Juan Orrantia’s vibrant and intimate experience of Johannesburg

“I’m not talking about South Africa, I’m talking from it,” says Juan Orrantia, a Colombian photographer who arrived in Johannesburg 12 years ago with a background in visual anthropology, and questions about the country’s representation and history. “A blockage of what to photograph was always present,” says Orrantia, who had been working on conceptual documentary projects around the continent, in countries including Mozambique and Guinea-Bissau. Over a decade had passed since he moved, and Johannesburg had quickly become his new home, where his partner lived, and where their daughter was born and raised. “I decided that what I could say about this place was to do with my own relationship to it,” he says. “Its history is never going to be mine, obviously, but it has touched me in many ways.”

Pointing his gaze inward, Orrantia began to photograph his family, their home, and its surroundings, collecting intimate moments cast in vibrant colours, and producing a visual language rooted in his subjective experience of their everyday life. “Colour is the language I’ve chosen to talk about the issues that concern me — in both a metaphorical and formal way. It is what has defined the history of the place, but historically, it has also problematically misrepresented the continent,” Orrantia explains. 

At the beginning, he took advantage of natural light sources, which painted his walls in sunsets and twilights, but eventually, he began to experiment with materials like cellophane, manipulating the lights and shadows that cast his floors in puddles of pinks, blues, and yellows. These images are now bound in Orrantia’s latest book, Like Stains of Red Dirt, enveloped in a red cellophane cover that echoes the materiality of his process.

In the top-right corner of its first page is the colour-scheme from Kodak’s first Shirley card — a measuring stick against which developers first began calibrating colours — an early emulsion technology that formed the racial bias in colour photography. “It’s not a book about representation, specifically, but it’s about the fragments of my thoughts and experiences, coming together through this language,” says Orrantia. “The project represents an accumulation of feelings, anxieties, fears, and histories. They’re all fragmented moments, but colour is what holds them together.”

Alongside images made within his home are images of nature — scenery from family road-trips, and the trees and plants in their neighbourhood park. Again, this intimate portrayal of his experience is layered with social context. The transformation of Johannesburg’s landscape is largely tied to the history of colonialism, with its urban jungle of over 10 million trees having been imported and planted throughout the late-19th and 20th centuries. “There’s always more to what you’re seeing,” says Orrantia. “This is about the subtleties that come through the banalities in life, like a plant. It’s about what we see, and how we choose to see it”.

Like Stains of Red Dirt by Juan Orrantia is published by Dalpine.

Product shots © La Troupe.

Marigold Warner

Deputy Editor

Marigold Warner joined the British Journal Photography in April 2018, and currently holds the position of Deputy Editor. She studied English Literature and History of Art at the University of Leeds, followed by an MA in Magazine Journalism from City, University of London. Her work has been published by titles including the Telegraph Magazine, Huck, Elephant, Gal-dem, The Face, Disegno, and the Architects Journal.