Griffiths Sokuyeka’s laughter is misplaced. He uses it to punctuate trifling facts, like the age of the building, or the common names of the sections in which we linger: ‘foyer’, ‘atrium’, ‘fountain’, ‘theatre’. He has been giving the same tour of the 1820 Settlers Monument in Grahamstown for over a decade. The sequence and wording are of his own invention, with occasional guidance from his employers, the senior custodians of the Grahamstown Foundation and its assets. Griffiths Sokuyeka is a caretaker in the building, and, indeed, he takes care in his responsibilities, which extend to hoisting and lowering the flags of South Africa and the Grahamstown Foundation each day, turning the fountain on and off, and generally preventing disorder within his ambit. He does these things with a proficiency that signals a greater aptitude. There are visitors to this site for whom he hopes to make the experience exceptional – schoolchildren, especially those who come for day trips from the townships. And so he invests these tasks, which a different person might have thought mundane, with a special gravity. It is still summer, but his collared shirt and tie are immaculate over what must be a thick vest. He has the decorum of a waning generation.
Sokuyeka features as one of two protagonists in a new film work by Mikhael Subotzky. The film, titled Moses and Griffiths after its principal subjects, reconstructs Grahamstown’s history through the narratives presented by Sokuyeka and Moses Lamani, who works as a guide at the Observatory Museum on the other side of the town. By the time I arrive in Grahamstown to observe Subotzky’s work-in-progress and meet Lamani and Sokuyeka, he has interviewed them almost daily during several long sojourns in this small Eastern Cape town.
Subotzky received the Standard Bank Young Artist Award for Visual Art in 2012. The Award grants the winner a travelling solo exhibition, which customarily starts at the Monument Gallery in Grahamstown and then shows at as many public institutions around the country as are able to include it in their annual programme. Subotzky has been preparing Moses and Griffiths, a key element of his award show Retinal Shift, in the town itself. There are five other pieces, some of which reconfigure material he has made or collected in the last ten years, while others, like Moses and Griffiths, are newly filmed.
Moses and Griffiths proceeds from two architectural sites symbolic of inspection: the Observatory Museum, which contains a Victorian camera obscura built for the purpose of locating the town doctor, and the 1820 Settlers Monument, a brutalist hulk erected in the 1960s to ‘watch over’ the English language in South Africa. The tours given by both Lamani and Sokuyeka originate in some physical feature of the buildings where they work, whether the mechanism of the camera obscura itself or the assortment and layout of rooms and theatres named to honour cultural saints, and then vault to the history of the town. At Subotzky’s prompting, the men have also been talking about their own lives on film, revealing their personal histories embedded in the streets and buildings of the town. These four stories, each man’s official tour and the personal tour that is its counterpoint, their clashes and convergences, will be orchestrated in the installation.
Sokuyeka’s tour starts with the history of the British citizens who sailed to and finally settled in South Africa in 1820. Their saga is punctuated by numerous ‘challenges’: destitution in their homeland, a long time at sea and then a protracted war with the Boers. Although Britain’s colonization of South Africa was fraught with abuses, he portrays the settlers as well-intentioned and vulnerable. The inception of the Nationalist government in South Africa in 1948 is described as a threat to the survival of the English language in the country. The advent of apartheid does not figure in his narrative, as though within the concrete and yellowwood shell of the Monument a world exists where the most sinister thing D.F. Malan could have done was ban the reading of Thomas Pringle.
With little change, Sokuyeka has been faithful to the settler history he tells, often deliberately avoiding other narrative strands in South Africa’s past. After a blaze destroyed the Monument in 1994, much of the building’s interior had to be reconstructed, and many South African artists offered support by donating artworks to the Grahamstown Foundation. Despite Sokuyeka’s efforts to solicit information about these more recent works, his knowledge of the Foundation’s art collection ends at the Cecil Skotnes woodcut panels commissioned in 1985. These hang in the central atrium of the Monument, and Sokuyeka regards them as a highlight of his tour. He decodes them slowly, one at a time, adding ornamental pauses and repetitions. Now and again, he looks the camera straight in the eye.
The effect, when the footage is played back, is that Sokuyeka appears to look directly at the viewer. In so doing, he breaks with the cinematic convention that so well facilitates an audience’s suspension of disbelief: in the ordinary course of things, the actors never look directly at the camera. We pretend they are unaware of being watched, and nothing is demanded in return, besides, perhaps, the cost of a movie ticket.
With Sokuyeka looking occasionally into the lens, it is possible for us to fantasize that the inspection proceeds in both directions, that we are not simply voyeurs. In fact, as we might with a photograph, we may imagine that he does look at us. His image holds this power for as long as Subotzky’s material survives, even after the embodied Sokuyeka is no more. This simple, vertiginous truth – that the photograph (or film) can survive its human subject – preoccupies Roland Barthes in his personal account of looking at photographs, Camera Lucida (1981, English). It is the only quality that Barthes insists is essential to photography, as it manifests the medium’s most affective power, or its ‘punctum’: the displacement of time.
Though Camera Lucida has often been treated as theory since its publication, Barthes himself positioned the text as a personal meditation. It is plain in the work that his objective is to find a language to enclose the dispossession he feels when looking at a photograph of his deceased mother as a young girl. This image, which is not reproduced in the book, is its fulcrum. He replicates the melancholy with which he pores over the photograph in his reading of a selection of images of strangers. He identifies the most powerful components of these images as those incidental features that strike him as laden with pathos. The straps on a pair of outmoded pumps worn by an African American woman in an early twentieth-century family portrait; the way a grieving mother clutches a sheet in a 1979 Koen Wessing photograph taken in Nicaragua. For Barthes, these are examples of the punctum: the things in a picture which induce not a feeling of shock, but something like sadness (if not sadness itself). The punctum is ‘that accident which pricks me (but also bruises me, is poignant to me)’ (27). In the case of the photograph of his mother, this ‘accident’ is the time that has accumulated between the taking of the photograph and Barthes’s discovery of it. This too is incidental. Time accumulates with no regard for the picture or its viewer.
Barthes grimly reads this as the inscription of death within the medium of photography: a photograph of a living subject is a memento mori. It allows someone to ‘look at us’ into perpetuity, even from beyond the grave. Moreover, he writes, it reminds us of the inevitability of our own death. In this respect, the photograph is a kind of monument. Barthes writes of the experience of looking at a photograph as peering back in time. But taking photographs, rather than looking at them, is about future memory, or imagining a future in which one looks back in time. In Barthes’s day, the eventual decay of analogue photographic images meant that these small paper monuments were themselves ‘mortal’. They were at least less permanent than stone. However, with the digitization of the medium, the possibility exists that photographic and filmic images will survive as far as we can imagine into the future. The potential of the digital image to live on into perpetuity recalls a line near the end of Geoff Dyer’s The Ongoing Moment, in which he challenges Barthes’s macabre conclusion. There is a ‘simple message that is also there in all photographs,’ writes Dyer: ‘“You are alive.”’ (254)
What Camera Lucida fails to acknowledge is that one’s sense of being looked at from the past (or from a future past), by the eyes of a photographic subject, is misleading. When Sokuyeka looks directly into the lens of Subotzky’s camera, he is not looking at another person, even though he appears to be. When we look at him on screen and assume the position of his addressee, we are really only inserting ourselves in place of a machine with a single, prosthetic eye. During the filming process, the direction of Sokuyeka’s gaze is a measure of his personal connection to what he says. Some weeks into their work together, Subotzky encourages him to alternate his routine tour of the Monument with an improvised one about himself. This personal tour, a history of Grahamstown peppered with his own experiences, Sokuyeka calls his ‘profile’. In these sessions, it is as if he wants to look over or through the camera, to reach Subotzky’s eyes. In response, Subotzky moves the camera to his shoulder while still filming, and Sokuyeka anchors his eyes in Subotzky’s. In these moments, it is just as Barthes writes: ‘The Photographer’s “second sight” does not consist in “seeing” but in being there’ (47).
As with his regular tour, Sokuyeka becomes increasingly at ease with performing his personal tour, sloughing off his stories. He tells us that during the evenings, at his home, he looks through a box of photographs in search of ‘things’ – by which he means memories – for Subotzky and the film he is making. The camera’s promise has given a particular curvature to his life; Sokuyeka too wants to be remembered. Amongst all the plaques and stones, he wants one of his own that recognizes his having ‘done something for the Foundation’. He says, ‘They must put my name on the wall over there, and they must always say, “Griffiths: we remember everything he did for this place.”’
A Blinding Flash
There is a scene near the end of Alfred Hitchcock’s 1954 thriller Rear Window, in which the protagonist, a wheelchair-bound photographer with a penchant for spying on his neighbours, watches as his girlfriend is caught snooping in the apartment of a man suspected of murder. Jeffries, the photographer, calls the police and they arrive just in time to save her, but as she is being escorted out of the apartment, the murderer, Thorwald, realizes that he is being watched. He looks back at Jeffries with intent, and the lights in his apartment go out. Within seconds he is in Jeffries’s building, on his way up the stairs to the photographer’s apartment. All Jeffries can find to defend himself against the imminent attack is a box of flashbulbs. Once Thorwald gains entry, Jeffries closes his eyes and fires off the flashes one after another, blinding Thorwald for a few seconds. In order to protect himself from the penalty for his uninvited looking, Jeffries blinds his opponent, reinstating himself momentarily as the only one capable of using his eyes against the other.
At the entrance to Retinal Shift are two giant, blind eyeballs. They are images of Subotzky’s eyes, and were made under circumstances which recall the climactic scene in Rear Window (bar the mortal threat to the protagonist). Very near to the camera obscura in Grahamstown, there is a small optometry practice, where, amongst other things, the optometrist must occasionally photograph people’s retinas. This is done to check for irregularities that do not reveal themselves conclusively in compromised sight. Subotzky, who as far as he can tell has perfect vision, asks for a portrait of his eyes. The image can only be made using a bright light, which is flashed directly into the pupils. It is momentarily blinding. In an especially bare way, this gives a lesson: the difference between a reciprocal, consenting gaze and the kind of looking that analyses and takes stock – and surveillance is precisely this sort of looking – is someone’s blindness.
In an interview with Bernard Stiegler titled ‘Spectographies’, Jacques Derrida compares the gaze of Barthes’s photographic subject with that of a ghost. The connection is already embedded in Barthes’s text, and follows naturally from his fixation on death. For Derrida, though, the ‘ghostliness’ of the photographic gaze consists in our not being able to return it, just as the feeling of being haunted is related to an inability to see something we suspect is present. Derrida calls the ‘right of absolute inspection’ which both the ghost and the photographic subject enjoy a ‘visor effect’ (Derrida and Stiegler, 121). In surveillance, the visor effect is reversed. The voyeur exercises absolute inspection, regardless of whether or not it is his right to do so. It is only when the subject by accident looks back at the surveying apparatus, whether an eye or a lens, that this relation fractures.
Surveillance imagery does not feature in Camera Lucida, but if it did, Barthes might have introduced a third kind of punctum, the awareness of looking with absolute power. This is the power that shatters when Thorwald in Rear Window looks back at the spying Jeffries, jolting him into a fearful awareness of his own guilt. There are similar moments in two of the works on Retinal Shift, namely Don’t even think of it and CCTV.
Don’t even think of it is a film made from material collected when Subotzky was still an undergraduate. Its rough, stop-frame aesthetic is a consequence of the limited SLR camera technology available at the time – today affordable SLR cameras can shoot seamless high-definition digital films – and this is the first time Subotzky, after some deliberation, is showing the piece. Shot from the window of his apartment on Kloof Street in Cape Town, the film surveys the goings-on down below in the street. The subjects of the work are oblivious passers-by and loiterers, some destitute or simply languid, and others on their way to work or to buy bread. For a while, we watch people sleep, scratch, bicker. At one point, there is a prolonged shot of a man sitting in a corner trying to masturbate. When people walk past, he covers himself up, but thanks to the activity on the street, he can never find a long enough stretch of privacy to finish his task. It belongs in a private space, in a dark room, not on a public pavement. Some men who have stopped to eat are driven away by a guard and then a woman in a flat above pours buckets of water down on the spot to clean up the mess. Towards the end of the piece, the camera is trained on other apartments in the area. Until now, no one has noticed Subotzky spying through his lens, and then suddenly, a young man standing on his own balcony sees him. With an accusing look, he raises an open palm towards the camera, as if to chastise Subotzky for what is clearly felt to be an invasion.
The ability to look, at one’s leisure, at ‘once-privileged views’ (Phillips, 11) is one of the most significant outcomes of the development of camera technology in the twentieth century. The reduction in scale of cameras, the increased range of their lenses and their progressive affordability have, in the words of Sandra Phillips, ‘encouraged viewers to tolerate or seek out or breech [sic] or at least question what we, as a culture, did not seek out before this invention … without the threat of public approbation …’ (11). Naturally, there is a long precedent in the history of photography of images of subjects who are, or seem to be, unaware of being photographed. Among many examples, one could mention Walker Evans’s well-known Subway Portraits (1938–41), taken with a hidden camera; Merry Alpern’s Dirty Windows series (1994), which shows the clientele and staff of a high-class brothel in New York’s financial district, shot from a window across the street; and the remarkable series of four images by Brassaï, also shot from a window, titled A man dies in the street, Paris (1932). The first image in this series shows a man, soon to be discovered as a corpse, lying on a pavement. As people realize he is dead, a crowd gathers around the body. The crowd swells, and then dissipates again, revealing that the body has been cleared away. The subject of the work is not so much the dead man as the crowd’s fascination with him.
A similarly morbid spectacle is the focus of the second of Subotzky’s surveillance works on Retinal Shift, a piece titled CCTV (2012). This time, however, the viewer of the work takes the place of the crowd. The piece comprises 12 clips of colour CCTV footage captured at night in various locations around Johannesburg’s inner city. These clips of varying length are presented in a grid; they begin at different times, but two thirds of the way through the piece they are all playing simultaneously. These glimpses of the night-time city range from the mundane to the horrific: besides two blithe tyre thieves and a pair trying to remove a manhole from the road, two men are badly battered and then robbed and left lying on the street. In a particularly unnerving clip a mob of men and women beat and stone a man. It is impossible to conceive of his survival as he lies on the ground afterwards like a rag. All the way through these episodes, the surveillance cameras zoom in and out of the scene, following certain characters and scanning the surrounds. The control-room operators change the view at all the right moments: just when one wants a closer look at a brawl or someone’s secret pottering, the camera zooms in, as if at the viewer’s will.
CCTV ends unexpectedly, with a piece of choreography that is partly Subotzky’s and partly the Johannesburg Metropolitan Police Department’s. After being arrested, the perpetrators of the various crimes we have just witnessed are forced to look directly at the hidden surveillance cameras. The cameras zoom in and, for a few seconds, it is as if the actors in all these dramas leave their fictional worlds and peer out at the audience. The moment recalls others in Retinal Shift – Griffiths looking into the camera, the man on the balcony asking a question of the hidden camera and the voyeur behind it – and reminds the viewer that the material consumed is not cinema. It is real, and like Brassaï’s crowd, we have been engrossed in witnessing real violence and the termination of a life.
War photography and photojournalism in the twentieth century have established a convention in which the photographic representation of violence is almost always associated with gore, or at least the suggestion of gore (what is traumatic in an image of a bomb blast is the suggestion that bodies will have been destroyed). Susan Sontag writes on this topic critically in the polemic On Photography (1977), and more sympathetically in her later work Regarding the Pain of Others (2003). These works have had great influence on the reception and presentation of images of violence, but in the discourses of trauma and witness studies, which have emerged subsequently, comparatively little attention has been paid to the experience and effects of various kinds of structural or institutional violence (rather than institutionalized violence, such as the routine violence in concentration camps or prisons). This is a kind of savagery by systematic silence and silencing. Its victims may perceive themselves as its beneficiaries, or even its accomplices. It is a kind of violence that South Africa has preserved in many of its public institutions, despite the collapse of apartheid. Retinal Shift sets up a complex equation between physical and institutional violence, suggesting a generative, and often complicit, connection between the two. This is evident in the presentation of Moses and Griffiths in the same exhibition context as CCTV, but the subtler implications of South Africa’s retention of structural violence are conveyed in the large installation I was looking back.
In I was looking back, Subotzky presents a selection of photographs from his archive, displayed collectively on a single wall in the exhibition. The viewer’s eye glides from images of the artist’s friends and lovers at leisure, and a family picnicking in the street (apparently under the watch of a private security guard), to the shocking image of the charred corpse of a Pollsmoor Prison inmate who died in a fire. In this wide-ranging assemblage of personal and professional images – as indeed in Retinal Shift in its entirety – Subotzky appears to be taking stock of his work and career thus far. But the whole he creates, one the viewer’s gaze might wish to glide over effortlessly, is subjected to a disruptive new interpretation: the glass shielding several of the images has been deliberately shattered. The effect is a visualization of Barthes’s punctum, a literal rupture in the smooth, obliging surface of the picture. This paradoxical gesture both draws attention to these works and obscures them. Even as he asserts his authorship of the work, his presence at the scene represented, he complicates the nature of the violence done in image-making. Here violence is done not only to the subjects but to their representations, perhaps to the notion of representation itself.
A Dark Room
Across the valley in which Grahamstown shelters, in the dark turret of a Victorian house museum, Moses Lamani examines the sunshine as it hits a gaping crack in the road. He peers closely at the street from inside the camera obscura atop the Observatory Museum, where he spends hours with Subotzky, both of them watching the day get on with itself. An employee of Grahamstown’s Albany Museum, which manages the Observatory Museum, Lamani is sombre, a would-be historian. On most days his task is to act hospitably towards tourists, almost always foreign, who wander into the Observatory Museum. When they do, invariably sweaty and in groups, he leads them up a gnarled staircase to the roof of the building and then encloses himself with them in the pungent darkness of the camera obscura.
With even greater rote precision than Sokuyeka, Lamani gives a panoramic ‘tour’ of Grahamstown using a camera obscura that was originally built for the purpose of locating the town doctor. Completed in 1882, the device was intended as both a scientific curiosity and a tool for surveillance. Today it is so redundant it is almost arcane. Each time Lamani gives a tour, he replicates identically every tour that has come before. Not only are the words entirely without variation, even his tonal inflections and emphases are the same. He does it automatically, with neither obvious fervour, nor obvious boredom. He begins the tour in half-light, the door ajar, with a quick overview of the mechanics of the camera obscura. Then he closes the door, grabs two ropes hanging from the ceiling, and begins to pull, as if he were steering a medieval boat. A mirror turns and after a white flash there is a swatch of Grahamstown, spread out in real time on a white concave disc.
The white disc onto which the camera obscura throws its projection is a tiny stage in the round. The actors are the pedestrians and commuters in the streets around the museum. They walk onstage and off again, as if in a procession, carrying loads and pushing trolleys. They appear to be oblivious of being watched. No one ever looks up to check the direction of the mirror, and their performances are never shy. Subotzky spends days observing the world on the white disc. His own camera is perched on the rim, recording what happens there. Sometimes he wants to run downstairs and climb into the turret’s secret theatre and meet its characters. Upstairs he wills them to move into shot. But when they won’t cooperate, Lamani transports him to a new view with the tug of a rope. ‘Can you take me to the Monument?’ Subotzky asks, and the town whirls, and the Settlers Monument squats on the horizon. Subotzky zooms in and out. Together, Subotzky’s digital camera and Lamani’s lurching mechanical one are a voyeuristic monster-machine.
The Observatory Museum’s locale has become the ‘wrong’ side of town over the years. The camera itself gives excellent views of the Shoprite Checkers supermarket, a petrol station and the courtyards of various hotels. These feature in Lamani’s tour of the town, a 360 degree survey of its highlights, as per the camera’s reach. Initially, it is perplexing that they should be included, alongside other such obvious points of interest as the Cathedral of St Michael and St George, and the Monument in the distance. Then it becomes clear: Lamani, like Sokuyeka, has been encouraged to share his personal account. Although Lamani is less forthcoming, these seemingly random ‘stops’ on his tour begin to make sense as he interrupts himself to tell his own stories. The petrol station, up the hill from the old Odeon Cinema, is the place to which his girlfriend’s brother would drive to fill his car with petrol. On weekends, Lamani and his future wife would go along for the ride and walk down to the Odeon to see a movie. The former Grand Hotel, today a student residence, was where his mother used to work as a cook, often bringing Lamani and his siblings leftover food at the end of a work day.
His personal interjections shipwreck the tour. Fresh thoughts unmoor him, and the only way he can navigate back ‘home’, to the street outside the museum, is by grasping for phrases he knows by heart.
One afternoon, as Subotzky sits in the darkened cabin with his camera poised, the scene on the white disc curdles. There is a great wind propelling a fire up a hill, towards the local Afrikaans high school, Hoërskool P.J. Olivier. Local university students and middle-aged couples drive up to the Monument to look at the fire and what it has ruined. Subotzky and I go up there too. The hillside is black and fuming, and at the cusp of the slope there is the vermillion charge on the school. Subotzky sets up his camera on a tripod on one of the Monument’s balconies. There is not much left to see besides smoke and two dauntless men with pails. Spectators come and go. The real action was around lunchtime, and it is already close to four.
That evening and the next day the fire is on the front page of the local paper, and it takes a week for it to travel through the sheaf of newsprint and burn itself out.
A fire destroyed much of the Monument in August 1994, and the memory of this municipal trauma envelopes the afternoon hillside blaze. It is as if a scar has been pricked, right through the dumb, translucent tissue at the surface to the knot of nerves that grow underneath, where the wound is remembered. Sokuyeka recalls that first fire. It happened one night while he was on duty. He found it. It started in the old auditorium at 2 a.m. He telephoned the fire brigade and then ran. When it came to giving statements at the police station later, what should have been a matter of recording an eyewitness account became a protracted and racist interrogation. His employers accused him of politically motivated arson, and he spent two months enduring the caprices of newly post-apartheid, small-town policing. ‘I’ve still got that in my heart,’ he says. ‘Still here.’
Sokuyeka’s story crumbles on the Yellowwood Terrace, a sun-bleached, superfluous walkway, on which he began his career at the Monument sweeping the carpet. This is his favourite place in the building. It reminds him of his career’s humble beginnings, and from here he can see all of Grahamstown’s churches, the township where he lives and the house in which he was born. It is here, one day, that he goes too far into himself. He finds himself alone on camera, and he weeps for everything: his family, the ancestors on Makana Kop, his exclusion from school, the word ‘kaffir’, his own memorability.
It is 4.30 p.m. The Grahamstown Foundation taxies its staff home, and Sokuyeka still has work to do. He straightens his shirt, shares a brittle hug with Subotzky and rubs his hands together. He is ready for tomorrow’s session, he says, and away we stride in his wake, to the flags.
Roland Barthes, 1993 (1980), Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography, London, Vintage Classics.
Jacques Derrida and Bernard Stiegler, 2002 (1996), ‘Spectographies’, in Ecographies of Television, Cambridge, Polity Press, pp. 113–35.
Geoff Dyer, 2006, The Ongoing Moment, London, Abacus.
Michael Fried, 2008, Why Photography Matters as Art as Never Before, New Haven, Yale University Press.
Thomas Y. Levin, Ursula Frohne and Peter Weibel (eds), 2002, CTRL [SPACE], Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Sandra Phillips (ed.), 2010, Exposed: Voyeurism, Surveillance and the Camera since 1870, New Haven, Yale University Press.
Susan Sontag, 2001 (1977), On Photography, London, Picador.
Susan Sontag, 2003, Regarding the Pain of Others, New York, Farrar, Straus and Giroux.