Jenny Altschuler

Jenny Altschuler
Photographer and teacher of other great photographers in South Africa explain how it isn’t ethically right to use the people in struggle as photographic practice subjects. It is important that you do not exploit people and practice elsewhere, to photograph people in the struggle you must have a very good reason.

  View her work here 

Febby:

Perhaps you could read us a passage from the book?

Jenny:

So at the time in 2006 I was writing this. It’s called ‘knowing nothing and everything at this second’ so I have been photographing people in the street, in more personal spaces for over 25 years. I usually carry my camera tucked away in my bag, available if need be, it remains a constant urge to create recordings, and there is no relief. The luxury of having a break between assignments or doing canvas quietly in the studios, does not apply to my practice, if I leave the time to shoot on this basis, it is not as much as an issue, it’s mastering up the courage each time to approach the subject even if it is a relative at a family event. That part of the process is always difficult. Knowing that there is intrusion but also knowing that I cannot up stay if I am to be part of this enigmatic relay that is photography. I seldom agree to be the official photographer; this frees me to satisfy my own search, mostly to complete my own cycles from intrusion to climate, from intuition to climax. Most of my images are portraits in which their relationships are integral to the theme, those of human beings in their environment to relationships to each other, to themselves and to me. I have photographed women but also men and children. I’m attracted to photograph beyond the physical. To achieve this in each case I have access to a sense of intimacy with the subjects. For me relationships are what make people alive, what makes them human. I aspire to include a sense of a state of being or life forms. Sometimes it may be my own state of being but it is the intimacy with the subject that generates it. Yet in many of my images, the people are not my family, friends, or even acquaintances. I do not present people’s names unless I know them well before I make their picture.

My photographic encounters are anonymous and momentarily anonymous, their intensity and light of knowing nothing and everything for seconds being the ultimate intrigue, the images appear to be documentary and to certain extent they are, I have found these characters in those environments and I have allowed them in my images to allude a certain factual evidences, yet I often ask no questions. I’ve allowed a construction of a narrative or a series of suggestions to acquire naturally, poetically (photographically, because in that sense I was equating poetry with photography) which creates what the photograph becomes, the fusion of fact and fiction become so intertwined that is does not matter anymore that’s the way I’ve chosen to portray it. It is the artistic license and not a photojournalistic responsibility with which I am concerned.

The titles are ‘the kiss’ supplementary mother and child’ ‘Seapoint promenade’ about the year of 2000, the thing is it wasn’t digital photography so I didn’t record the time or the date. So I could see within all the different sheets of negatives it was around about 2000, it could have been about the end of 1999 or 2000. Cause this was already 2006 and women in the strand was in the early 80’s and this one for example, it might not have looked like that to outsiders, I’d really like your opinion, but I really like the idea of these which were kind of like church steeples, the triangle and she was very much an Afrikaaner, and the church which ruled during the Apartheid and that quiet mightier of look. So I don’t know if that comes across, kind of like Cartier Bresson he would always stand at a venue and a space, a place and wait for somebody to come around the corner. Because the place was just so right, and the energy was so right, and so the people would come around the corner, and he would manage to photograph something harmonised with the background.

 

Febby:

Looking at this photograph and not knowing the background details of the subject, not knowing who she is and I don’t know what anything means but I do definitely get hostility from her. The stare is intense and the angle of the photograph makes her seem like she’s looking down at you.

 

Jenny:

It’s sort of like, ‘stay on the outside’ and she’s still giving that, she’s proud of that.

Febby:

and the tree mirrors her pose, it’s so upright.

Jenny:

Sort of the balance and relative of composition is very important, when I teach, I’m always teaches about the boarder line being very aware of what you leave in and what you leave out and which point to crop, because a lot of people don’t think about that anymore because they can take 7,000 digital images of the same moment and they’ll crop afterwards. I think the best thing is to think the way we used to photograph when you had a liminal image when you had an image that you couldn’t even see the result of until you printed it and this is what was happening here and you know it was like magic the moment had to be just more than just anything it had to be everything. And so you only take like 3 images because you only had 20 on the role, 36 on a row and a photograph was more precious. You don’t have that so much anymore and sometimes you don’t even get the one. So this is that very important.

But the idea behind it was to challenge the idea of prying photographers and pushing through the boundaries because I want to be very sensitive about that boundary. So in here you can photograph naked people or you can photograph nude people, the nudeness would be the covering of nakedness, people wear nakedness actually wearing it, and they’re proud of their nakedness but it’s not naked, it’s nude because there’s one extra layer. You know when you look at a nude figure, it’s not an intimate image, and it’s nude.  And there’s a difference when you look at an image of someone and they’re naked and they’re vulnerable and you can feel that they’re something more intimate about that. And so I was like really trying like not to go over the boundary and so to give them their complete intimacy and not expose them, rather to present them.

Febby:

And they do look very comfortable. Is it harder to photographs people you do know very well over those you have just been introduced to?

Jenny:

I would say that that is a very difficult question because sometimes you know, sometime yes and sometimes no. it depends on you know, it depends on who they are. Some people just naturally need their private space more and some people who can come right into the space and if you do it well then they are okay about it. So I was photographing completely different subject at the Arderne gardens in clement, people come to have their wedding photographs and I wanted to look at that and what they were doing and at the side of my eye I saw this couple intimately kissing each other and looking intimately into each others’ eyes I public and they were very proud of it. And I really love the idea of it, I want to photograph love, I don’t want to photograph pain I’m very protective towards pain, so when I teach my students are not allowed to photograph pain, poverty or trauma unless they have they gave a really good reason, they can’t practice on that. And I know people do that, they go out and photograph pain because it’s more profound you now. You don’t see lots of photographs of happy people in newspapers unless they’ve won the lottery or something. But I’m very interested in doing that, very interested in photographing people with real pleasure. So some people they’re fine with you coming to this space and other people are not. And then you got to work with it more. So this grandmother, I put that up long before, and I was photographing this circumcision, and after the circumcision and like Cartier Bresson says ‘the decisive moment is not necessarily when the event happens, it could be before, it could be long after’ the decisive moment is when everything, all the elements meet all the plains meet and the moment happens. It’s a little bit like magic, afterwards this happened and after the circumcision I didn’t like one picture that I took. And that usually happens. I don’t show I would say 99 Per cent of my pictures, because they miss the mark. Sometimes it’s not always about confrontation, I have written to myself a lot of the times with these pictures that its usually looks like enforcing people to look at me and I want them to present themselves to me, and I thought well maybe it’s the other way around maybe I need to prove myself to them that I’m alive, and that they need to see me. That one layer of needed to say I lived, and say this is who I am, but nobody would think that, you would have to write it down and say, because we are so used to seeing through a window when you look at a photograph, so used to looking into the photograph and not looking at the photographer, thinking, oh that’s a nice portrait of that person, they wouldn’t start naturally unless you train it in photography to maybe think of maybe other things. But you wouldn’t think of what is the photographer trying to say about him or her and that’s what I said the other day you like I think that photography is actually self-portraiture.

Febby:

I just want to know about how you started out teaching photography? And perhaps tell about the origins of your theory bases when you started teaching photography. Because you said you don’t want people to focus on the struggle and the pain themes and trauma and poverty.

 

Jenny:

I don’t mind people focusing on pain, if they have a very good concept and if the images are going to be used. I think it’s a very bad reason to practice when you’re not going to be using them. A lot of people take hundreds of photographs they literally walk around the townships and use it like it’s a free for all because people are poor, you know they have a right to those images and they just snap away at people who are already vulnerable and they don’t even use the images. But if the student had a really good concept of why they wanted to go and do that then of course that would be great, but it’s not the place to practice depth of field you know. Poverty is more profound than happiness, if you look anywhere in the world, it’s hard, lately only lately in literally over the last ten years you’ll find a lot more happy images, but they’re usually attached to a moment, they are about that moment, they are not stay with forever or daily life.

 

Febby:

do you mean in South Africa specifically or everywhere?

Jenny:

Everywhere, newspapers, they are not interested in happiness, they want to show catastrophe. So I’m saying that that’s not where you should be practicing you time frames like that, or even portrait. But if you get a really good idea, then you go out and you make all the steps before you ever shoot, you listen you share; you have to share yourself with your subjects. It’s not your images, you will not survive if it was not for those subjects, you are completely and utterly dependent on those subjects, therefore you have to be gracious, but people are not gracious, photographers are not gracious, they are egotistical. I would say that I’ve escaped that but you must fight, you must fight it, because you share, you share yourself, the secret to intimacy in photography is sharing yourself.

So how did I start photographing and teaching? Immediately after I started learning, whatever I learnt I wanted to give over. I’ve taught at the community arts project in district 6 which has an amazing community centre, it was multi-racial it was non-racial, it was the only place that actually had those programmes. It was an alternate education for those that couldn’t afford the mainstream education. Pam, Warn (not sure about spelling of name) and myself were teaching there and we were just really fortunate to be commissioned by the world cancel of churches to start looking into the story of the street children and so in 1984 and we wanted to do this as a class project but everybody peated out, they were scared and only one of us students continued and he was an older man so he was, he took it into his stride. But it was a very difficult situation because the children had started coming in from everywhere and we did this project called, another street. Which was about the strollers, they were called strollers. It was the first project ever done on street children, we did this for 9 months and we got so close it was almost impossible for us to extricate ourselves, well me especially because I could speak Afrikaans and pam couldn’t so I would interview them and they loved us so much so that they stole for us, which we didn’t want them to do but also we didn’t want them to moralise, we didn’t want to say you cant you mustn’t you must believe in Jesus, because that’s what everybody else was doing, there was these homes that they could go to off the street , like the homestead one of them was called.

 

Febby:

How did you pick who would feature in the month of photography, if there were a selection process. Would you follow a theme for that catalogue?

Jenny:

I had five people on the selection panel, and they viewed everything, I viewed everything first and then they viewed everything. I mediated because, sometime they were a little bit to sharp too hard and I kind of felt there was a place for some of the work, some of it wasn’t finished. Always I never ever rejected anyone, what I said was okay this is not working yet, you’ve got time go away think about this and this and this and I would tell them what they need to do. And if they came back then they could be in. Only one or two people only ever had to go away twice. Other would not come back. So it was a very inclusive process. But this last one I did have a selection panel and I just mediated for one or two people who went aback and came back again. But it is a very inclusive thing.

 

Febby:

I was reading this earlier, a section from the mop catalogue. And I wanted to ask you something that you had written in here. You wrote an extract about South Africa being ‘on the brink’. I just wanted to know what you meant about that.

Jenny:

‘on the brink’ meaning on the edge of what happened before and sort of going into the future I really felt that now was the time people were making images that were not about apartheid anymore but that some of them were thinking about self-portraiture. They were thinking about ‘what is Africa’ what is South Africa now. Africa and South Africa. What does it mean?

Febby:

a lot more identity and self-identity based work emerging

Jenny:

Yes, what does it mean now, what do those words mean, who are we, what is the identity of this country of the people, now that we’re not anymore what we were.

Febby:

Do you think that’s how most photographers are sort of thinking now?

Jenny:

I think that photographer in 1993 for the next 10 years 8 years, were completely flawed about what to photograph because apartheid was such a profound subject matter. That was the subject matter, or those people how wanted to make a voice because nobody knew. When that fell, a lot of people gave up. Those that didn’t suddenly had to find new subject matters and they turned, inwards, towards who each person was, so diversity started coming out. And there’s a beautiful book called 2004 a state of democracy, 10 years of democracy, by the Iziko museum, Emma Bedford was the curator and pam whom is the curator photography and new media and she died last year from kidney failure.

 

Marlene Dumas’s work on looking past race showing that there was much more diversity, showing it doesn’t matter if you’re black or white or whatever. With each face the faces are almost unrecognizable, it’s an unidentifiable persona. And it’s called selfie, and the whole world has become so self-oriented, people are not photographing the outside they are photographing the inside.