Graeme Williams interview

South African photographer Graeme Williams' career began with a headlong plunge into the violence that marked the collapse of apartheid. He reflects on documentary and art, and discusses what compels him to continue to work in some of the country's most troubled spaces.

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i. Cape Town, South Africa 1990. An injured young boy is helped into an ambulance during clashes between police and ANC demonstrators. Two hundred metres away, Nelson Mandela delivers his first speech at the Grand Parade following his release from prison.
From The Struggle for Democracy
ii. South Africa, Ventersdorp, 1991. A policeman is shot during clashes with white right-wing AWB supporters while President F. W. de Klerk speaks to his supporters.
From The Struggle for Democracy
Braamfontein, Johannesburg, South Africa, 1997. From The Inner City
iv. Cape Town, South Africa, 2005. From The Edge of Town
Glen Cowie, South Africa, 2005. From The Edge of Town
Hillbrow, Johannesburg, South Africa. From In Da City
vii. Hillbrow, Johannesburg, South Africa. From In Da City

All photographs © Graeme Williams 

How did you start out as a photographer?

I went to work in the property section of [Cape Town newspaper] The Argus, which is as low as you can go in the world of photography! But the great thing was that if you got up early you could photograph all your houses and be finished by lunchtime. You had access to unlimited film, and you could really work on what you wanted to do.

My work was, at the beginning, far more documentary in nature. The art world was deemed to be kind of ‘messing about’ when you had something like apartheid lurking over your head.

How did you get involved with Reuters?

I was living in London, and I was at the Mandela 70th birthday concert at Wembley Stadium [in 1988]. There was just a real sense that South Africa was about to turn. So I purposely went back and I went to Reuters.

I’d never done news … they were just desperate to find someone who could man the office. So I learnt all the machines and how things operated.

Then Sam Nujoma from Namibia decided to attack, which was a ridiculous thing to do at the time because they were going to be independent soon anyway. So all these photographers pissed off to Namibia and I was stuck in South Africa, holding the fort, which at the beginning was fine because nothing was really going on. And then – this was in 1989 – suddenly the violence started.

I’d never seen a dead body before. And the first day it happened, I photographed three dead bodies. I’d thought I was going to be photographing a transition to democracy but instead I was photographing people getting hacked to death in townships. At one point it was reaching 50 deaths a day in the Johannesburg townships.

For five years that became my life. It was a very weird time, and extremely dangerous. Four or five of my colleagues got shot dead, and two committed suicide. It was a real thing. But there was also a fantasy aspect to it, because it was almost surreal. You were living in the suburbs but actually one’s real life became this extreme existence in the townships, and it was very difficult to marry those two.

"I’d thought I was going to be photographing a transition to democracy but instead I was photographing people getting hacked to death in townships."

Was there a period once that was over that you just had to stop and regroup?

It was a real cold turkey thing. When Mandela got inaugurated in 1994 I watched it on TV and I didn’t do news again.

Since then, my work has been far more about conveying a mood or a feeling than it has been about conveying information… That whole journalistic idea of putting a mirror up to the world – it’s not that it’s not true on a level. But there are too many other things that get dragged into that process – the photographer’s ego, that you can believe you’re on a side, all that stuff.

I suppose I got a bit of the naivety knocked out of me. So I don’t have any illusions that what I have to say is that remarkable; if I am able to communicate a sense of feeling or mood, it’s something that I’m happy to do with my life.

Having had such intense experiences in that early stage of your career, do you fear danger now?

Adrenalin is quite an amazing drug. If it kicks in on a regular basis you feel like you buzz through life. I think it’s like any kind of addiction, if you hang in there for five years and live off it.

Now it’s not so much that I fear things that I do, it’s more that sometimes I fear that I might get caught back into that whole adrenalin buzz.

There must be journalists that never kick the habit.

Yeah you’ve got to work really hard to kick it actually… If you want to photograph anything in any depth you have to be able to access levels of awareness, and if you’re buzzing around on adrenalin you’re missing a whole lot of things.

In a way it’s very easy to photograph violence – you just have to be there.

What did you work on after the decision to stop shooting news?

The first project I did, post that 1994 period, was called The Inner City and it was looking at isolation, because I was isolated and trying to get back into normal life. The inner city of Johannesburg was going through a mixed period ­– prior to ’94 it was mainly white, and at that stage far more black people were moving into the city, but it was still very separate. The way I photographed it was in black and white, and it was quite harsh and documentary in fashion.

And you’re back shooting in inner Johannesburg again now?

Now I’m going back and the inner city is almost 100 percent black. As a white person you stand out like a sore thumb. I’ve now got an ex-boxing champion as a bodyguard and we wander around. I’m photographing it for a project that I call In Da City.

Now I’m photographing the city as an outsider – it’s no longer something that’s familiar with my culture or upbringing or anything. So I didn’t want to photograph it documentary fashion because it would be me as an outsider giving my view of how I feel people are living in Hillbrow, which isn’t interesting and adds a judgement. So I’m photographing it almost by – you know when you look at something and you block out a large amount of the detail by squinting your eyes a little bit, and you just see a sense of a place?

Yes, a lot of the images are blurred…

It softens my gaze on the world around me.

A lot of the photography in the art world has shifted to almost non-photography… that philosophy that photographing without intent is almost equal to photographing with intent. And the trouble with that view, in my mind, is that the end result is photographing nothing. Because if you take that philosophy to its nth degree then every single thing photographed in any way is of equal value.

But I’ve found it interesting on a level and in this project I’ve taken it to a point, and that point is as far as I’m prepared to take the essence of that philosophy. I’ve still kept a degree of photographing something.

"You know when you look at something and you block out a large amount of the detail by squinting your eyes a little bit, and you just see a sense of a place?"

Your 'The Edge of Town' series of photographs seems to exist somewhere between reportage and art photography. The images have an immediacy and a closeness, but there are also interesting layers and shadows.

Yes, that’s exactly what that essay was trying to do. I did three things purposely in that essay. The one was that I broke down the actual physical space between myself and who I was photographing by immediately moving into their space.

At the same time, within each frame there’s always two or three points of interest. Prior to that project I’d always look for something that was the decisive moment and focus on that, whereas in this I wanted to force myself and the person looking at the photograph to move, to not be able to settle on one point of interest.

And the third thing was a layering of information – both of the physical, where points of interest were in the photograph, but also in terms of what I was trying to say with each photograph.

How do you find that people respond to you in some of the environments that you’re photographing them in?

I’m probably more introvert than extrovert, so it’s an interesting process that requires quite a lot of effort from me, to photograph people and interact on that level.

I’m interested in photographing the person or the person’s environment but I’m trying to do it without placing a judgement on it. And I have to say, it’s great because when I get it right people pick it up and they’re incredibly generous.

How do you feel about South Africa now?

I don’t read any newspapers, and I don’t listen to the news. I haven’t watched a TV news broadcast I don’t think since 9-11. And I’m not alone in that. A lot of people I know who were very involved politically have completely removed themselves, because present South Africa is so far from what we were hoping for that, in order to stay here, one can’t really engage – it would drive you nuts.

A lot of people left South Africa because they didn’t want black people to rule the country. But most people I know left because they couldn’t bear that the optimism we had during Mandela’s time, for what South Africa could have been, is just looking less and less like it’s going to happen.

So, given that backdrop, South Africa is so much a part of how I conceive – actually, I don’t even conceive projects, I just have this strong need to go and do something. I’m not on some kind of Samaritan trip or feeling like I need to change the world ­– it’s a far more internal thing. I need to do it for me actually.

But also, I’ve given you the negatives. It’s an incredibly alive place, and on an individual basis the people in South Africa are quite remarkable… As someone who uses photography to communicate moods or feelings, there couldn’t be anything better than being here.