‘It Must Be Built From Ashes’ photo series protests South African’s media representation of its youth

By Mercy Sang on November 2, 2020

Based between the UK and South Africa, documentary photographer Justin Keene’s research-based work aims to challenge South Africa’s postcolonial influence. His work heavily questions the country’s complexion, stating that “taking photographs in South Africa is political”. His series It Must Be Built From Ashes, explores the negative narrative imposed by the South African media of the Mitchells Plain and the Cape Flats youth – “Mitchells Plain is notorious for its prevailing gang-culture and violence, people’s impression from the outside is dominated by this” Keene explains. His work stems from his country’s lack of accurate representation, whereby he aims to challenge this negative narrative by questioning place-related identity. This series spotlights the individual, rather than the given tale, Keene ensures this by “drawing attention away from the stereotyping characterised by the media and outside opinion, to create a renewed and more productive visual economy of the area”.

We spoke to Keene about the importance of his photo series, his upcoming projects and his approach to portraying his subjects accurately.

You are self-taught, tell us little about your background, when were you first introduced to photography and what drew you to documentary photography specifically?

I am self-taught but currently on a part-time Documentary Photography MA. I always liked taking pictures growing up but never really did anything with them until I engaged more with South Africa as I got older and more independent. I will always feel like an outsider in South Africa because although my parents are South Africans, I was not born there, so I visit for long periods to better understand the country.

With South Africa’s political history, your work heavily elucidates the social issues currently being faced by the youth. You previously trained as a lawyer, how has this played a role in your work now as a photographer and how you approach your subject matter? Do the two ever influence each other?

I think the work I have done in the past helps see a number of angles and points of view when approaching a project. Research is a big part of my practice, so a good knowledge of history is important but often difficult to access. I am learning every day to better shape and inform my practice.

You’ve mentioned that you aim to portray the subjects how they want to be seen rather than how you want to depict people, how do you achieve this?
Every photographer has a vision of what they want to portray and how they want their images to be perceived by an audience. Taking photographs in South Africa is political – it always has been – and has been a major part of the country’s complexion to the rest of the world, throughout history and media. Often the visual associations have been somewhat negative, falling into categories of documentary-realism associated with traditional forms of reportage-style photography; and the notion of ‘Afro-pessimism’, as put forward by the late critic Okwui Enwezor. Contemporary photographers in South Africa show awareness of the historical significance of imagery in the country and form a response to it through their work. Much like the country’s political development, its visual development becomes more collaborative than authoritarian and insensitive, at least in theory.

By documenting South African identities, how has that played a role on your own?

Photography can be used to find out more about the world, importantly, it can be used to find out more about yourself and your place in the world. It would be ignorant for me to say that photography alone possesses an ability to change the world, but I do believe photography can improve one’s relationship with the rest of society in a productive and progressive way. South Africa has had a difficult history, white people have played an instrumental role in the country’s suffering – people talk about white guilt, but ironically it is normally the younger generations that feel the guilt rather than the older generations, who were part of it. Especially now, race is as important as ever and without a doubt, we all have a part to play; a young South African artist emphasised earlier this year that “being black is political”, I want my work to build on this message to the best of my ability in acknowledging the past, engaging with it and shaping the conversations of the future in a productive way.

The series “It Must Be Built From Ashes” protests how South African’s mainstream media represents Mitchell Plains, questioning its given negative narrative. Why were you compelled to pursue this series?

The series came from the impression that people all over South Africa, throughout history and across the world, have been misrepresented. Ideas stem from the problems surrounding early colonial photography in Africa, of ‘documenting’ through photography; photographs that are taken to showcase new discoveries, this kind of relationship to people is now regarded as reductive in nature. The project in Mitchells Plain collaborated with people in the area to confront historical portrayals by the media and documentary forms. Mitchells Plain is notorious for its prevailing gang-culture and violence, people’s impression from the outside is dominated by this. The aim of the work is to shine a light on the quiet and commonplace and those people that are not part of the gangs, drawing attention away from stereotyping, characterised by the media and outside opinion to create a renewed and more productive visual economy of the area. The photographer has to ask themselves the question: what is my contribution to the overall image archive of an area, country or topic? Photography should be used to address the past and move conversations and our social engagement, forward.

You are currently working on a personal family archive project, can you tell us a little more about it?

For everyone, this year has been stunted by the outbreak so I am yet to see the archive in Johannesburg, although I will soon. The work will explore personal family connections to South Africa’s mining industry, using the archive to address topics surrounding the white colonial figure in Africa. It will explore the social and physical impact of mining in South Africa, as well as the industry’s cultural impact globally. The project will constitute my first publication and will be a combination of archive images and my own photography.

We have seen how creating dialogue can generate change, given the history of South Africa’s residuum of the Apartheid, how has photography impacted how the countries identity is now seen?

Essentially it allows a social impression to be more inclusive and representative of the people.

Lastly, your work innately revolves around personal engagement, dialogue and developing personal relationships to acquire the subject’s trust, given the current circumstances, how has this now affected your work and approach?

Like any approach to photography, you have to do what is comfortable. I always want to talk to people before/if I am going to photograph them, as I see this as important to the image composition and relation to the story you are trying to tell. I see my work as an ongoing process with South Africa if circumstances change you have to consider how if at all, they might affect your work; luckily for me, my approach is the same.

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