Street photographer Toka Hlongwane’s reflections on analogue vs digital in South Africa

Amidst the petrol bombs (Molotov cocktails) and teargas, a photographer rode his cranky fixie bicycle on an assignment far different to the ones other (predominantly white) photographers were on.

It is 1988; South Africa is on the verge of an indispensable political civil war that would claim more lives in seven years than Apartheid did in its forty years of existence. The world is sending their best media practitioners to the heart of the action so they can binge watch as the drama unfolds. In Thokoza (an anaemic township on the east of Johannesburg with the highest death toll of any township during the officially reported four years of unrest –1990-1994) violence was erupting amongst other political anxieties.

It was a war between taxi warlords fighting over routes. The conflict seemed subtle at first because these service bosses were fighting amongst themselves. Most of the taxi drivers and owners were migrant laborers from KwaZulu Natal, who had inhabited the single sex mine hostels built by the Apartheid regime in almost every township of Johannesburg. Suddenly the turmoil unmasked itself and became a tribal and political war as the divisive regime pitted the hostel dwellers that were affiliated with the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) against the locals who largely pledged allegiance to the African National Congress (ANC). It was a silent war designed by the administration to discredit the narrative of any black leadership of South Africa, much like J Edgar Hoover’s Counter Intelligence Programme (COINTELPRO).

Reporters from all over the world hurdled to this township as this war of machetes, spears, homemade firearms and AK-47s escalated. Photographers would capture the most beautiful images of these gruesome massacres that became a daily occurrence, and the world marvelled as they binged this seemingly never-ending primitive war. The streets were constantly sprawling with soldiers and police as well as civilians who had now become garrisons defending an alluding freedom.

Amidst the petrol bombs (Molotov cocktails) and teargas, a photographer rode his cranky fixie bicycle on an assignment far different to the ones other (predominantly white) photographers were on. Abuti Lali, as I later learned his name, was peddling to my house to take the first ever picture of my existence. He had been making a living from taking the small doses of joy the Thokoza Township had to offer when it took time out from warmongering. He captured the weddings, family portraits, christenings, beauty pageants, birthday parties and everything in between. He and fellow photographers just like him became the archivists of the ghetto’s glimpses of joy. Abuti Lali became an extension of our family; every portrait we have is credited to him; from me riding my first tricycle to my younger sister’s baby pictures in 1999.

At every event he was there, everyone I knew in my hometown had a Lali portrait. Photographers like him were the only ones who held the keys to the township, because mainstream photographers were not popular in these spaces as they were seen as agents of propaganda. The handful of mainstream black photographers, who found their way in, would be cursed and told that they were selling black people’s narratives to white folks. This is a recital I constantly hear myself each time I’m in a township with my own camera. If it’s not that, then I am confused for being a photographer like Abuti Lali, and I am asked how much I charge for a picture.

I was startled by the fact that for all these years the truth had been hidden in plain sight and I was oblivious to it, or rather hadn’t cared much to be honest, because I was enjoying the honeymoon phase of digitization and modern day technology.

By 2007 I’d stopped seeing Abuti Lali, and it was only recently when I went to visit and interview him for a documentary I am currently producing that I caught up with him again. Why My Fstopped (a working title) is about community photographers, like Abuti Lali, who had to cease fire when the digital age took over.  “Aaah monna I became irrelevant in your lives…’’ he wryly said when I asked him where he had been in the past decade. “You guys bought Motorola V3’s and other fancy camera phones; people also started buying same time photo machines, ke tla reng…” (What can I say?)

I was startled by the fact that for all these years the truth had been hidden in plain sight and I was oblivious to it, or rather hadn’t cared much to be honest, because I was enjoying the honeymoon phase of digitization and modern day technology. Abuti Lali reminded me of people who suffer from EHC (Electromagnetic Hypersensitivity Syndrome) that are allergic to Wi-Fi signals, because they too are irrelevant to the vast majority of us who bask in the comfort of this new invention. We greatly benefit from technology and digitization and don’t stop to think about some of its detriments. As a small time photographer myself, I have benefited from these digital platforms because some of my work has been exhibited in Europe, which would have not happened, or would have maybe taken longer if I wasn’t at the mercy of technology.

Everyone with an Instagram account has agreed to waive their image rights when they click ‘agree,’ which is an odd downside of this digital space.

With the same breath of excitement for my work being boundless, I am always skeptical about posting my images on platforms like Instagram because they have a clause that they can sell your images to anyone without your consent. Everyone with an Instagram account has agreed to waive their image rights when they click ‘agree,’ which is an odd downside of this digital space.

It’s all rosy and colorful that African creatives and entrepreneurs benefit largely from this centralization of information. We can even tell chronicles that are censored in some of our own countries. However, how much of ourselves do we lose as a unit when one of us becomes internationally acclaimed? How much of our narratives become diluted by the west and become monetary generators for western empires? More so, how long will we endure seeing most of our works lose personality? From an image-making point of view, most photographers are just concerned with getting that picturesque portrait with an African aesthetic; just like every magazine is doing. No one is concerned with telling lens narratives that are a true reflection of our existence in these current times.

It would be a fallacy to say Africans are now just people with an eclectic fashion taste – as depicted by every second photographer whose work is online. The allure of mainstream global recognition has taken away that aesthetic of African story telling that was present in Abuti Lali’s lens narratives and even in the lens narratives of great black photographers like Bra Santu Mofokeng, whose only reference and inspiration were their surroundings, unlike us modern black photographers who have a huge western influence and approach to our art. We have used the west as a benchmark for our skill-set and achievements, and the West continues to generate fortunes from our narratives and give us a crust of the loaves we have baked.

I am simply saying let’s use these platforms to rewrite our own narratives in the most unapologetic and genuine way possible.

It’s a constant pull and push scenario because one might read this and say “hey, the analogue world wasn’t ours either. What is your argument?” Well my argument isn’t one that suggests we discard the west and its inventions, I am simply saying let’s use these platforms to rewrite our own narratives in the most unapologetic and genuine way possible. Photographers like Abuti Lali had created a new type of photography only known to black people; it was a well-curated hybrid style that embodied contemporary, street, journalistic, documentary and fashion photography alike. You can never pick up a magazine and see a picture that resembles this style of photography nor see them on any gallery wall. It was a style that told a narrative of every aspect of our community and depicted people how they wanted to be portrayed. Street corner dwelling thugs would call upon the fixie rider and pose with their 3 Stars, Knives and guns for a picture. In the heart of Johannesburg CBD, lovers would pose in Jourbert Park for a photographer similar to Lali to capture their relationship goals portraits. Strangers’ faces shared a home in these photographer’s reels. Yet their generation ceased to exist because a new wave of technology hit our shores and left a lot of people in the dark.

Had Abuti Lali had the same digital knowledge and access, he would have probably recreated the market for his and his fellow photographers’ work.

“First of all, most photographers like me are self-taught,” he said. “We were never really educated. The system had very little options for most us when we were growing up. So, when the digital era was introduced a majority of us were found wanting with no plan. Our livelihoods were threatened, the mainstream and art world didn’t recognize our form of photography as art, so many of us had to find jobs like everyone else. It was hard to reinvent oneself because of the lack of knowledge and access…”

He continued: “….Your generation now has the responsibility to tell these stories that we once told adawise mangamla o tle le buysetsa ditory tsa lona – Otherwise the west will start selling you your our own content back.”

This is true, as we have witnessed how often we buy back our own culture for a higher price than the one we sold it for, just like we have been doing with our minerals. I won’t be morbid and drag the tale of the tantalum that is poached from Congo to fuel the devices that make these digital platforms accessible to us. However, I will say buying our culture back from Marvel in the form of Black Panther was us celebrating and applauding the white man for finally acknowledging our existence: not to take anything away from Coogler’s brilliant work.

The same threat of digitization that forced Abuti Lali to find himself working in an industrial firm today is now looming again in Africa. As a consumer I am fascinated by Netflix. However, as a director and media practitioner in South Africa I worry because of their rigid business approach of just paying VAT in our country and not employing a single South African, yet generating billions since their introduction in 2016. This reminds me of the way international mining companies once claimed they weren’t in a position to pay tax in Zambia, while they drilled the shit out of that country – for lack of an academically appropriate term. Free-to-air-and-pay TV channels in South Africa such as Multichoice are obligated to pay VAT, PAYE, company tax, UIF as per the country’s regulations, and on top of that they have to pay a skills development levy, and invest in local content development, including independent productions. These are some of the contributions actively made to our economy, along with being forced to be 30% black owned. They aren’t the cleanest of people to make an example of. However, we can lend them our soap in this regard and let them slide with also trying to monopolize the subscription TV market.

We are more than capable of creating lucrative industries in our own back yards that will see us not only authentically telling our own chronicles but also competing with global giants.

If we stand aside and let western channels do as they please in our countries for the sake of being entertained, then we are rendering a chunk of black creatives useless and later unemployed, which breeds a new sequel of the struggling artist’s tale much like the one of Abuti Lali. We are more than capable of creating lucrative industries in our own back yards that will see us not only authentically telling our own chronicles but also competing with global giants.

The unintended consequence of digitization for western empires is that they have given us the tools to further create our own destiny. So let us not be gullible or fooled by the allure of accessibility to things which were already in our grasp, but instead create platforms within the digital space where we set the benchmark of how we portray ourselves and ought to be portrayed.

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This commentary by Toka Hlongwane comes from a partnership between Let’s Be Brief and People’s Stories Project (PSP) – part of the British Council’s arts programme in sub-Saharan Africa. Click here for more info.

Images courtesy of @thesunburntson

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