Through the look­ing glass

Mail & Guardian - - Photography -

Since its in­cep­tion in 2011, the Ernest Cole award has been re­ceived by Dave Yudel­man, Ilan God­frey, Graeme Wil­liams, Feni and the 2017 re­cip­i­ent, Daylin Paul. As their names sug­gest, the first three re­cip­i­ents were white and male; in­con­gru­ent choices if one con­sid­ers the back­ground and per­sonal sac­ri­fices that Cole, a black pho­tog­ra­pher who cap­tured the un­fold­ing of apartheid in black peo­ple’s ev­ery­day lives, made to pur­sue his work — sac­ri­fices that con­tin­ued to haunt him to his death in 1990.

The award, which gives a pho­tog­ra­pher R150 000 to com­plete an ex­ist­ing project, was co-es­tab­lished by pho­tog­ra­pher and chief cu­ra­tor of the Cen­tre for African Stud­ies Paul Wein­berg along­side David Gold­blatt in 2011.

Although Gold­blatt has of­ten spo­ken en­dear­ingly of Cole, the as­tound­ing mag­ni­tude of his brav­ery and tech­ni­cal pro­fi­ciency, as ex­hib­ited in the book House of Bondage, he would not be drawn into dis­cussing the racial pro­file of the awards, stat­ing that what he was in­ter­ested in “was the qual­ity of the work. I mean, when we started the award, there were not enough good pho­to­graphs to be passed around [to war­rant a black per­son on merit], but the se­lec­tions were made in hon­esty in a way that we thought would make the award ef­fec­tive.”

The im­por­tance of race and the lim­i­ta­tions it presents are self-ev­i­dent when dis­cussing Cole’s life work. To con­tinue to pro­duce the images pub­lished in House of Bondage, Cole had to al­ter his racial clas­si­fi­ca­tion from African to coloured, chang­ing not only his clas­si­fi­ca­tion but also the spelling and there­fore the pro­nun­ci­a­tion of his last name from Kole to Cole. That an award bear­ing that name could be obliv­i­ous to the im­por­tance of rep­re­sen­tiv­ity in the se­lec­tion of its win­ners is quite in­ex­cus­able.

“The process of the awards was de­ter­mined by ad­ju­di­ca­tors linked to the Uni­ver­sity of Cape Town and out­side peo­ple,” says Wein­berg.

“The ad­ju­di­ca­tors, de­mo­graph­i­cally, came from all per­sua­sions of South African so­ci­ety. What hap­pens in doc­u­men­tary photography, in gen­eral, is that peo­ple who have come from priv­i­lege are at an ad­van­tage over pho­tog­ra­phers com­ing from other places.

“These are the his­tor­i­cal con­tra­dic­tions that ex­ist, but we have worked hard to broaden the base.”

The slow­ness at broad­en­ing this base has, in some ways, come to taint the award. In a num­ber of ways, Feni’s fi­nal prod­uct re­veals some­thing about the dif­fi­cul­ties in­her­ent in the award’s tran­si­tion from be­ing one that took these “his­tor­i­cal con­tra­dic­tions” for granted into one that seeks to over­turn them.

Feni says he met with Gold­blatt and Wein­berg on a monthly ba­sis. Was this enough to re­spond to some of the cir­cum­stan­tial chal­lenges Feni faced, who con­fessed, for in­stance, to los­ing a Mark 2 cam­era pur­chased with his award funds in a rob­bery of his Mfu­leni shack be­fore he could make much head­way with it.

In other ways, the award’s slow tran­si­tion has led to work that leaves a sour af­ter­taste in the mouth.

A quote at the back end of Wil­liams’s bril­liant col­lec­tion of pho­to­graphs (A City Re­fracted) says the pho­tog­ra­pher’s “highly sub­jec­tive views” of Jo­han­nes­burg “por­tray less about the out­side world and more about his in­ter­nal wars”. It’s an in­ter­est­ing quote for it cuts to the heart of my dis­com­fort with Wil­liams’s oth­er­wise mes­meric pho­to­graphs, pro­duced be­hind the pro­tec­tive wall of the black body­guards who ac­com­pa­nied him as he pho­tographed Jo­han­nes­burg. What could be more con­tra­dic­tory to Cole’s “nin­ja­like” ap­proach, to quote Gold­blatt?

Per­haps for the leg­end of Cole to loom large over South African photography but not much over the award it­self is a grave mis­take.

Ernest Cole Fam­ily Trust spokesper­son Les­lie Mat­laisane says the award was es­tab­lished prior to the for­ma­tion of the fam­ily trust. A sub­se­quent agree­ment be­tween the Uni­ver­sity of Cape Town (which hosts the award) and fam­ily mem­bers was over­seen by a party no longer in­volved in the pro­ceed­ings.

“I’d have done it [the agree­ment] dif­fer­ently,” says Mat­laisane. “We had to let him go be­cause he hasn’t been keep­ing the fam­ily abreast of the pro­ceed­ings. To a cer­tain ex­tent it does pro­mote Ernest Cole but it does noth­ing for the fam­ily.”

Cole’s work con­tin­ues to be un­earthed, of­ten through sleuth­like work through a se­ries of smoke­screens, smoke­screens that in some cases were cre­ated by peo­ple the pho­tog­ra­pher had en­trusted with the care of his un­pub­lished works.

In Cole’s coun­try, it would bode well for all par­ties bear­ing his good name to at least be on the same page of his­tory.

In the foot­steps of Ernest Cole: 2017 win­ner Daylin Paul’s

Bro­ken Land (above) and Wed­ding, Aderne Gar­dens, Clare­mont, Cape Town by 2011 in­au­gu­ral win­ner Dale Yudel­man, from the se­ries Life un­der Democ­racy

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