— La parole à…
David Goldblatt : « TJ 1948 – 2010 »

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DAVID GOLDBLATT (né en 1930 à Randfontein)

À l’occasion de son exposition « TJ 1948-2010 » à la Fondation Henri Cartier-Bresson jusqu’au 17 avril 2011, le magazine a eu le plaisir de rencontrer le photographe sud-africain David Goldblatt. « TJ 1948-2010 » présente des photographies prises entre 1948 et 1990 ainsi qu’une sélection de photographies plus récentes, réalisées après l’Apartheid, dont la série « ex-offenders ». À travers ces photographies le visiteur découvre l’œuvre de David Goldblatt en même temps qu’il découvre Johannesburg. Au cours de l’entretien, le lauréat du Grand Prix HCB 2009 évoque ses travaux récents et anciens, confie ses influences et parle d’une génération de photographes active dans les années 1980 au sein de l’agence Afrapix. C’est là qu’il a rencontré pour la première fois Santu Mofokeng, photographe auquel le Jeu de Paume va consacrer une rétrospective à partir du 24 Mai 2011.

Le Prix HCB est soutenu par le Groupe Wendel.

Toutes les photos présentées dans la vidéo : © David Goldblatt, Courtesy Marian Goodman Gallery, Paris / Vues d’exposition : Courtesy Fondation Henri Cartier-Bresson, Paris


Fondation Henri Cartier-Bresson
Goodman Gallery, Johannesburg
David Goldblatt in AMERICAN SUBURB X
David Goldblatt : Some Afrikaners in ASX

L’entretien dans son intégralité

le magazine Could you please say a few words about your current exhibition presented by the Fondation Henri Cartier-Bresson?

David Goldblatt It’s an exhibition that arises out of the award that was given to me by the Henri Cartier-Bresson foundation. They gave it to me last year, basically in order to help me to complete a project that I was working on. That project was a book about Johannesburg in which I was concentrating on two particular areas of work. The one was some aerial photography from helicopters. I was interested in the position of housing in Johannesburg. The other was to look at ex-offenders, people who have committed crime and who have been mostly sentenced to prison, who are now out of prison. These people are of great interest to me because crime is a major problem in South Africa and in our city in particular. I wanted to meet the people who are committing crime or who have committed crime. I wanted to know who they are, what makes them do this and how do they come to do this. I asked these questions to myself because very few people in South Africa, certainly in the cities, have not been affected directly by crime and if you haven’t been affected directly then you know somebody close to you, a relative or a good friend who has been directly affected by crime. In my case, men with guns and pistols in our house held up my wife. On another occasion I was held up by a man with a pistol in our house. I have been mugged by men with knives. So crime is part of our live and we spend a lot of our income on protecting our property and our persons against criminals. I wanted to know who are the people who are committing crime. This is partly what this exhibition is about and partly the exhibition is about the aerial work that I did and partly it’s about Johannesburg.

Your books contain a lot of background information such as extended captions, essays, interviews and even maps. How important is text in your work?

Let me first speak about the importance of text in this particular project. I am interested in these people in the sense that I want to photograph them, but I want to know about their lives. I want to know about their background. I want to know where they were born. I want to know about early experiences, school, how did they begin to commit crimes, what crimes they commit and so on. You can’t tell this in the matter of two or three words. So the way I have been working on this project is as follows. I approached people who have been introduced to as ex-offenders. Ex-offenders, people who have committed crime. They are not committing crime now, they are not in jail and they have not been punished now for committing crime. So they are ex-offenders. I approach them and I tell them why I am interested in them and what I want to do. What is it what I want to do? I want to go back to the scene of crime, the place where they committed the crime and I want to do photographs there and after I have done the photographs I want to interview them with the recorder. I want them to tell me the story of their life, everything that they are prepared to tell me. I want to know everything they will tell me. Sometimes this is ten minutes of recording time, but sometimes it’s nearly an hour. And it’s of great interest to me and I think it could be of great interest to other South Africans, maybe it could be of interest to people here, I don’t know. Primarily I am talking to my compatriots, my fellow South Africans. So the text becomes an important part in this particular project. I warn them that I want to publish the work, that I want to publish the photographs and the stories, and that this might be dangerous for them, cause one day maybe they want to get married, maybe they want to get a job and the people who they are talking to don’t know that they got a criminal record. So it could be dangerous for them. I warn them about that. And if they then say to me: “Well I am not interested. I don’t want to do it,” that’s fine. I don’t try to persuade anybody. But if they agree to do it, then I do the photographs and the interview. They sign a piece of paper that gives me the permission to use the photographs and the text. For this I pay them 800 South African Rands. That’s approximately 80 Euros. This is a gesture on my part. It’s not a lot of money, but it’s significant to many men. It’s a gesture on my part to recognize that they put themselves in a dangerous position. I also undertake that I will not make money out of this. That’s not why I am doing it. If I sell any work, the money will go to the organizations that are dealing with the rehabilitation of prisoners. So this is basically what the project is about. The texts that I am showing here are actually very short. They look very long because you are not used to see 200 or 300 words at an exhibition, but in relation to their stories these are very short texts. Which is a great pity as far as I am concerned because often they tell me very interesting things and I can only give a hint at this in the texts that you see here. Relating to the texts that I provide with my pictures in general, it varies. Sometimes my captions are very short, sometimes they are longer, but I spend a lot of energy and a lot of thought in choosing the words that I put with the pictures because it’s important to me that the pictures and the text together work in an integrated way. I don’t believe that my pictures stand on their own, outside of the information. In my opinion you need this information if you really want to understand my pictures. I am not ashamed to provide a text to help you. Basic journalistic questions: who, what, where, why, when and sometimes more detail as well. To me that’s very important. I spend a lot of thought on that. It changes over the years. If you look at the caption for a particular photograph that I might have done 25 or 40 years ago and the caption today it might be different because times change. I get new knowledge. What was relevant then is sometimes differently relevant now. So to me the text is a living part of the exhibition or publication.

Do you think you produce a kind of documentation with your work?

I don’t consider myself to be an historian. I am not a physiologist, I am not a criminologist, I am not a psychologist, but a photographer. To me photographs are about the real world, the world that I live in, and the words are about that world. And as far as I am concerned what I am doing consists in looking at my compatriots and my place, the place that I live in, as an observer, a privileged observer and an unlicensed, self-appointed critic of my society.

You have won the Henri Cartier-Bresson Award. What describes best your relation to Henri Cartier-Bresson?

From very early in my photography he has been a figure that I have admired very greatly. He has expressed himself in words very, very carefully, with words that are very well chosen. And what he has said is fundamentally a philosophy for photographers. I don’t think it matters whether you use a Leica camera or a big view camera 50 by 60 cm. The choices that you have to make are essentially the same. You have to choose out of the whole flux of reality what you are going to frame and when you are going to do it. These two things are essential. He was a great photographer, one of the greatest that we have ever known and his thinking was for me a very important part of it.

In which way ‘being a white photographer’ has influenced you and your work under the Apartheid Regime and in the post-apartheid era in South Africa?

During the years of Apartheid as a white photographer – I can only speak for myself, I can’t speak for other photographers – I was very privileged. That meant that I could do things that a black photographer could not easily do because as a white person I had certain positions in society. But on the other hand I was at a disadvantage, as against a black photographer, because in black society I was not black… So these two things played off against each other very often. I think it’s true to say that I managed to do a lot of photography during the years of Apartheid because I was white and because I could get permission to do things from the government that were difficult perhaps for some photographers to get, and that was because I worked obliquely. I did not confront the government directly, or very seldom. I was not a news photographer so I wasn’t engaged in photographing policemen beating up black people. So they never quite knew how to deal with me. I puzzled them. In post-apartheid South Africa I think that to some extend I am in a disadvantage now because black people are no longer afraid to tell me that they don’t want me there. During the years of Apartheid they would hesitate to tell me that they didn’t want to see me. Now they don’t hesitate. If they don’t want me there, they tell me. But again, I can only say that mostly I don’t have trouble working in South Africa. There are times, when I am working in areas that are perhaps dangerous, I hire a man with a gun. I hire a bodyguard. That’s very difficult. It’s a mental thing. You have to understand at one time I would go into places that are perhaps quite dangerous, but I would show people that I trusted them. “Look I am here. I don’t have a gun. I don’t have a knife. If you want to take me out you can do so, it’s easy.” I showed people that I trusted them and usually then, they trusted me. I can’t do that anymore in some places. If I got a man behind me with a gun, that’s telling people « I don’t trust you »…. And that’s something that I don’t like to do but the fact is the reality we are living in, social reality. I work mostly with a view camera with a black cloth over my head. If somebody wants to take me out it’s very easy. I don’t hesitate. If I have to, I hire a man with a gun.

How have you been perceived by the black people while taking the photographs you have published in the book The Transported of KwaNdebele?

I don’t know. Those people in those buses were so tired. They wanted to sleep, that was their main object in life: “Just give me another hour of sleep, two hours of sleep”. They couldn’t have cared a fuck. They didn’t mind. I asked some of them. When people started coming into the bus I said: “I am here to photograph your journey. Do you mind if I take photographs” and they said: “No, go ahead.” But after a while there where so many people I couldn’t ask everybody and I just went ahead. They didn’t mind.

How have your books been perceived in Africa?

I can’t say about Africa. I know a little bit about how they were received in South Africa but even that I don’t really know. Once I have published the book, it’s just up to the publishers. I don’t get mixed up in that. But my first two books Some Afrikaners Photographed and On the Mines were very badly received. Why? I don’t know. I am not sure. I will come back to that in a moment. We had to sell them for nothing. We gave them away. Today they are collectors’ pieces. You pay a lot of money for them. I think Some Afrikaners Photographed was badly received by Afrikaners, many of them, because they thought that I was attacking the Afrikaners. I don’t think I was attacking the Afrikaners. I was looking at values. This is something that I have done right through my years of photography. I suppose some Afrikaners thought that this was not a very comfortable thing for them to see. I don’t know. But there was a lot of antagonism to that book. On the Mines? You know, you mustn’t forget that in 1973 and 1975 when I published those two books, there were very few photography books being published. In the world not many, and in South Africa hardly any. I think I was the first person to print duotone photographs in South Africa, as far as I know. I think there was no public; there was no understanding or thirst for photography books. Why else? I don’t know. These were not popular subjects. My colleague Sam Haskins, a famous photographer, was publishing books of nudes and these were very popular. He was a very fine photographer. He published with great originality a number of books and these were very popular. So there was a market for photography books but it was not for the kind of subjects that I was doing.

In the 1980s Santu Mofokeng was a member of Afrapix, an agency of young militant photographers recording the struggle against Apartheid in documenting situations of confrontation and violence. How would you describe your relation to them? Did you teach them photography?

I was never a teacher. I am not a teacher and I have never been a teacher. I have occasionally given a talk and taught a few people. For a time in Johannesburg I ran a workshop. People used to go to different houses every two weeks and we were talking about photography. I suppose I was a kind of teacher, a kind of mentor. It was a loose group of people. That was in the 1970’s. In the 1980’s some of the young photographers formed Afrapix. They invited me to join, but I declined. I didn’t want to join for a couple of different reasons. Partly I thought it was very unwise for photographers to put a lot of work in one place for the security police because they could then find a lot of work at one time. You made it very easy for them. But also because I wasn’t an activist. I didn’t want to use my camera as a weapon in the struggle against Apartheid, not in an active sense. I was not prepared to allow anybody to use my photographs for propaganda. So I had a different understanding of the role of a photographer from my colleagues. At first they were rather suspicious of me. They thought that I was a government agent or a seller, but after a while I think we became good friends and in some ways I suppose I was a sort of mentor.

How would you describe your relation to Santu Mofukeng?

During that period – we are talking about the 1980’s – Santu Mofokeng phoned me and came to see me. I think he was working in a darkroom and he was very unhappy. He wanted to work seriously as a photographer. If I can recall rightly I helped him for a while. I lent him a Leica camera and we spoke about technique and things like this. But basically Santu is his own man. He is a very independent thinker, a very independent photographer who didn’t really need my teaching. I never really taught him anything. But we became good friends. There was an institute at the University doing oral history and documentation particularly of the lives of African people. I recommended that they should hire a photographer, and that photographer in my opinion was Santu. He worked there for a number of years. We remained friends. We see each other occasionally. I have a very high regard for his work and I have a very high regard particularly for his head, his intellect. He is a very good thinker and writer.

When Santu Mofokeng was working at the African Studies Institute he collected family portraits hanging in people’s homes and did trace the stories behind them. I see a common ground between “The Black Photo Album” and “The Structures of Things then”. Would you agree?

That’s an interesting comparison. I think that you are quite right. Santu was, if I am not mistaking, he was really discovering and exposing structures within African society as they were expressed in photographs that people had made of themselves. That’s a very interesting thing to do. I was doing much the same thing in a way with South African structures, particularly physical structures, buildings and things like that. I never heard what you just said but I think it’s true. What Santu did in that album was really to show how people employed clothing and pose to express values in a formal, structural way.

Did European or American photographers have any influence on your work?

There are two in particular. There are many photographers that have influenced me, but there are two in particular: obviously Walker Evans, but in particular the Frenchman Eugene Atget. I think he was a great photographer. It took me a long time to learn to appreciate his work because his work is not easily appreciated. It looks like somebody has been making bad photographs. He was not a very good technician and he was using very primitive materials. So when you look at his work much of it, at first glance, looks as if somebody who didn’t really know much about photography has made it. But then when you begin to understand, to me he is the greatest.

When did you discover his work?

I can’t tell you. I think I first began to look at his work seriously in the early 1980’s, late 1970’s. I feel that he has been with me for all my photographic life, but that’s not true because at first I didn’t really appreciated how great his work is. And then gradually looking at his work frequently it was like listening to great music. At first you can’t hear the melody you can’t understand the complexities.

And what about Walker Evans?

I think I got to know Walker Evans’ work before I got to know Atget. I discovered his work along with the other FSA photographers as Dorothea Lange probably in the 1960’s. Walker Evans, the great book that he did with James Agee Let Us Now Praise Famous Men I only came to that in about 1968. That was a very important moment for me. They were two people who did amazing work and it kind of confirmed what I was doing. It felt like an affirmation I have often felt very lonely because I didn’t know anybody who was working like I was working, certainly not in South Africa. When I came to that book that was a great moment. You know, when you feel one was not alone in the world.

As far as I am aware of all your work has been done in South Africa?

My photographic life has been divided into two separate compartments: professional work, personal work. Professional work: I did a number of commissions outside South Africa. I went to Nice and to Stuttgart, to New York and Washington. I have been to various places on professional assignments and that’s fine, sometimes quite hard, and sometimes quite pleasant. But for my personal work it has always been in South Africa. Because I find it very difficult to come into another place like Paris and really feel and understand what is happening. I don’t speak your language, I don’t have a history here, and I don’t have the culture. Any little child here in the nursery school across the road will have an instinctive understanding of the world around them that I can’t have, I can’t share it. But in South Africa where I have been growing up and spent my whole life. I can’t claim that I know every place, I don’t, and I certainly don’t know the languages. I’m ashamed to say that I don’t speak any of the African languages. I speak bad Afrikaans but I can speak and understand quite a lot. But I can sense what it’s about and this is very important to me because I can then make photographs in South Africa that are related. I can probe. I can explore in a way that I can’t do outside. That’s basically why all of my personal work has been done in South Africa.

In Oslo you, Santu Mofokeng and George Hallett have been part of an exhibition called “Rhizomes of Memory”. What does memory mean to you?

If you take photographs whether you are a housewife with a little point-and-shoot camera or you are a Cartier-Bresson or whoever you are, as soon as you take a photograph it becomes part of your collective memory. As long as that photograph exists it’s part of the past. I don’t attach much importance to memory. It’s part of the project I do. It becomes important with the time because you look back and you see things that you perhaps didn’t see before or you didn’t understand but that’s part of the photographic process. I don’t think much about memory. At least I don’t think I do.