Born in Pietermaritzburg, David Southwood has been a practicing photographer for over a dedade – roughly the same amount of time he has spent observing, participating in and photographing the Milnerton flea market. In 2011 a collection of these photographs were published by Fourthwall Books, forming a powerful record of an outskirt economy seeking to earn a living through trade in secondhand goods.
Making up another notable portion of his body of work is Roads to Places, which is divided into the series’ Nothing in Particular, In Between and N1 Highway. For the latter (exhibited at Whatiftheworld gallery in 2012) David avoids the spectacular or obvious to present an awkward, often empty public stage comprised of events, personalities and traces of habitation encountered while travelling the N1.
His most recent project, Stowaways, examines the lives of a community of Tanzanian stowaways living under the National Road One in Cape Town – a collection of images that now exist as a broadsheet newspaper (with text by Sean Christie) called MEMORY CARD SEA POWER.
We spoke to David to find out more:
What is your earliest photography-related memory?
My grandfather had an old silver Leica 3 and I remember being impressed by this. He was a land-surveyor and had many forms of high-end optics through which I peered continually. Looking devices and wrist-watches have always caught my attention. Cameras are a blend of these two things. Roland Barthes says that they are clocks for seeing.
My grandmother died before a clear picture of her formed in my mind’s eye. She was very gentle and she had very soft white hair. Some time after she died, when I was young, I saw a back-lit portrait of her on a dry sports field on a moth-eaten contact sheet. Her hair was all white-hot fire and she looked into the camera wearing a fond smile. It seemed to me that photography was a supremely accurate medium that day. That’s probably one of my earliest photographic memories.
I am pretty sure a lot of guys know the cameras more than the medium. It’s like a little ’69 Mustang in the hand. It can go fast if needs be and it wields its own particular persuasive force.
What, in a broad sense, influences and informs your work?
I haven’t studied photography so the canon and its themes play little part in how I see the medium. I also believe that most of the threads in my work will knit together latterly, if at all, so anything now amounts to conjecture. As a tentative response I’d say narrative techniques, the ethics of representation, architecture, literature, walking around.
For over a decade you photographed the Milnerton Market, a project which has since been published by Fourthwall Books. What originally drew you to this specific market, and why did you feel it necessary to follow its development over such a lengthy period? What changes were you able to discern in the community over time?
When I came to Cape Town I had no money and the market provided odds and ends for whatever nest of reprobates I was occupying. It took such a long time to finish for a number of reasons: 1. It’s very expensive to publish a book and I didn’t have the money, 2. I was too shit-scared to commit to a body of information which would be fixed forever in a book form, 3. Until recently I haven’t had a bunch of trusty critics who I could ask for advice, 4 It’s essentially a weekend gig and I lived abroad for about 4/10 years. Most importantly I don’t want to waste people’s time by showing photography projects which are not thorough.
Lessons learned: 1. If one thinks hard enough there are ways to finance publications, 2. Not committing means that the project remains obscured which is not optimal, 3. Find a couple of homies who you respect/admire and ask them for advice which falls into their realm of knowledge – know what you are looking for in each critic’s response.
The proportion of white people at the market is smaller than what I initially observed, and those people seem to accept their lot now, albeit still reluctantly. The community of bric-a-brac has diminished in favour of contemporary mass-produced stuff.
Do you still visit and/or take photographs of the market?
Yes, I took a decision to photograph the part of the Market which I had found most difficult in part 1. The part is in the form of a white beggar called Jackie de Kock who sits at her stalletjie every weekend. She represents the lowest point of the market in a sense. If things were really to go badly then you would be Jackie de Kock.
I go to the market twice a weekend and photograph Jackie centre-frame. I have known Jackie and her minder Barbara (also very poor) for about 15 years and we all get along. It’s very difficult to kneel in front of a down-at-heel person with mental and physical disabilities twice a week, in public, and photograph. People mumble ‘fuck-offs’ at me frequently. Until one of us leaves the market I’ll continue to do this. It’s very important to embark on projects whose outcome is unknown I think. A preconceived, accurate summary of the result generally engenders boring shit.
The Milnerton Market is something that I’ll photograph as long as I live in Cape Town. These themes which emerged in Part 1 will be expanded upon in the successive series. Hoovers next.
The Milnerton Market series falls under a larger category of ‘Peripheral Economies’, which at this stage contains two other bodies of work. What fuels your interest in these outskirt communities?
It’s becoming clear to me that the space which people occupy has started to become a starting-point for series. The Milnerton Market and the Stowaways project both took place on reclaimed land. Reclaimed land is always complicated and contested. If you reclaim land it’s because there is a shortage and where there is a shortage there is generally fierce competition and where there is fierce competition people make interesting economic decisions.
A camera is a very good excuse to meet all sorts of people who’d normally be out of bounds. Taking a walk down some forgotten track and seeing what’s up is a great reward for being a photographer.
Your most recent project, Stowaways examines the lives of a community of Tanzanian stowaways living under Nelson Mandela Boulevard. Could you tell us more about the way in which you have documented them, and why? How did you initially find out about these men?
One scorching Saturday I parked my car near the foreshore underpasses and picked my way across thigh-high, inhumane barriers, dodging absent-minded weekend commuters to the looming underbelly of National Road One.
During the months preceding the Saturday the figures living below the highways and ambushed between the palms in the triangles of no-mans’ land which chamfers the hard civil engineering had accumulated in the corners of my eye and I’d decided meet them.
I clambered up an approach to a rim of the sump slung between the highways and unexpectedly reared up above the place which I had been observing from my speeding car at street level. The acrid-smelling burnt plastic, unremitting high sun, the guarantee of language misinterpreted and general trepidation at approaching a group of hardened bridge-dwellers fused sharply to give the impression of a thousand cicadas screaming.
My anxious conception of this place, which I had been watching from a car for some weeks, now tightened around a man washing himself with a crooked elbow beneath a tree some 20 metres below.
It takes a while for the eyes to adjust from the deep shadows cast by tons of concrete to intense white daylight. To my surprise there are at least 25 men dotted about: wedged into apexes, gambling intently at the foot of blackened plinths, collapsed under battling trees, waiting it out. Intimidated, I leave.
It becomes apparent to me that on weekdays this sump is denuded of people. They must have work. The following Monday I pick my way across a more intent fusillade of sealed cars to this amphitheatre. This time my descent is easier.
A strange atmosphere lingers under the bridge. Technically I am in someone’s home, but the domestic interior is ultra-public due to the roaring periphery of commuters, trucks and Kawasaki which streams incessantly and hems this stage in.
At its most refined the earth under the bridges is as fine as silt, silky and inviting. At its coarse end the earth is cannon ball sized and very impractical. A misty grey light, which I have not encountered before, wraps everything gently under the highways. The thought strikes me that perhaps there is lead suspended in the air. The vast plinths seem to suck in heat, or emit coolth. The blackened, grey swathes from countless fires which spring from the gap between the earth and concrete suck in light. The scene is cast in a permanent saturnine evening.
Boot prints, bottle tops, a sabre-tooth shard of metal featuring a handle made from wound-up plastic, the remains of an official travel document, the lower mandible of a cow, a half-submerged white packet flagging the spot. So this is what it feels like to be a Mars probe.
I come across what must be a bed and begin to read the scrawled notes at its foot, which supports a highway.
All of a sudden I realise that a ghostly armada of ships floats on a sea of graffitti. I can see inside the ships.
God bless da sea
Rashidi mwanza to sea
neva afrika again
Professor ngaribo Mzala
i like ship no like pussy Sea never dry
Opportunity never come twise
Escape from cape
Sex man chateka, from vingweta
In all of the instances where you have photographed people belonging “peripheral economy”, how do you go about gaining their trust?
Hang around for a decade, treat the people with respect and be transparent about what you are trying to achieve, even if you don’t know what that is.
A particularly interesting stand-alone project is Studios, for which you photographed the studios of freelance photographers working in the townships of Cape Town (whom you were employed by UCT to teach at the time). What meaning do these photographs hold for you?
At this time I was hanging out with black ‘street-photographers’ from the townships through teaching at UCT and I was also learning about what self-representation entails in these communities in the Western Cape. It was cool to spend time with other photographers and they just happened to be from the townships. It would probably have been around the time that the idea of photography as ‘truth’ would have been crumbling in my mind. I’d never really viewed, or understood, photography as a performance (by photographer and subject) and by extension I’d thought that documentary was true. Not.
In terms of aesthetics: do you think that your way of seeing has developed over the years, or do you believe that is something inherent and therefore unchanging?
I think my way of seeing is linked to how I understand the consumption of photography and how technology can only impact on that. It makes me happy to see how good old unmoored and ahistorical post-modernism is petering out. The only problem it’s given way to an obsession with ‘the archive’ which is so fucking boring and so earnest. I’ll be happy when the age of the enormous prints finally comes. So many people have made so much cash by blowing their prints up big. It’s not sharp.
How has the act of taking photographs changed the way you look at or think about things?
I was brought up by a lawyer for whom a certain idea of ‘truth’ was very important-for good reason. What I have learned that is that ‘truth’ is diverse and that in certain instances a photograph, which is supposed to validate the facts it seems to encapsulate, can sometimes obscure the picture. Photographs are as fickle as the people who look at them.
It’s become clearer to me over time that very good photographs contain a sense of ‘place’ or ghosts. I don’t mean that in some spooky or esoteric sense, I mean that photographers who understand their craft and really pay attention to what they are doing can imbue photographs with something that defies explanation.
There are a handful of photos which I have made over the years which stick with me and really satisfy certain viewers. These photographs are not particularly spectacular, but they are unnerving and I have no idea why.
And finally, are you working on anything else at the moment?
I am on a plane to New York and I have a show in Tennessee. In the hold is a newspaper called MEMORY CARD SEA POWER. It’s the story of the stowaways in a newspaper format and I am going to try and plaster it under as many underpasses as I can.
The stowaways are a rough bunch. They go to jail, disappear, stowaway or take knives to the body. They are transient. The newspaper was printed on cheap newsprint in one color, black, and it gives a good sense of these guys’ lives. I want to try and sell MEMORY CARD SEA POWER.
I have a ton of slides which I have been collecting over the years. My aim is to inventorise all this abandoned material and choreograph a slide show with many projectors in which members from different families, from different sets of slides, start to interact and talk with each other.
The N1 Highway slices South Africa North by South, from the Zimbabwean border down to Cape Town. Historically, socially and politically its 2100 kms are charged, however the road proper only appears at the front and end of the series. Between these brackets it’s presented as a series of oblique scenes which occurred on and around the road, and which attempt to give a sense of the road’s taut atmosphere.
Struggling to understand the emotions provoked by the photograph, I suddenly felt a wash of nostalgia. Ha, the good old days. Yippee. But for someone who absolutely loathes nostalgia in any form, this was a strange feeling. Then I realised: with Southwood’s photographs, you adopt nostalgia as a defence against seeing the present. What he is actually showing you is the now, and being forced to confront the now means being forced to understand the past. – Chris Roper
Visit www.davesouthwood.com for more.