Sunday Morning’, initial interpretations of the image are challenged. Only at receiving his prize did the winner reveal the context around the photograph. “I took this image after a long night out with my friends (in the picture), and we hadn’t slept, and we were already on our way to church” (Blaq Smith, 2013).
Of course, captions do not always clarify what the subject matter is. Sometimes they only function as motifs that make a suggestion without revealing the real subject matter of the photograph. Some images submitted to the photo competition were captioned only as a way of justifying their suitability for a particular submission-category in order to enable the photographer to submit as many images as possible. In this case, captions are not reliable in indicating the meaning of a photograph.
Second, the photographic image by definition portrays a subject matter that exists in real life. Roland Barthes in his essay, Camera Lucida, reflects on the sheer objectivity of the photograph. He says “the photograph always leads the corpus I need back to the body I see; it is the absolute Particular, the sovereign Contingency, the Occasion, the Encounter, the Real, in its indefatigable expression” (Barthes, 1981: 4). There is nothing that reaffirms reality more than a photograph. To Barthes (1981), a photograph needs no augmentation. It is complete and what it portrays cannot be challenged as it is a replica of reality.
Hence the medium of photography contains a tension. On the one hand it portrays reality as we see it; on the other it prompts the audience to construct their own meanings of the portrayed reality. The medium is both definite and ambiguous. Both perspectives are equally important.
John Carey in his book What Good are the Arts (2006), compares scientific truth to ‘artistic truth’. He argues that “the former is verifiable and has definite answers while the latter is nebulous” (Carey, 2006: 253). Artistic truth is not universal truth. It is truth that an individual constructs for him or herself over an artwork such as a photograph. Artistic truth, or opinion, is the meaning of an artwork to an individual. A viewer’s perceptions are the truth – but only for him- or herself (ibid).
The GCRO’s 2013 photo competition sought to draw individual truths about the GCR to the fore, and through those truths reveal various dimensions of the GCR. The photographs collected represent a Gauteng City-Region that exists in people’s minds, anchored by physical elements other members of society know exist – such as iconic buildings and popular open spaces. Some of the spaces and objects portrayed in some of the pictures are widely familiar; but the particular meaning that the photographer gave to them was unique, warranting deeper enquiry as to what that meaning could be.
Photography is an extraordinary medium because although it shows only what is contained within the frame it also draws viewers out of it. It compels them to create relationships and connections in their minds based on what they see. As a viewer, a photograph makes me want to know how what is portrayed sits in the broader physical environment. I wish to locate the thing displayed in a broader scheme of things. Hence what is excluded from the frame of the photograph remains part of the narrative about what is shown. In this sense what is excluded from the frame – but nonetheless is still present – is just as important as what is included because when what is in and out are combined in the perspective of the viewer, the relationships that are drawn forge the meaning of the photograph.
Put differently the photograph is more than the physical object it portrays within the bounds of the frame. But that ‘more’ can only be determined by what is visible within the frame. Mundane and seemingly accidental aspects of the photograph are therefore often important details of the representation, as they reveal how other pieces of the story exist just beyond the frame.
Noting such dualities at play, we need to further explore the relationship between what is included in and excluded from the frame. We need to interrogate the relationship between what we expected to see in the picture, and what was in fact being shown; between the scene shown and the suggested landscape beyond; between how the image was framed to accentuate something “beautiful” and how other things considered “unappealing” were framed out; and so on.
In this sense, to think laterally about what an image really portrays we have to go beyond thinking in dichotomies.
Most photographic competitions have a tendency to emphasise aesthetics, regardless of what the competition is themed around. The predominant basis for judging in photographic competitions is visual merit – photographs are usually assessed on the basis of whether what they portray is “beautiful” or “great”, and there is often a failure to recognize that what is counted as “beautiful” is so only because something considered “less beautiful” exists. The two are mutually inclusive. Similarly, something is included in the frame only because something else has been excluded.
In my view a proper interpretation of the meaning of a photograph requires making a conscious decision to first acknowledge the polarities and then to proceed beyond them to explore the ‘in between’. There should be a pursuit of visual arguments that encourage contemplation of what we see in the image and what we don’t, and the dynamics between these two sides. Doing so necessitates less emphasis on aesthetics as the basis for determining the value of the representation. With this approach, we would be making progress towards an interesting and distinct way of seeing what a photograph really has to offer.
Due to the nature of photographic competitions – their tendency to value and emphasise aesthetics – it was fair of respondents to think the competition run by the GCRO was along the same lines. On balance submissions leant towards abiding to photographic rules on how one ought to photographically present spaces and places. The GCRO competition was most interested in different narratives about the GCR – different ways of thinking about and representing the existing region or its parts. It sought photographs that deliberately placed themselves far from the “popular” image. As we are talking about a space that isn’t perfect, images that revealed some of those imperfections and complexities were judged to be the closest to reflecting the nature of the space in question.
TO REPRESENT A CITY-REGION?
According to Schwartz and Ryan (2003), the photographic medium makes the world accessible. It affords the viewer an opportunity to visually access places they may not have seen before. The medium’s effectiveness in making places such as the Gauteng City-Region (visually) accessible to other people is bolstered when the value of images is not assessed simply on their visual or aesthetic merit. Images of the space, whether taken by an experienced photographer or not, rather need to be understood as each telling a unique story which is important in the exploration of the identity of the region.
As such, the GCRO’s photo competition set out to collect (visual) stories that do not idealise the city-region. For me, the most compelling images reflect particular moments in the life of the city-region – instances of protest, urbanization and governance challenges, negotiation of space, belonging, or other issues pertinent to this space in progress. The best images illustrate the precariousness of the identity of the city-region and how it remains susceptible to change.
Of course, the fluidity of the city-region’s identity is one of the key challenges in visual representations. The very dynamism of the space, the fact of its continuous transformation, often at a rapid pace, challenges the essence of the photograph, which freezes a moment to make it last forever (Barthes, 1981). In the GCR, reality rapidly changes as soon as it has been represented, at times even during the very process of representation. People in this region are constantly modifying their everyday environments, creating new meanings in old spaces – all within a myriad of external forces that trigger further ripples of change. Such change manifests through, for example, the way people traverse the city-region, access socio-economic opportunities, create homes for themselves and their families, and so on.
One may ask how a photograph then remains relevant in representing such a rapidly changing space. In this context, the photographic medium is valuable in documenting the evolution of space, its occupants and the relationship between them. The reality reflected in such images as those collected by the GCRO competition will remain relevant however fast a new reality emerges, which it inevitably will. Realities do not necessarily displace one other. ‘Past reality’ always serves as history, a lesson, the basis for better planning. In this sense, an old photograph will always bear relevance in explaining the present moment – not necessary in illustrating it.
The fluid nature of the GCR, even in spatial terms, invalidates a grand representation of what the city-region is about. As long as the region has no definite boundary, there can be no definite representation of it. The need to constantly engage with it in trying to represent it is also necessitated by the amorphous nature of its geographical definition. It is not easy to decide on whether to include or exclude some areas at the periphery as there is no visible boundary. At this time, for some people, some areas could be seen to fall within the GCR while at another time, and for others, they might be regarded as outside of it. We know that this space grows and shrinks depending on various economic and socio-political concerns, though it is not clear where and how these impact the perceived size and shape of the GCR. This makes it challenging with regards to how far out one can go in representing the region.
The photographs collected through the competition portray a space that is activated by habitation (Simone, 2004). It is only the heartbeat of the country’s economy because its inhabitants unlock that potential, making it work through various activities, some sanctioned and professional, others informal and provisional. Its residents give its infrastructure more than one use, expanding its utility to limits unimagined by its design. Through mundane activities like playing in the street as a kid, or swinging off a makeshift swing in the township, the space is brought to life. The region’s residents creatively demonstrate the opportunity this vast urban setting affords them on a daily basis. Such mundane activities are indicative of relationships people develop with the city-region at a human scale. These activities are testimony to possibilities inherent in a place of diversity, uncertainty, opportunity and crises.
>Ultimately, the images received for the GCRO competition frame the GCR as a space that is ‘configured’ more by how people relate to it than by where it physically begins or ends. The human element is central to its identity, not necessarily its geography. The best images received do not simply show physical elements of this space, but rather reveal intricate intersections between people and space, formal and informal processes, and possibilities for encounters with strangers. That is what the GCR seems to be in people’s minds. It is about intersections and connections people forge on a daily basis to interact with different aspects of the city-region.
Photography is a valuable medium in representing the GCR because it refrains from resolving the Gauteng City-Region. The photographs collected through the competition do not present a ‘complete’ image of what the GCR is about. They function as motifs to what the GCR has been and what it currently is. Being a space that constantly shrinks and grows, the identity of the GCR is difficult to reduce to a grand narrative even through a compendium of visual stories. The competition photographs provided no definite answers but instead used physical landscapes and people to inspire further reflection on the changing nature of this space. If we are prepared to view them properly, the images with their multiple possible meanings help us interrogate this space by representing its various and contrasting facets, and progress towards its representation is being made.
The photo competition images are not intended to be conclusions on what the GCR is and what it is about. They are meant to inspire a new wave of curiosity and debate over the nature of the GCR. Each photograph reveals a different side of the GCR and collectively, they paint an impalpable face of a city-region that continuously morphs its own identity at every turn. Reading the collection of images in this way demonstrates how, in its complexity, the GCR remains an incomplete and captivating space, not only in a visual sense but in how different people can carve their own spaces in it and forge relationships with it and each other. This indistinct identity accommodates different views, lifestyles and expressions of the region’s residents. In summary, it is challenging to visually represent such a space in progress. However the very nature of photography, given how images work to afford many possible meanings through each viewer’s process of connecting what is in the frame to what is outside, means that it provides many opportunities for the most appropriate representations. The more such processes of representation are opened up to people who inhabit that space – both those who take photographs and those who view them – the more progress can be made.
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Berger, J. (1972) Ways of Seeing, British Broadcasting Corporation, London
Carey, J. (2006) What Good are the Arts, Oxford University Press: Oxford.
Roberts, J. (2009) ‘Photography After the Photograph: Event, Archive , and the Non-Symbolic’, Oxford Art Journal, Vol. 32(2), 281-298.
Schwartz, J.M. and Ryan, J.R. (2003) Picturing Place: Photography and the Geographical Imagination, I.B Taurus, London.
Simone (2004) ‘People as Infrastructure: Intersecting Fragments in Johannesburg’, Public Culture, Vol. 16(3), 407-429.
Sontag, S. (1973) On Photography, McGraw-Hill Ryerson, Toronto
Photographs Copyright (C) GCRO 2013 unless otherwise indicated. Use of these images is subject to GCRO permission and acknowledgement of the photographer.