Johannesburg has been seductive for photographers since its very beginnings. Partly this is because of its dramatically unequal economic structure, with grandiose and often brutalist official architecture, huge concrete and glass paeans to capitalist wealth existing alongside slums, squatter camps and all the detritus of a citizenry in abject poverty.
Documenting this through the photographer’s lens has attracted many household names to the City of Gold — Magubane, Goldblatt, Schadeberg among them.
Photographer Caroline Suzman joins this illustrious roll-call with a newly curated selection of her work on show at Wits Art Museum. Titled I Declare I am Here, the exhibition documents the contemporary identity of the city through images that interestingly combine street portraiture with cityscapes reflecting some of the current realities of the inner city.
Another prominent characteristic of the city is its mutability. Decentralisation, white and capital flight to the suburbs and Sandton, and recent government neglect have conspired to make the inner city a place where migrant and transitory inhabitants create their own urban identities.
This is the world Suzman’s images capture and reflect upon.
An important part of the photographer’s approach here has been to capture her subjects, all generally passers-by going about their business, against a backdrop of the colourful explosion of urban art in downtown Jozi in the forms of murals and graffiti. Suzman was seeking to compile a human record of Joburg’s inhabitants in 2019, 25 years after the advent of democracy, and it is an interesting and salutary social and political exercise to reflect on how things have moved in the city in the years since. Four or five years ago, there was an aura of hope in Suzman’s subjects, a sense of purpose and colour surrounding the lives she has captured for a moment.
Little could we know that the crumbling walls, potholed roads and graffiti-covered concrete flyovers and underpasses would become the de facto state of the city. Suzman’s compositions seek out the colourful juxtaposition of the combinations of contemporary and traditional fashions of her subjects against the bright and vibrant optimism — and even political protest — of the public artworks that form the backdrop of the images. The palimpsestuous sense of Johannesburg’s vibrancy and street life is beautifully conveyed, in a joyful palette. Suzman quotes her mentor David Goldblatt, who, when explaining his use of black and white film when documenting SA society, famously said, ‘Colour [is] too sweet for apartheid.’
Suzman’s colourful corrective to documenting the people of postapartheid Joburg is brave and positive. We certainly need more views of the city that can persuade us that hope is called for.
Showing at the Wits Art Museum until May 13.