The Trajectory Of A Street Photographer

an excerpt from ‘The Trajectory Of A Street Photographer’ by Santu Mofokeng

Tardiness in returning photographs could cost you your reputation and business, perhaps even a beating. Most township people felt vulnerable and exposed when they gave you permission to take (or make) an image of them. Many felt that their ‘shade’ (the new anthropology term), ‘seriti/isithunzi’ (in the vernacular), or `soul’ (the older missionary term) was implicated in the process. They feared that their essence could be stolen or their destiny altered by interfering with the resulting image or images: ‘Camera-man, why are you taking so many photos of me. What are you going to do with the rest of them?’ Often I found myself at pains trying to explain why I have to make many exposures or to do a re-shoot. I imagine that my early experience as a street-photographer explains why I still use comparatively very little film on professional assignments.

If all went well, clients paid me the balance due and took their photos. Most of these images found their way into family albums. Photo albums in the townships are cherished repositories of memories. The images in these albums are similar to the images in albums the world over: weddings, birthday parties, school trips, portraits – special occasions of one sort or another. They are treasuries of family history, visual cues for the telling of stories. The images are mostly of happy, smiling people, dressed to party and surrounded by food and drink. The more formal portraits are crafted to foreground what might be called petit bourgeois or suburban sensibility: everyone and everything must look its best. Sometimes the moment memorialised is the presence of the camera. Going through township photo-albums can sometimes be a tortuous journey for a photographer. Some people consider it impolite if you decline to partake in the ritual of looking through the albums when you visit, because it is a kind of an induction into the family’s history.

In spite of the popularity I gained by having a camera, I still did not consider photography as a career. The reasons were many, the main one being I was not making a lot of money. ‘Hey Santu! On the weekend of … (Friday, Saturday or Sunday) I/ we are celebrating our wedding anniversary/ 21st birthday/ unveiling of a tombstone etc., etc… I/We would like to invite you to be there. Be sure to bring your camera and don’t worry about film. I/We will provide the films and I/We am/are going to pay for processing and printing myself/ourselves! Or, I know someone/ brother/ cousin/ girlfriend who works at the processing and printing laboratory. You don’t have to worry. Come and enjoy yourself, you can bring your girlfriend and some of your friends along …!’ The real meaning of the invitation was that I was not going to be paid. Pressing the shutter was not considered work!

(c) Santu Mofokeng

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