Tarini Malik, Assistant Curator at Hayward Gallery, discusses the work of the late South African photographer Thabiso Sekgala with photography curator and educator John Fleetwood, Director of Johannesburg’s Market Photo Workshop between 2002 and 2015.
Tarini Malik: Thabiso Sekgala was a student at the Market Photo Workshop from 2007 to 2008, during your tenure there as director. Could you briefly introduce the organisation and its role in contemporary African photography?
John Fleetwood: The Market Photo Workshop is a school for photography, as well as a gallery and project space. The photographer David Goldblatt established the Workshop in 1989, and since then it has played a critical role in creating opportunities for young photographers. Over the years, it has created a community of practitioners inspired by the possibilities of photography and the role that it can play in our conflicted and constantly changing societies. I was the director of the Market Photo Workshop between 2002 and 2015. During this time, there were a number of photographers whose work started to define itself in relation to ‘post’-Apartheid. These photographers were interested in identity politics and were moving away from the ‘struggle’ photography that had defined documentary practice before then, but were still very much engaged in critical social issues.
What were your first impressions of Thabiso as a photographer, and how did he come to study at the Market Photo Workshop?
There was something about Thabiso that immediately commanded attention. As a 26-year-old student, he was a bit older than the rest of his class. Perhaps it was this maturity that made him a particularly attentive student – although I suspect his thoughtfulness actually came from long before then. His work dealt with issues that he thought about a lot – things that had directly affected him when he was growing up. Before starting at the Market Photo Workshop, Thabiso had worked in a fast food outlet, and he continued to work there part-time during his studies in order to make ends meet. He completed his Foundation and Intermediate Courses at the Workshop, but didn’t continue with an advanced course. Instead, he joined the ‘Borders’ Masterclass in 2009, one of the Workshop’s public programmes that questioned parallel and divergent political and social boundaries in South Africa. In 2011, he was awarded the prestigious Tierney Fellowship, and was mentored by the photographer Mikhael Subotzky.
When Thabiso spoke about his work and his development as an artist, he often referred to his peer group from the Market Photo Workshop. What was Thabiso’s relationship with his peers, and what made his work distinct?
The Photo Workshop had small courses; a maximum of 12 students per class. The intimate size of these classes built strong bonds between the students – vulnerabilities and strengths, and internal and social struggles were all exposed.
Around that time, documentary photography was shifting fast to look at the self, rather than at others. For Thabiso, this meant that he wanted to speak about growing up in-between KwaNdebele, one of South Africa’s homelands, and Johannesburg. He would regularly travel to stay with his grandmother and then with his mother, the one to the other, from the city to the rural. He often spoke about this sense of in-betweenness, ‘this place of being in one and thinking about the other’. His practice was informed by this, as well as by his street conversations with people who had real stories to tell, and by his street smarts. More than anything, he was a great listener, and his experiences allowed him to find empathy and engagement. The people he photographed felt they could speak to him as a person, not just as a photographer.
Thabiso used square-framed medium format film for his photographs. How did he settle on this approach?
Even though the majority of the syllabus was in digital photography, many young photographers at the time chose to work with film. It became a trend. I don’t know why. Certainly, it was not my plan! As the Director of the school, I wanted photographers to play with new technology. I think it had something to do with the ritual of it – working with film meant that you had to prepare more for what you were planning to do. For Thabiso, I think it also had to do with the fact that this type of camera did not get in the way of or dictate the conversations he had with these young people, waiting for taxis in wide open landscapes.
Here Is Elsewhere includes a large body of work from Homeland, an early series that Thabiso completed at the Market Photo Workshop in 2011, a few years after he graduated. What was it like to see this work in development?
Thabiso always made photography look easy. I remember a time when the series was nearing completion and the exhibition was coming up, but he needed some more pictures to tie it all together. We discussed the need to show another aspect, another dimension, and considered how the manifestation of bureaucracy could add to the series. Thabiso came back the following week with dozens of new images that suddenly made our job of editing even harder. Not only did he manage to get into the most obscure places, but his images were informed by incredible conversations.
The photographs in the exhibition Here Is Elswhere were taken in the South African homelands as well as in Berlin, Amman and Bulawayo, but there seems to be an uncanny sensibility that ties all of these images together, or at least points to shared experience.
For me, Thabiso’s work is characterised by tenderness – towards people, places and even objects. This tenderness stands in stark contrast to the harshness of the world. Away from the mega-narrative of structures and strictures, what strikes me is his ability to communicate with individuals about everyday hopes, without ignoring the fact that photography writes and makes history.
Lastly, what do you think Thabiso’s legacy will be?
Photographers carry many stories. It can become very heavy. They deal with vulnerability, and all of those big things that young people constantly have to negotiate – love, independence, material conditions, prejudice. Perhaps Thabiso's legacy is that we are more aware that it’s not just about the photographs but about what happens around the camera. I think Thabiso’s work also shows us that you can look at things that appear to be simple, in order to understand more complex things.
John Fleetwood (b. 1970, South Africa) is a photography curator, educator and director of Photo:, a platform that develops and promotes photography projects and photographers. As a curator and educator he is interested in the developing modes of documentary photography, questions of representation and positionality, and visual cultures.
Thabiso Sekgala: Here Is Elsewhere is at Hayward Gallery’s HENI Project Space between 28 August and 6 October.
Hayward Gallery is open 11am – 7pm every day, except Tuesdays when the gallery is closed, with late night opening on Thursdays until 9pm.
Main image: Homeland, Nklele Machika or Mary Koketse, Sehoko, former Bophuthatswana (2010) Thabiso Sekgala. Image courtesy of the artist and Goodman Gallery