09 May 2009


What do you think of when you hear that someone is a professional photographer? Richard Avedon, Ansel Adams, Annie Leibovitz? Being a pro photographer is such a desirable job for some people that they are happy to work for free as interns and spend money and time amassing a portfolio after having completed a three year university education. I had an encounter recently that made me think differently.

On Saturday a friend took me to the Johannesburg Art Gallery, an old museum in the middle of Joburg's CBD, an area nowadays considered to be mostly unsafe to visit (not just for tourists and whites. I heard the same from Dixon, who is black and from the Congo and has been living as a taxi driver in Joburg for 20 years). I have learnt to take people's advice on 'unsafe' areas with a grain of salt, but the gallery does border on a main minitaxi rank which makes it a pretty crazy place to get to by car.

Anyway, Daniella finally took me there, and we spent some time looking at their photography collection. One series was pretty cryptic to me, showing portraits of young men wearing analog cameras round their necks, with a caption detailing their name, provenance and length of time they have been a photographer. They seemed so incongruous, and Daniella explained to me that they work in Joubert Park next door.

Later we came across Mandla as he was photographing two women in the gallery gardens. We decided to have our pictures taken, too, so that's how I got to talking to him and some of the other photographers in the park. Mandla has only worked as a photographer for one year, and he shoots people's portraits on an old Pentax K1000. Another photographer was using an analog Canon, but I did also meet one guy - who had been working in the park for 10 years - who had a digital camera, including a semi-portable Sony photo printer complete with small lead acid batteries for power all packed up in a rucksack.

Mandla and I had a strange conversation that made me realise how differently we thought about what it meant to be a professional photographer. When I asked him how he enjoyed his job, I was expecting him to tell me about his customers and whether he felt that he could portray them in a good way, but he just mentioned that sometimes he only took one or two photos a day, so at 20 Rand a photo that didn't come to much of an income. When I asked him where he learnt photography, and whether he thought of himself as an artist, he was silent. Asked about his camera, lightmeter and flash, how he used them and what his techniques were, he just told me that he would set it to 5.6 at a 60th when it was cloudy and to 250th when it was sunny. I realised that we completely misunderstood each other, and my questions were pretty meaningless to him. He worked in analogue film, not because of some aesthetic, but because the camera was cheap, and his customers had their photo taken not from any artistic desire, but so that they could send a picture home to their family or give a likeness of themselves to a boyfriend or girlfriend.

1 comment:

  1. Hi Fiver, I must honeslty say that Joubert Park area is one fo the worst you can find in Jbozi and it sad that JAG, Joubrst Park, Rea Vaya BRT Station, Dri hill, Park Station, Historic buildings, Taxi Ranks and shopping centres.

    Radion 702 is asking listeners to come up with ideas on what improvements can be done where to make Joburg a better place in 2010? It would be nice if you can comment on www.702.co.za with what you think can be done better.