Jo Ractliffe’s documentation of apartheid was distinct

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On the final weekend of the photographer’s first survey exhibition, Ractliffe reflects on her approach to photographing South Africa during apartheid’s later years

The South African photographer and videographer Jo Ractliffe came to photography amid the heat of the anti-apartheid movement. It was the 1980s, over three decades since the passing of apartheid’s first piece of legislation, the Prohibition of Mixed Marriages Act, in 1949. The artist joined an era of anti-apartheid image-makers, following on the heels of Ernest Cole (1940-1990), South Africa’s first Black photojournalist. And David Goldblatt (1930-2018), a photographer committed to documenting the violence of the period and the events leading up to it. 

Ractliffe, however, developed a style that was her own. She experimented with formats and subjects distinct from her contemporaries, notably photographing landscapes and animals to communicate her social and political commentary. And she did not stay still. Journeying, especially by car, became a defining part of her practice, hence the title of her first survey exhibition, on show at Art Institute of Chicago until 09 August. The show brings together 130 images from 12 series and spans the last 35 years of Ractliffe’s practice. Collectively, the work takes us through apartheid’s tumultuous final years and into the post-apartheid period and the aftermath of the Angolan civil war. 

On the exhibition’s final weekend, Ractliffe discusses her practice to date.

The Brave Ones. From the series Signs of Life. 1995 © Jo Ractliffe. Courtesy of Stevenson, Cape Town and Johannesburg.

British Journal of Photography: Your photographic career began amid apartheid. What compelled you to interrogate the situation by focusing on the landscape in contrast to the traditional documentary approach employed by many of your contemporaries? Why do you think the landscape can be so powerful; why can portraiture be problematic?

Jo Ractliffe: I didn’t start with such clear intentions, nor was it a question of landscape versus portrait. My first pictures explored a range of interests: from street photography and landscape to interiors and portraits — all pretty much in the mode of what you call ‘traditional documentary’. However, early on, I knew that my photography would go hand in hand with being in the expanded spaces of the landscape, particularly the Western Cape, Karoo and the West Coast. These are sparsely populated rural lands with complex histories, which extend back to before white settlers travelled across them staking claim. And also to before the apartheid government’s project of forced removals, dispossessing people of their lands and homes. 

The residues of those and more recent histories of violence and disaster still live in these landscapes in subtle and ephemeral ways. That was interesting to work with. But my photographic interests and approach seemed somewhat out of step with the political turmoil of 1980s South Africa. For example, my photographs of the township, Crossroads, which I took in 1986 soon after the declaration of the State of Emergency, lacked the visceral immediacy so characteristic of photography at that time.

I remember fellow photographers documenting bulldozers destroying people’s shacks on one side of the street while I photographed the wasteland left in their wake. Frustrated by the lack of connection in my ‘straight’ pictures, I began exploring photomontage with the Nadir series (1986-1988). [The work combines images of aggressive dogs symbolic of violence and savage police control with photographs of squatter camps, forced removals, relocation settlements, and garbage dumps to visualise the unrest during the apartheid government’s final years.] I felt I could better express my response to that moment through this medium. 

When it comes to making ‘portraits’, I am uncomfortable pointing my camera at someone. It’s not strictly a moral issue or an anti-portraiture thing. Although I have questions about the nature of the exchange, particularly as in most of the contexts in which I work, relations are seldom equal or mutually beneficial. But there are also instances where not photographing people would be problematic. For example, in my project, The Borderlands (2011-2013), I worked in places that had undergone terrible episodes of forced removal during apartheid and people were finally returning home. In this context, excluding people from my images felt like evicting them from their homes all over again.

Nadir 11. 1988 © Jo Ractliffe. Courtesy of Stevenson, Cape Town and Johannesburg.

BJP: And can you tell me about your sustained interest in animals, which are present in many of your series? What compels you about them?

Ractliffe: It began somewhat by accident. Dogs and donkeys, in particular, seemed to show up whenever I was photographing; they were simply part of the landscape. In the Nadir series, I was conscious about making dogs the work’s central protagonists. I was also inspired by the dogs in Russell Hoban’s science fiction novel Riddley Walker (1980) and Ryszard Kapuściński’s Another Day of Life (1976). Equally, if you look at much of the work coming out of South Africa during the 1980s, you’ll see that dogs, in their myriad variations (hyenas, police, dogs, feral street dogs, etc.), were part of the visual lexicon of that time.

BJP: Absence, capturing the ‘aftermath’, sits at the heart of your practice. Can looking away from an event or situation be more powerful than focusing on it? Why has this approach become a defining element of your work? 

Ractliffe: I don’t think about such things in binary, ‘either/or,’ terms. Photographs can be powerful in myriad ways. A lot depends on the context into which the image is put to work and the interests it serves. I tend to work with a series or extended photo essay, developing the body of work over time and constantly shifting the edit until all the images find their fit. But it’s a slow and introspective approach. One not necessarily suited to the kinds of situations to which you might be referring.

The term ‘aftermath’ came up after my work in Angola; I hadn’t thought of my work in those terms before. I’ve spoken about an interest in conflict and violence and how past histories of violence manifest in the landscapes of the present. I’ve also spoken about an interest in fleeting things and the ordinariness of the everyday. And about a desire to question the constructs of photographic representation and accuracy. But, after Angola, it would seem I acquired the label of ‘aftermath photographer’ perhaps because that work has had more of an international reach than other projects.

West Coast. 1987 © Jo Ractliffe. Courtesy of Stevenson, Cape Town and Johannesburg.

BJP: You have made most of your projects in your homeland of South Africa, apart from your Angola work. How did the experience of working in Angola shape you as a photographer?

Ractliffe: I’d been working for over 25 years before I first went to Angola in 2007. Curiously, my experience there, five years after the end of the civil war, transported me back to 1980s South Africa. Perhaps the connection emerged given the recent end of the Angolan Civil war. The experience also provoked questions about photography and representing conflict, similar to those I’d had all those years earlier.

I decided to work with medium format, black-and-white film. It had been a while since I had worked that way, and it was something of a relief to return to it, especially the magical experience of rediscovering the image in the darkroom during printing. Each trip was roughly six to eight weeks in duration, and I wasn’t able to process my film until I got home. The approach necessitated a slow and focused mode of looking that, together with the extended and repeated journeys over long periods, echoed how I worked in the early 1980s. I understood better what I had been trying to do all those years earlier. It felt like I’d come full circle.

BJP: When your retrospective opened last October 2020, debates surrounding the enduring issue of racial discrimination and police brutality had intensified across the US. Photography’s role in inciting awareness and change about these issues was also and continues to be in question. Your work tackles a different period of history. What does the exhibition bring to the table when thinking about photography’s role in everything happening now? 

Ractliffe: It reminds me of the types of questions people were asking about photography during the 1980s in South Africa when there was an urgent need to speak directly to the social and political events of the time as they unfolded. Often in such moments, photography favours the language of direct address; the unambiguous message, which is very different from the more reflective work that comes afterwards.

I’m interested in the idea of the photograph as a complex yet open-ended space where meanings aren’t fixed but fluid. Questioning the constructs of photographic representation is a concern that underpins every aspect of my practice, whether I am responding in the moment or reflecting on something years later. Photographs are contradictory objects. They provide multiple versions of ‘reality.’ It’s important we challenge how we perceive and receive images. Also, the value of a work does not necessarily depend on its relevance in the moment. Sometimes the process of looking back through pictures and unravelling historical complexity affords us a deeper understanding of things now.

BJP: Your retrospective at Art Institute of Chicago takes the form of a visual road trip, and driving has always been a central part of your process. What do you hope the exhibition communicates about your work and the subjects you have addressed? 

Ractliffe: Almost all of my work has taken the form of a journey. These journeys have mostly been on the road, although there have been the odd boat or train rides. Driving is inextricably linked to how I make photographs, and it has been since the very beginning. Pretty much every series featured in the show was made this way, save one that includes a train ride through the Swiss Alps (Snow White, 2002), and another of photographs made in my backyard during the evening after I’d driven home from work (Real Life, 2002-05).

I think of the road as a medium in my work. And in this exhibition, the road also forms something of a spine linking what might sometimes seem like a disparate range of photographic interests and approaches over the years.

Jo Ractliffe: DRIVES is on show at Art Institute of Chicago until 09 August 2021.

Hannah Abel-Hirsch

Hannah Abel-Hirsch joined British Journal of Photography in 2017, where she is currently Assistant Editor. Previously, she was an Editorial Assistant at Magnum Photos, and a Studio Assistant for Susan Meiselas and Mary Ellen Mark in New York. Before which, she completed a BA in History of Art at University College London. Her words have also appeared on Magnum Photos, 1000 Words, and in the Royal Academy of Arts magazine.