A child in thin clothing hangs from the rifle of a public war memorial. Scarred, bare legs end in Winnie the Pooh slippers on dirty concrete. A man in a tattered coat sits at the pavement’s edge, staring up and through the camera. At first glance, Life Under Democracy is typically social-realist; the South African photographer Dale Yudelman showing the souls of men, women and children, some impoverished, some almost, on the streets of his native Cape Town.
But don’t be fooled. Yudelman sees his career as an exercise in how photography “is able to escape the bounds of the real”. Life Under Democracy is specific to a place, a time and a culture – a complex and diverse study of an endlessly complex and diverse country.
Inspired by an exhibition by Ernest Cole at the National Gallery in Cape Town, which showed life under apartheid, Yudelman decided to create a contrasting sequel; life under democracy, 20 years since the election of Mandela and the African National Congress. It’s a study of how much has changed in South Africa, and how much has stayed the same.[bjp_ad_slot]
Yudelman is uniquely placed to interrogate the subject. “I was seeing modern Cape Town, and examining my own past with the present, and everything just came together,” he says during a Skype call from his home in Cape Town.
Life Under Democracy is a personal, emotional exploration for Yudelman; an attempt to understand and communicate how ‘ordinary’ South Africans on teeming, well-trod streets can unwittingly say something unique and unifying about a pubescent, pluralist society based on law among equals. “The aim is to deliver an account accurate and vivid as any documentary anthology of contemporary life and the way in which ordinary citizens experience their current social and political circumstances,” he says.
The South African journalist and author Simone Tredoux writes of Yudelman’s photo essay: “Photographing on the street means a considerable amount of his time is spent sifting through the clenched reality of everydayness, always in search of yet another clarifying dimension. Yudelman’s images reveal the rich chronicles that flow beneath the surface of the flurried ordinary. It is within the backdrop of these surprisingly regular mirrors that we see ourselves with heightened clarity.”
Born in Johannesburg, Yudelman learned to be a photographer from his father. A dentist by day and photographer by night, Lou Yudelman occasionally used Dale’s bedroom as a makeshift darkroom. “That early education from my father taught me to always look for a more creative way to express myself beyond the blood and guts of traditional photojournalism,” he says.
Just as he reached his 20s, Yudelman started working as a staff photographer for The Star, the biggest newspaper in South Africa.
He remained there for seven years – from 1979 through to 1986 – before, burned out, he left to join his brother in London. “I had to get out,” he says. “At that time, a State of Emergency was enforced; there was a lot of violence and intimidation from the authorities. It was very difficult to be a photographer. Anywhere but South Africa was a good place to be.”
Yudelman freelanced for the nationals in London, joining the press pack for jobs like photographing Boy George as he spilled out of nightclubs, but soon made the move to Los Angeles; he settled there, remaining in LA for 10 years, photographing the vaunted characters in their plush homes in Beverly Hills.
“It was a big decision,” he says of returning to his homeland. “I had spent enough time in LA to lay some roots. I’d watched all the changes from afar. The election of the African National Congress in ’94 was the turning point for me. I came back in ’96 and now I’ve got to experience the South Africa I’ve always dreamed of; where anyone can vote and live freely.”
Collaborating with local artist Arlene Amaler-Raviv, Yudelman’s return to South Africa coincided with his move into digital storytelling. It began with Reality Bytes, a photography series about the lower reaches of South African society, attempting to “reclaim and freeze the emotional content of daily experience rather than merely regurgitating actual events”. From there, Yudelman worked on I Am…, a portrayal of refugees in South Africa; each captured and presented in ways wholly and radically different from the camera rolls and careful exposures he learned as a child.
In Life Under Democracy, Yudelman returns to the same streets he photographed as a reporter for The Star – but, this time, with just his iPhone. Using the device’s discreet ubiquity to his advantage, he approached the work of image-making with more patience and subtlety this time round.
“You look at life differently as you get older,” he says. “You become tuned in to finer details. As the years go on, your confidence builds and the excitement comes from the sense that you’re actually making progress. I find inspiration from doing and waiting, and then getting results in increments.”
He spent innumerable hours in public places, using only the photography app Hipstamatic, building momentary rapport with passersby; strangers made brothers by the idea of a nation. “They’re poetic studies of the constant stream of conversation between people and their environment,” Tredoux writes. “Intimate disclosures of the interior realm of his subjects spilling into view.”
Stay up to date with stories such as this, delivered to your inbox every Friday.