Changing the world through photography

“Photography is not a photocopy of reality” my lecturer in photography said in our first class. A photo is not necessarily an accurate duplicate of the world, because it adds subjective feelings and opinions. Africa and Africans have been subjected to many othering discourses that add negative feelings and are based on unfavourable opinions. This is especially visible in the history of South Africa. Omar Badsha is a South African photographer who lived through the era of Apartheid. In a recent public debate at the University of Pretoria on occasion of the launch of his newest book Seedtimes, he explained how he uses photography to change the world.

Badsha is a self-taught photographer, who started out taking pictures of the work circumstances of chemistry workers to assist the advocacy of their trade union. He also photographed people in townships and protest actions against Apartheid. “I use photography like an author who uses words, or a painter who uses paint,” he says, “to express what happens in a community.” This does not mean showing only the problems and misery in the townships. “I photograph their everyday rituals. I use the camera to explore the space they create, and the dignity they have.”

The point of Badsha’s photography is not creating art, or purely documenting life. He uses photography to agitate for change. This change should happen not only in actual living circumstances, but also in the way people think. The people he captures in his photographs are the major actors in changing society, and in his photography, Badsha aims to empower them and change their mindset. Being black in Apartheid times meant being worth less than a white person, a notion that penetrates and diminishes the sense of self and personhood. The goals of Badsha’s photography is to tell a different story. “We are human, not just black”, Badsha says. “The central concern in our art was to articulate what it is to be a black person.” Photography is a strong tool to do this. Instead of portraying black people in a stereotyped way, as exotic individuals or as inferior beings, Badsha’s photography shows them as humans. “In the book you see relationships. You see a father and a son, a mother and a child. You see lovers. This is a different narrative than the stereotype.”

Photography should bring people together in a common humanity, instead of enforcing the stereotype of the exotic or inferior other. Seedtimes is a valuable retrospective on the work of an inspiring photographer who uses photography as political activism to change the world.

Dream tree

When we had just moved to Zambia, people often asked us: What is it that you miss most? The presumed answer – I guess – was ‘my family’ or ‘that the power stays on’ or ‘pindakaas’. What I used to answer, however, was trees. I missed the trees I grew up with. Trees here, they have another shape. Their leaves are just not right. Their bark is different. Maybe that’s why I like to play around with my photographs of trees: to highlight the sense of not-belonging that they give me.