Whose history is it?

A few months ago I had a heated discussion via instant messenger with a friend about Johannesburg. One thing he said that really annoyed me was something along the lines of Joburg not being old enough to be historically worthy. Unfortunately I had one of those moments when my really clever response came hours after the conversation.

History and historical worthiness is not about time or size, it is about significance – and that significance depends on who you talk to. Luckily in today’s technologically abundant world it is easier for people to document their history – they don’t have to wait for a historian or politician to decide it is worthy.

While I was in Poland my aunt and uncle really wanted me to go and photograph some of the old buildings and traditional wooden houses that are still standing (but barely) in their city Pabianice. Most of them are being demolished, or in the final stages of decay – in spite of the fact that many people still live in them.

I had never really thought about Pabianice in historical terms – of course every city has a history in a linear passing-of-time kind of way, but when a country has cities like Krakow or Gdansk, it becomes easy to overlook the histories of smaller, less beautiful, less poetic cities.

It reminded me of an important lesson for photographers – and even writers – not to accept the face value and not to make assumptions about what it is significant or important.

Is instagram cheating?

Last night one of the people I follow on Twitter – Gus Silber (@gussilber) – posted a link to an opinion article on CNN’s website entitled “Why Instagram photos cheat the viewer”. Of course I was intrigued so I read the piece, which turned out to be a rather whiney rant from a professional news photographer stating that news photographs with instagram or hipstamatic effects applied were unethical and “cheating the viewer”.

Now I have to say that I have personally never seen news photographs using instagram so I can’t comment on how it is done or the impact it has. I’m not 100 per cent convinced instgram’s vintage effects, high contrast or grain are best suited to news photography, but to suggest that it is unethical or misleading is taking it too far. The writer of the piece – Nick Stern – points out that photographers have been fired from newsrooms for photoshopping news photographs, “One added smoke to increase the dramatic appearance of bombing, one cut and pasted a rifle-toting soldier from one image onto another and another removed his own shadow from an image.”

There is a line between news photography and art photography – and photoshopping a soldier from one image into another definitely falls into the second category. So what about instagram effects – news or art? Or somewhere in between perhaps?

My main source of discomfort when I read Stern’s argument is his suggestion that only news photographs – shot by ‘real’ photographer with a very expensive camera – are representations of truth. And I have a real problem with that – no photograph tells an objective truth. Whatever is presented in a photograph is mediated through the photographer’s understanding and interpretation, and the viewer can never know what has been left out of the frame. One might even argue that by appearing very true to life (with no effects, borders etc), the professional news photographs are even more deceptive, because they present themselves as being true. With an instagram photo, on the other hand, there is far less of that pretense.

Those who dismiss instagram and the branch of street/lay-man photography it represents, sound just like those people who bemoan the collapse of the English language. By pronouncing the use of instagram to be cheating, I am sure Stern is echoing many film photographers who felt that the first digital cameras were cheating too.

Photography, just like language, is always in flux, always changing and we cannot label every change as a negative one.

Look at these green fingers of mine

The title of this post is completely ironic because both my sister and I have, what she has termed, fingers of death. That is direct contrast to green fingers; fingers that give life. Very simply neither of us is able to keep any kind of plant alive. Even those that are supposed to be able to withstand nuclear fallout somehow perish within a week or two of coming into contact with us. The beautiful mint and sunflowers you see in the photos below are on their last legs, and I have recently thrown away what was left of two once-blooming hydrangeas. The two plants that my boyfriend gave me when he moved are miraculously still with me although it has been touch-and-go several times.

As inept as I may be at looking after them, I love to photograph them. There is no limit to the satisfaction I get from their shapes, colours and patterns and the intricate details that are made revealed to you if you pay attention. I hope that sometime soon I will also acquire a macro lens to really do them justice. They are also ideal for a novice photographer to practice on – they don’t move (unless they are in the wind), they are beautiful, and they can be found everywhere.

While plants may seem like an obvious choice for photographs, they may seem less so for television. A few months ago I watched a documentary about the life of Sir David Attenborough and one of the revolutionary things he did was to propose plants as a subject for nature documentaries. No one before him had thought of this and most did not think it would work; but by using accelerated footage David Attenborough was able to show plants in a completely new light.

I think it is remarkable how they grow and live so silently – we are so accustomed to the essence of life being noisy and volatile. Of course, if they are my plants they don’t grow and live for very long…

Disclaimer: Not all of the plants you see here are owned by me, so most of them are still alive…

No, these won’t make it to the pages of National Geographic

Over the past few months a number of my expat friends have blogged about the Rhino & Lion park just outside Johannesburg. Having lived in South Africa for 18 years I have seen my fair share of wildlife in proper game reserves so I was not about to rush to a park where the animals are in enclosures or so accustomed to humans that they barely flinch at the sight of 100 cars. But since my cousin from Poland was coming, and there is a cave on the property of the park too, we decided to give it a go.

Of course it is by no means a replacement in any way to the amazing game reserves like Hluhluwe and Kruger, but it made for a fun day out and it is a great alternative to the usual hang-around-in-a-mall-drinking-coffee. There were five of us in the car and we laughed and joked and enjoyed the beautiful weather. We also got to play with baby lions and baby jaguars and you can’t do that at the Kruger – I’m afraid that if I had more money than brains I would be completely tempted to buy one of the baby Jaguars, they were adorable.

On a photography note I can’t say that I enjoy shooting wildlife very much. I guess I have just seen too many breathtaking photos in the National Geographic and other publications to ever be satisfied with my little efforts. Equipment, luck, and weather aside, if you’re not a professional you’re unlikely to be close enough for long enough to get that perfect shot. One the plus side my new Nikon 18-105mm lens performed quite well and I even got fairly sharp photos when shooting from a distance.

I will blog about the cave in a separate post…

Most of these photos were actually taken through a fence.
While most of the animals slept through the heat, a group of 6-month-old white lions decided it was time to play with one of the handlers.
This Secretary Bird would not stop moving around so I battled to get a perfectly focused image.
The Marabou Stork - one of the candidates for ugliest bird out there. On the plus side there were lots of them and they were very happy to have their photos taken.
Mufasa - well that's what we named him. There was a Scar too....
Who can resist those big paws and ears?


Think good thoughts…

Scrambling for a better view.

I spent a significant part of this weekend photographing the Chinese New Year celebrations in Johannesburg and the greater Gauteng area. It is not a date I have paid much attention to in the past, particularly since most of the Chinese people I ever have contact with are the various shop keepers and restaurant owners around the city. But this year I wanted to practice my photography, so with a bag full of lenses I went first to the Old Chinatown at the bottom of Commissioner Street in the CBD on Saturday night, and the Nan Hua Buddhist Temple in Bronkhorspruit on Sunday morning.


Both were lots of fun, although very challenging to photograph and I learned a lot about my own limitations and sadly that of my current camera. While running around and constantly changing lenses I also learned quite a bit about various Chinese traditions and the Year of the Dragon.


What I really liked is that this is the time that Chinese people dedicate to spending with family, and for many it is the only time during the year that they will see them. A few months ago someone told me I should watch a documentary called Last Train Home – it follows the lives of one Chinese family where the parents work in the city while their children live in the countryside with their grandparents. Once a year, ahead of Chinese New Year, the parents, together with hundreds of thousands of others queue for days at the train station for tickets, spend a few days at home, and then have to queue again to secure tickets to return to the city where they earn a living. It is a heartbreaking story and particularly relevant for South Africans, where many families still rely on migrant labour for income.


I have been to the temple several times before, although there have never been more than 10 other visitors there at the time so it was completely overwhelming to see hundreds (if not thousands) of people at the temple complex yesterday, which is about an hours drive from Johannesburg. I strongly recommend it to anyone living in or visiting Johannesburg both at New Year time and on a quiet Sunday morning. It is a very warm and welcoming place and they put a lot of emphasis on learning about various cultures. It was very interesting to note that both in the CBD and at the temple the majority of people were not Chinese but South Africans from all walks of life.


During the opening ceremony at the temple we were encouraged to take away three teachings or commandments – think good thoughts, speak good words, and do good things. I will be trying to do just that this year.


Hand painted personal messages on fans.
The remains of crackers.
The main temple at Nan Hua.
The dragon team preparing at Chinese New Year in the Joburg CBD.
People release lanterns with their wishes into the Joburg sky.
A performer at the festivities in the CBD.

If only by the night…

Sandton by night, and from a distance, is far more appealing than up close
When I first bought my DSLR (which is a Nikon D3100) I somehow (very foolishly) felt that my photos would immediately be a lot better. It was a tough lesson to learn that a camera or lens does not make you a better photographer. It took me several months before I stopped shooting on automatic and before I finally moved from appeture priority to full manual.
A year later I can say that I take every opportunity to learn new techniques or aspects of photography and the results are starting to show.
This was taken around 15 minutes after sunset, Nikon D3100, ISO 100, F11 (or so), exposure of around 15 to 20 seconds. With a tripod of course.

The prying lens of the photographer

A few days ago I was in Alexandra township for a photowalk and one of the things I had an opportunity to reflect on was my approach to the people I photograph. I have never really been comfortable with the idea that just because someone is in the street that you automatically have a right to photograph them. Secondly, while I know that asking people for permission may destroy that perfect shot opportunity I think it is vital. I certainly wouldn’t be comfortable with a stranger coming up to within 1m of me and shooting with their serious DSLR without having asked my permission first. Of course the first few minutes are awkward as the peson tries to pose and stiffens up, but once you have established some rapport – which can be done even quickly – you will be able to get a good shot again without compromising that person’s right to privacy.

It is not an easy issue whichever way you think about it – in the end do the people you photograph really understand the implication of having their photo taken – where and how it will be used? I do not have an answer, afterall I am guilty of doing this too, but as a photographer it is easy to get carried away thinking that everything out there exists for you to photograph.

I experience this feeling of discomfort sometimes when we are on work-related visits in townships and rural villages – most people are too polite to ever refuse you entry into their home or their life but expecting someone to open up, to really tap into their feelings and emotions, just so you can get a story often doesn’t feel right. Even if that story will be used for good – to raise awareness or to motivate for action on a certain issue from the powers that be. I would love to know how other photographers or writers feel about this?