A Conversation with Mikhael Subotzky



Mikhael Subotzky is one of Magnum’s youngest and newest members, and his first book Beaufort West was one of my favourite photography books last year. I got interested in talking to Mikhael after seeing the book and reading a comment he had left on Magnum’s blog, under a post about photojournalism.

Jörg Colberg: A lot of your work so far has dealt with crime and punishment. You portrayed the conditions of prisons in South Africa, and your first book “Beaufort West” opens with an aerial shot of the little town, in whose very center there is a prison. How did you get interested in this subject matter?

Mikhael Subotzky: In 2004 we had our third democratic election in South Africa, and there was a prominent Constitutional Court case going on which was to decide whether prisoners could or couldn’t vote. This question interested me in relationship to our history of disenfranchisement, but also in relation to the experience of living in South Africa at a time when crime levels were supposedly peaking.


JC: Has your thinking about the topic evolved as you worked on the project, and if yes how?

MS: Well, 5 years later, I still feel like I am working on the same project. But within the sections of work that make up this project, there have definitely been distinct changes. Initially I thought of the work in traditional documentary terms whereby I sought to make visible that which is hidden - an aspiration that I think is particularly relevant to state institutions such as prisons. However, as I spent time in situation, I began to think of the work more broadly and contemplatively… having read some academic writing on South African penal history, and Foucault. I tried out different types of images, set up workshops with prisoners, and then expanded the project in the Umjiegwana series to look at the lives of ex-prisoners. At this point the work became much more personal as I established and built up relationships with a group of disparate people who inhabited the same city as me, but very different worlds. I began to see the work as my own exploration of my surroundings - a part of my attempts to make myself as conscious as possible. I also saw the work in relation to my gradual acknowlegement of how much the effects and fear of crime affected my own life. By engaging with these very different groups of people, I sought to cross the new lines that continued to divide people in a country which for so long has been defined by all the things that can possibly keep people apart.

As I continue with the work, I see some of the approaches converging, and perhaps heading to something of a more mature approach. On a primary level, I still very much see my work as being about myself, and my place. It is photographs of my personal experience of my surroundings. But as I learn more about the power of images, or perhaps the power of all texts (including photographs), and the power of narrative, association and imagination, I get more and more excited about making work. There are some image makers out there who manage to combine looking at the world in a serious way with a sense of magic that harnesses these powers. I hope to emulate them.


JC: I don’t know whether one would have the same impression living in South Africa, but looking from the outside - and from far away - it seems like South Africa had such a bright moment of hope when apartheid was dismantled and when Nelson Mandela was elected President, and so much has gone wrong since then, for whatever reason. Do you see it as your responsibility (if that’s a word you’d be comfortable with) to record what’s going on? To preserve this moment in time, maybe to foster some awareness and change?

MS: I am not sure if I believe that photographers can effectively take responsibility for such things. I do believe in the power of bearing witness, but I see it more as responsibility to ourselves - that we each have a responsibility to try and make ourselves as conscious as possible. Looking at the world around me through photography has become my way of doing that. While I am very happy that I can share images with others and try and show them things that they haven’t taken in, that isn’t the primary motivation for doing what I do.

JC: This sounds almost like the opposite of what photographers like James Nachtwey would say, who recently spent $100,000 to spread a message about some underreported disease. I’m wondering to what extent your approach to photography is also part of a reaction to seeing other people “preach” (for a lack of a better word). Given you are now also a member of Magnum you surely must have come across photographers who are very passionate about showing things that many people wouldn’t have noticed otherwise?

MS: I think it is great to show people things they choose or are conditioned to ignore, and I admire those who can effectively do that. But I do have a real problem with the assumption that photographers can change the world by telling these “truths”. Some photographers have precipitated amazing change with their images. But it cannot be assumed - especially when the medium for this “preaching” is the traditional western media. As for me, I want to do many things with my work… sometimes I do want to try and show people things that they ignore, sometimes I do want to make a political point, but sometimes I also just want to express myself and try and qualify my experiences.


JC: And how much of what you do with your work do you see as universal? How much would you say applies equally well to any other country?

MS: I don’t think any of it does. It’s about where I am, or perhaps where I happen to be. I am greatly inspired by David Goldblatt’s life project of photographing his surroundings in South Africa. Different projects that he has done vary greatly, but they all feel like they are part of a very deep engagement with his surroundings.

JC: I’d be curious to learn how you place your work in the context of some of the other photography from South Africa that has somewhat recently gained a lot of international exposure.

MS: I look at a lot of work, and feel inspired in some way by most of it. I am glad that quite a bit of South African photography has been receiving exposure, and I hope this happens more.


JC: And how would you put photography from South Africa in a larger African context? I realize this is a bit of a big question, but with South Africa being part of Africa, I’m sure that’s how many people would view the subject.

MS: Well we definitely have a very particular history of photojournalism and documentary photography here that relates to the polarized politics of apartheid where it was very clear who the bad guys were. And I was very much initially inspired by this tradition. But there is a huge variety of photographic traditions in the continent as a whole, and I would like to think that we can soon stop looking at the photography and art produced here purely in terms of this “African context”. There have been a number of very important survey exhibitions which have served to highlight that which is produced here. But now I think it is time to take the geographic context from the degree to which it is present in the work, rather then from that which is presumed by where it was made or who made it.

JC: You recently became a Magnum nominee, and I’m a bit curious about your experiences and about what you see as your (potential?) role as a member. Is joining Magnum something you have always wanted to do?

MS: My experience has only been good. I wanted to join Magnum because I saw it as a community of people who, despite their huge differences, are all interested in looking at the world around them in a serious way. Magnum is full of strange individuals, almost all of whom have found very interesting and unique ways of working with images. I feel right at home with that and hope to do the same over time.


JC: The pressure is on, though, isn’t it? Not just on you, since you will have to do whatever it takes to become a full member at some stage, but also on Magnum, which is widely seen as an agency that has got to find a way to orient itself in a drastically changed photography world. Photography is now increasingly disseminated over the web, and multimedia appears to be where things are heading. Whenever I’m in New York, almost inevitably someone mentions Magnum and how - supposedly - the agency seems to be in a bit of a flux. I’m sure there are as many ideas about the future of Magnum as there are members; so what are yours?

MS:The pressure is on, but I don’t see this as a unique situation. I think one of the strengths of Magnum has that it has always been in flux. Since 1954, when Capa and Bischoff died within days of each other, Magnum has always faced huge challenges and had to be constantly re-evaluating its practice and place in the world. There are many specific pressures in these times, including the ones that you mention, and Magnum does need to develop and adapt in its way of operating. But I don’t think the future of Magnum needs to diverge at all from its past - its about being a place where strong images are made and about trying to support those who make them.