Emile Germiquet – Visions of Diepsloot

Emilie Germiquet

Visions of Diepsloot


More than 150 000 people live there; 150 000 people under the shadow of sickness, cold, violence, hunger, unemployment, survival.

Diepsloot, 30km North of Johannesburg, is a mass of shacks, dirt and people. Consisting of both formal and informal housing, it started in the mid 1990’s as a transitional resettlement area. While the relocation to the site was at first planned, it increasingly became a dumping ground for housing problems in the region. Most of these people were forcefully removed without due process and barely any warning. The recent waves of immigrants, many of them illegal, have added further complexity to the already difficult situation.

Inside Diepsloot, people are generous, most are poor, some are cruel, others kind, some use drugs, others alcohol and still many don’t touch either. Some go to church, others don’t believe in God, many don’t care much either way. Some people commit crimes, all are victims. Ordinary folks don’t go outdoors after nightfall and if they must, they hurry, worried they will fall prey to the lurking shadows. Some areas are too dangerous to venture into, even during the day.

Sickness is rife and death is common, but that doesn’t make it easier to deal with.

Streets run with the overflow from blocked toilet pipes and dirty wash water.

Ethnic tension, like a current running beneath the skin, is always present, ready.

Work is hard to find.

Money is scarce; food, paraffin, clothes are all expensive.

Diepsloot means “deep ditch” in Afrikaans, a ditch from which it is difficult to egress.


Born in South Africa in 1981 to a white family, I grew up in the suburbs of Pretoria and witnessed from the distance of a child the last years of apartheid and the early years of the New South Africa; with all the hopes and fears that accompanied the change.
At the age of 17, I left a changing SA for France where I accomplished my tertiary education. In 2009, after having decided to pursue photography, I returned to SA in order to better understand the profound changes that have occurred over the past years. In 2010, I went to Diepsloot to investigate the reality of a large sub-population of the country; the neglected people of the Diepsloot.

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Emile Germiquet

83 Responses to “Emile Germiquet – Visions of Diepsloot”

  • This is incredible. The love for the subject comes shining through every picture. Rich in tones and content. Love it.

  • Agree with Brian. Not going to say any more than that. Last time I did, all hell broke loose.

  • I really got a sense of the place…scary, depressing, desperation and more…so much more.
    Poor people! and I say this without pity. I say it from the bottom of my heart.
    It’s easy for me to forget that such tremendous suffering happens daily when I sit here comfortable in front of my computer. This essay grounded me.
    Thank you.

  • So what does the place look like in nice, bright color, rather than printed down, dark B&W? I realize the photographer is specifically trying to convey desperate and depressing, but how much does medium and method “color” the result?

  • I agree with Jim.

    Emile, Congratulations for being published here.

    In your intro, you allude to the spectrum of humanity that exists there. What you have chosen to show us is the darkest end of the spectrum, then underscore it with the grim treatment. For example #22 could be someone dancing, but is made to appear menacing and crazy. Ditto #20. Many of the other images are similarly manipulated ordinary scenes. I feel manipulated.

    I hope you go back and explore some of the rest of the spectrum that surely must be there. Joy, pathos, music, love of family, community. Tell me a story. I see no story here.

  • I kind of agree with Jim about the medium and method “coloring” the results. I don’t see much of what I consider horrible poverty in these images, just people without a lot of material things. I’m not saying that poverty doesn’t exist there, just that it hasn’t been shown. And I too am curious why the photographer chose black and white instead of color. From the looks of the framing and the tones, I’m guessing that color would have been more revelatory and that the conditions were right to capture it well. These days we (okay I) often wonder whether a photographer chooses black and white because it’s easier or because color won’t work well in certain situations or if it’s really much more of an aesthetic rather than a practical choice. I can respect the results either way, I make these same decisions myself so no disrespect intended. Just curious.

    Speaking to what it is rather than what it’s not though, there are some great images and I trust the shadow detail is fantastic (I’m looking at it on a crappy monitor) and that a set of excellent prints would be incredible.

  • Guess I should mention as well, since I’ve done it on similar essays, that it’s not news that there are shanty towns in the world where life is nasty, brutal and short. Essays like this, IMO, need to go beyond the descriptive and show us something that provides clues about the whys and wherefores.

    And back to the theme of my comment above, now that I’ve read the artist statement I see that you do a good job of describing horrible poverty with words. Problem is that you describe things in the text which you do not show us in the pictures.

    Again though, some great skills and excellent work. My comments are meant to be constructive, or as food for thought at least…

  • Not news but don’t forget the aspect of awareness….that is equally as important in my opinion.

  • I like the dark look because the style lends itself to Emile’s text, his story and his way of portraying Diepsloot. Isn’t all photography subjective? This is Emile’s point of view and when are we are going to give up trying to convince ourselves photography is objective, because it ain’t and will never be.
    The effort of working in this kind of environment with a medium format camera, getting in close to the locals so successfully proves Emile’s essay is a work of love. It kind of reminds me of the beautiful work we saw in Michelle Frankfurter’s “Destino”

  • Especially like 1, 18 and 22 – lovely.

  • If the targeted audience is fellow photographers and those directly sympathetic to the people’s plight it is a solid piece of work.

    However if Emile wants to target the general public the essay/images need to be accessible, dark and brooding will not work and will gain little of the public’s sympathy. There would be a positive response to an essay containing a couple of descriptors and a evaluation based image with appropriate directional text.

  • That first image has a hypnotic effect on me. Could look at it for hours…

  • Paul, Emile used the word investigation and understand, not point of view, so it’s fair to question how he chooses to show us what he investigated and what he understood.

    I actually feel that the essay is a bit too outside looking in, and that rather than telling us about one specific community, each of the shots look like they could have been taken in different shantytowns, or depressed cities. There is little that tie the shots together. I am also a bit bothered by the predictabilty of many of the shots, subject wise. Which can be OK actually, but then the challenge is for the photographer to bring some visual acuity, some other layers of seeing, of feeling, to convince us that this stance is what works the best to introduce the place and its people. It could be that it is to be found in the handling of the light, and the formal quality of Emile’s craft.

    Alas, for now, and IMO of course, I cannot quite get away from an impression of flatness of purpose (that feeling I had of outside looking in), just as the frames are populated by people, but not inhabited by them. I find hard to find some individualities in them and without it, it is hard to identify or emphasize, at least for the place. They seem rather like ghosts, and in many ways, the last picture, a corpse that could be almost any male we’ve spotted in the previous shots, that last picture, invites us to see them as such.

  • Isn’t all photography subjective? …when are we are going to give up trying to convince ourselves photography is objective, because it ain’t and will never be.

    Photography itself isn’t anything along the lines of objective or subjective. The photographer, on the other hand, can choose. And yea, sure, there’s no such thing as pristine objectivity, but the effort, or not, to be objective is an important distinction between church and state. And unfortunately, I find this kind of blithe dismissal of the possibility of objectivity too often leads to lame-ass propaganda in journalism and documentary photography. Unless the photographer has a particularly special way of seeing and communicating the world, objective reality is usually much more interesting than poorly educated musings.

    Bit off topic responding to Paul’s assertions, not speaking negatively about this essay in that sense.

  • MW…

    Just the fact of where and when and you shoot your photo are totally subjective choices which will make always the end picture equally subjective. So I see photography more of a personal account of an event and nothing to do with being factually correct.

  • Paul, photojournalists and documentary photographers see it differently and need to be judged accordingly. Do you really want to be presented with factually incorrect photos presented as factually accurate? Newspapers, magazines, NGO’s stake their reputations on factual accuracy. If this essay were shot in a studio in Djibuti rather than a shantytown in South Africa as advertised, would that not matter?

  • MW…

    I see what you mean, because my first comment wasn’t really arguing with any of the other comments, I just dismissed the written text and automatically saw the essay as a story with nothing to do with facts. So perhaps the problem is as usual with the artist statements.

  • Paul, yes artist statements, and perhaps too how we interpret artist statements. Too many of them are a bunch of high falutin crapola because they think what’s expected by the publishers. Some though, particularly those by people doing serious journalism or humanitarian work, are sincere and their statements should be read as an integral part of the work and critiqued on that basis. Hard to tell sometimes and it can be especially difficult here at Burn where there is so much variety and there’s often a fine line, if any, between art and journalism.

  • MW…
    “there’s often a fine line, if any, between art and journalism.”
    Yes that’s the problem and we mustn’t forget we’re talking emerging photographers and I think if this essay’s artist statement had been written with a more artistic point of view, it would of probably had much more favourable comments. It’s a pity because many of the images are lovely, sort of reminds slightly of Debbie Fleming Caffery’s sugar cane harvest workers.

  • “However if Emile wants to target the general public the essay/images need to be accessible, dark and brooding will not work and will gain little of the public’s sympathy.”


    That comment really bothers me. Isn’t “accessible” in this context another word for “commercial?” Why would we ever want to dumb down discussion, regardless of it’s form, of serious issues? As someone who creates some wonderful images that are not all that easy to interpret, how would you like it if someone said your wok should be more accessible?

  • So we can add another photoessay to the already exhaustive catalogue of artefacts that depict black Africans as nothing more than pathetic, dangerous, and incapable.

    Now I know why my grandfather left that truly one-dimensional continent.

    Thanks. Thanks for that.

  • I never wrote about dumbing down, you presume that if someone simplifies it means that you are removing content all that one does is give he audience accessable hooks to hang from so they are in a position to interpret and evaluation. You do see evaluation as higher order thinking than giving a descriptive account of a situation?
    You have also made a value judgement here that this is a serious issue, so is shopping for a 15 year old girl. Sure she will buy commercially based items but the activity is far from a purely commercial event. But then I don’t see where you got the commercial aspect in what I wrote in my previous post.
    I have no qualms about my work being inaccessible as it isn’t photography rather it is a statement/interpretation about photography and communication. It is not representative in nature as what Emile is presenting to to an audience. Mind you as I stated before if this work is meant for a small photographic audience then the work is well done.

  • Framers remember that they are sponsored by those equally depressing ex communist nations…………..

  • ….that’s the way those photographers like it

  • I think the images successfully depict emotional and spiritual darkness using the visual resources of the place that the author describes in the text. Almost all the images have a close (sometimes intimate) feeling of someone who is caring and present.

    I don’t feel like the work is really out of step with the artist’s description/bio. The stated intent was to investigate the reality of this population. From what I see in the images the artist chose to share the perceived emotional reality of the population, rather than a visually realistic documentation of one of the many slums in the world.

    Does the style limit the audience and its utility for eliciting some sort of change? Sure. However, on the map it looks like the kind of place that quite a South African’s see from the outside as they’re traveling along the highway by car. Apparently it’s not that far from some pretty nice places too. I can imagine these images being created to reach an audience that is already familiar with what the place looks like, but has no idea how it feels inside.

  • It’s nothing more than a young photographer trying to look serious by photographing a subject he considers to be edgy and dangerous. This is supported by the artists statement where he writes “Ordinary folks don’t go outdoors after nightfall and if they must, they hurry, worried they will fall prey to the lurking shadows” and then proceeds to photograph the entire series in a heavy black and white with a heavy vignette, giving the impression that he is an artist who has risked his safety to bring us these images from a dark dark place.

    In short, it’s total bullshit. Very strongly composed bullshit, but bullshit nonetheless. And any attempt o justify this, as the photographer does, as a humanitarian response to a desperate situation is wholly undermined by his degrading his subjects.

    Here, I seriously do question the thinking of the editorial team in choosing to show this essay and, in doing so, helping to perpetuate the myths that black people are dangerous and countries like Africa make great countries for developing your own career. I think they were possibly naive in being seduced by the strong compositions to the point of overlooking the disingenuous nature of what is being communicated between the text and the images (the supposed concern in the text is completely at odds with the images themselves), not to mention the wider debate on African photography.

    And I say all that as someone who has defended Bruce Gilden’s Haiti quite vociferously in the past, a position I continue to stand by.

    It’s 2011. Haven’t grown up and grown past this yet? This kind of bullshit visual rhetoric is played out and frankly quite offensive.

  • Or, to put it another way, the narrative and depth of this story has all the subtlety of a GCSE drama play.

  • While I agree with your assessment of the essay your GCSE drama play statement is out of line in this context. The plays are subtle to the creators and peers it is just our adult perception and emotional baggage that we carry lead to our lack of understanding. All it is is raw awkward emotion and I do like that in what,kids/teens/young adults produce.

    ps the first sentence of the bio tells it all ……… and witnessed from the distance…….

  • Fair point. I retract my GCSE drama play comment.

  • Yea I do get what you mean about the structure of the essay ……….. coming from a fading generation I always have to check myself that the young adults and kids come from a very different perspective. Maybe the new photojournalism is really about self.

  • Maybe the new photojournalism is really about self.
    Yes it is, yes it is!

  • Imants,

    Was that directed at me? *confused*

    I think these days photojourno can be about your self, but doesn’t necessarily have to. But, more importantly, I think if you claim to have photographed something to understand it, and your images are just degrading and clichéd in their portrayal of that subject, then you should be called to task on that.

    The only problem with strong belief in the right to freedom of speech is that sometimes people think it negates the responsibility to think. Same holds for speaking visually as verbally.

    The big difference between this and Parr’s Last Resort (which was the cause of much debate in Britain for how it portrayed the poor Northerners) is that Parr never claimed to be photographing them out of any sense of social concern or even understanding. Had the photographer just said, “I wanted to make some edgy dangerous looking pictures so people would think I’m a good photographer” I’d have had much more respect and praise for this essay. But he didn’t.

    I know some people think the artists statement doesn’t matter. At times, I’m inclined to discount the statement, particularly if it is incoherent and also particularly when the photographer’s first language isn’t English and they’re struggling to communicate quite nuanced ideas.

    But, in this case, the photographer was quite clear about what he was photographing and why. So the statement does matter, as it verbalises his intention. And I think he failed completely with in realising that intention. So, by his own framework, he has (in my opinion) failed. And that’s important to say, no matter how well composed the pictures might be, or how well they might fit a different intention.

    What matters above all else is photographing what interests you, what matters to you, to photograph with a sense of personal integrity. From what he’s said, I think the photographer has failed to that here. In my opinion, he needs to pay careful attention to whether his images resonate with his intentions. Answer that, and he’s on to something. But fail to do so, and you’ll always be left wanting. Unless, of course, what you want doesn’t come from within but comes from the responses of others. In which case, don’t say anything and just make some pretty pictures.

  • To clarify, I don’t mean the essay merely doesn’t fully exemplify his stated intention. I mean it directly contradicts it.

    That’s the problem I have with this piece of work.

  • Not directed at anyone in particular just a observation.

  • Oh, right.

    Back to watching rolling news of the riots in Tottenham, then. Um, I mean, practice for the opening ceremony of the Olympic. Yup, that. :-/

  • Stuff like that is normally reserved for when Arsenal visit White Hart Lane

  • Tottenham has gone totally mad. Riots still continuing and spreading. Despite reporting with live footage from Libya, Egypt, and Syria, our media (Sky and BBC) have gone oddly quiet and are seemingly incapable of obtaining any footage from the last two hours in our own capital, where they are based. It’s actually strange how it is being reported. Rioting has been going 6-7 hours now and doesn’t look like it will stop. Unless something major happens while our media isn’t possibly able to report on it directly.

    Moving this to dialogue as it is off topic.

  • I am not ready to comment, save for this observation: I just returned from four days in the field, four days of being offline, and four nights of sparse and oft-interrupted sleep. There may be some great images in here and I might see it differently under other circumstances, but right now it hurt my eyes and gave me a headache just to try to look at these darkened down images. So much so that I could not study nor ponder them.

    After I get some decent rest, I will try again.


    i am trying to get a handle my friend on your vitriol expressed for this particular essay…yes of course any student of photography in the last 100 years is well aware of how the African continent has often been treated by photographers who have used poverty, war, etc to seemingly further there own purposes…to “get ahead” by somehow seeming “serious” because of the inherent drama is yes yes something of which we all acknowledge..

    since the editors at Burn here see daily dozens of “poor black Africa” stories we are keenly aware of what you are talking about, and so your condescending suggestion that we are somehow “naive” to this phenomenon on this essay by Emile because there are some good “compositions” is in itself a quite naive comment wouldn’t you say? please Sarah…

    the first stories to bite the dust around here are the cliched India ceremonies, adventures in Tibet, and the poor black Africa essays..so why this one?

    i do understand the questions brought up by Jim, MW, Gordon,you etc questioning “balance” and “b&w” and a dark representation…fair questions…

    first off, i do not think that “balance” has ever been the hallmark of any great essay…see any “balance” in Gene Smith for example? Bruce Davidson? or Martin Parr? Gene Richards? Alex Webb? etc etc etc…i do not compare Emile with these essayists, but i do see a just a touch of some brilliance in some of these images..and yes Sarah, i can and for sure will celebrate fine image making, close to the bone, and generating a feeling…hard to come by this sort of work..yet Gordon and you feel somehow manipulated by Emile taking ordinary scenes and making them into something else…isn’t that what great artists do? and yes great journalists too…integrity does not necessarily equate to “balanced coverage”

    terror , fear, can be depicted projected in any image taken in any situation ..there does not have to be a bomb going off to show a dark side to what is very often a dark life..step into a township (i assume you have) and “uplifting” is not the first thing that comes to your mind even though yes yes yes there are many positives in any social environment..i personally would have looked for those positives, but Emile has chosen another path…i have never met Emile, but i do give him some credit for having grown up in South Africa and then returning to photograph an injustice that indeed his (and mine) white culture colonialist forefathers indeed helped to create…

    remember Sarah again, that you keep referring to a black Africa representation when here is being shown a township only..not intended as a black Africa representation, just one township…two different things…another essays by other photographers, or maybe Emile as well , on a different day would show a prospering middle class in Capetown or Jo’burg or wherever…

    however, showing all sides of something becomes a map or a compendium or an encyclopedia , but not a strong essay…on any given essay, you gotta go one way or the other….you want balance? do another essay, find another photographer…look at something else..throwing “please show us all sides” at any writer , photographer, film maker etc is asking for the supreme mediocrity..yes , you do want honesty, integrity, a well educated artist/journalist..but “all sides”, i don’t think so…

    yes we need an overall education on any topic, but it cannot be the job of an individual essayist to give us a complete education..education comes from many sources…..i notice many critiques here crying for balance and an overall education on many stories…

    would someone please give me an example of a great essay , great book , that has this elusive balance factor? i personally cannot think of one…

    sorry, i have overstated my point here, and i could delete, but i feel strongly about this , so i will let the repetition/overstatements stand..

    i feel that a strong essay does need some vision..and vision always runs the risk of being prejudice…and this essay does run that risk..as do the great essays mentioned above…Webb, Smith, Parr, Richards, etc have all come under serious attack…however all in all , given all the quadrants that go into thinking about publishing a body of work, i think Emile deserves his day…it remains to be seen whether he carries this his beginning forward to a complete thought..he has the eye for it and i think the intent for it..let’s wait and see

    cheers, david

  • Excellent reply, David. I realize that most of it is not direct at me, but it’s true that I am one who would often like to see photos that explore the reasons why these horror shows exist or that suggest something to do about it (which is not the same as calling for “balance”). And although I am the slow kid in the class when it comes to encyclopedic knowledge of all that has come before, I do recall that Gene Smith’s Minamata essay included pictures of the wastewater discharge that was responsible for the atrocities. That’s the kind of thing I’m talking about. Perhaps those early lessons sank in much deeper than I ever imagined.

  • “Unlike other essays of mine, such as The Nurse Mid-Wife, I will not, this time, (photographically) know any individual as a complete person. For the individual, in my present essay, is a part of the teaming into the teeming whole that is the city, singular, and—Pittsburgh, the City of, is my project and is the individual to be known.”
    Eugene Smith

  • MW…

    Thought you might like reading this article…

  • MW…

    hey Michael , nothing i write is “directed” at anyone in terms of firing a shot off the bow…if you look at my responses on Burn, they are almost always answering a question directed at me and/or require a response…hence my reply to Framers….i prefer always to let the readers chat amongst themselves…

    one of the greatest of all essays was of course Minamata….and yes Gene did show both the waste water and the negative effects..but balance? obviously some thought not..he was beaten so badly by the Japanese goons for his one sided approach, that he never recovered…he died because he did not give a balanced view…what about all the families of workers who lost their jobs because of this corporate exposure? the bosses may have guilt, but the families of the workers were certainly innocents who suffered…many in Japanese society were benefiting from this industry…the industry was not set up to kill people ..the negative effects were found out later, but was not corporate intent…a balanced coverage would have brought in both sides of the story…WE on the outside can only see the negatives, me included…but an academic argument could be easily made that Smith did not do a balanced coverage…again, Minamata a great and powerful and the first really important environmental essay…Smith the finest of essayists

    now just to put things in very clear perspective, your vision of balance , and that of others here DOES very often represent editorial policy at many/most magazines and newspapers…so i do realize this…and for those purposes i do understand and do acquiesce to most editorial demands…hence my coverages for magazines do indeed have a balance…however should this be the standard for excellence? i doubt any of you have old magazines and newspapers on your coffee as example of fine work….Gene Smith got fired a few times from Life….the best quit their magazine/newspaper jobs or get fired…for those with a vision or point of view the mass media cannot be held high for supporting personal visions…why? advertisers..without advertising then the editors could really allow to go in print what they would really in their hearts like to go in print…everything gets the edge taken off..smooooothed out..dumbed down…balanced out…whatever….

    frankly i would fantasize a publication that let responsible journalists/artists speak their minds…let ther readers decipher and create the balance…why should you rely on a mass media story to tell you the whole truth and nothing but the truth?

    what i want is Danny Wilcox Frazier to show me his Detroit and then for Patricia Lay Dorsey to show me her Detroit…then i can decide which is the “real Detroit”…either photographer trying to be the other just does not work….

    cheers, david

  • Yea, I think Smith was my first and probably greatest influence. He was the master at capturing humanity, but his greatest strength, I think, was capturing humanity in the context of the forces that assailed it. You do that quite well yourself (the Kenya work jumps immediately to mind). And I think that’s what I’m getting at when I make that kind of critique. Not balance, but context.

  • Ha, I see you revised your post in the meantime. Interesting stuff. I think a lot of it goes back to what you once said about being the most knowledgeable person in the room. Does a photographer not show context because he or she makes an aesthetic decision not to or because she or he is unaware of it? I like to think that distinction matters. Most of the time, anyway…

  • frankly I would fantasize created a publication that lets responsible journalists/artists speak their minds…


  • I’ve always loved Smith’s essays and I remember viewing this film and finding out that the poor man just could not show the same humanity for his family as he did for those he photographed. I really felt sorry for Smith and also for the son who’s interviewed in the film, who if I remember rightly gave the impression of hating his father. So that just probably is one more bit of proof of how his work consumed him and how balance was such a impossible thing in his life.

  • David
    My issues with this essay really have more to do with intent and treatment rather than balance. What is out of balance is how so many photographers gravitate to the dark end of the spectrum, here both in content and treatment. I feel as if I am being beaten with a rather blunt instrument.

    With reference to Smith’s Mimimata, certainly his iconic “Tomoko in her bath” http://iconicphotos.wordpress.com/2009/05/06/tomoko-uemura-in-her-bath/, is a spectacular example of another way to approach a grim subject, horrific, heart-breaking, yet heart-breakingly beautiful and up-lifting at the same time.

  • I agree with much of what Sarah, Gordon and MW have said, but I also agree with Harvey as far as the balanced thing. I agree that for an essay to be strong it needs to have a point of view as long as it is factually accurate (talking photojournalism or documentary work here).

    DAH said:

    “you feel somehow manipulated by Emile taking ordinary scenes and making them into something else…isn’t that what great artists do? and yes great journalists too…integrity does not necessarily equate to “balanced coverage””

    I don’t necessarily disagree, But… Great artists and journalists may take ordinary scenes and make them into something else, but there is a line. It is too easy to influence a viewers perception by playing with light and focus. If you are simply making art, fine. But if you are trying to make an scene more interesting as a documentary photographer or photojournalist, one needs to be careful not to change “reality.”

    I am not saying that Emile did that intentionally here but there are some images that bother me. There are also many images I really like. Personally I think it needed an edit. Too many redundant images in my opinion.

  • DAH

    I don’t think you have overstated your point at all, and am glad you didn’t delete it.

    I’m not asking for balance from every essay that gets made, I’ve nothing against giving a perspectival approach. What I have a problem with is taking a topic that has too frequently been done in a way that degrades the subjects, and then choosing to photograph it in a way that degrades the subjects, adding to a wider body of work that, taken as a whole, suggests black people are dangerous animals.

    I further have a problem with doing something like that and then claiming, as Emile does in his statement, that it is an attempt at understanding. It demonstrates such little understanding.

    These images are strongly composed and interesting taken out of context. But the context of the statement, the wider body of photography done in this continent, and the wider issues of racism and colonialism make it an offensive and questionable body of work to publish in 2011.

    I don’t want an encyclopedia, or objective to the point of mundanity view, I just want to be presented with a view that isn’t one I’ve seen a million times before, particularly when that view helps to perpetuate myths about the inevitability of a situation like that being presented.

    The difference between this and Parr, Webb, Gilden, etc., is that they’re not giving us that level of irresponsibility. Photography doesn’t have to change the world, but it also doesn’t have to support false myths while doing so under the guise of “understanding”.

  • “Photography doesn’t have to change the world, but it also doesn’t have to support false myths while doing so under the guise of “understanding”.”

    I just put that in my file of quotes. Well said.

  • Framers,

    Anybody looking at work such as this, or the “wider body of work” and interpreting it as “black people are dangerous animals” really is a simple mind. I don’t think you interpret it this way, and I seriously doubt that anybody with just a modicum of brains would interpret it that way. People are smarter than you give them credit for. They’re perfectly capable of seeing the essay for what it is – a single person’s moody interpretation of one township, not of some wider “black africa”, which in itself is a ridiculously simplistic term.

  • Framers wrote, “then choosing to photograph it in a way that degrades the subjects, adding to a wider body of work that, taken as a whole, suggests black people are dangerous animals.”

    Geez. I can’t understand how you come to that conclusion based on the images and words.
    Sure,it’s visually dark but,to my mind, there is no more ‘threat’ or ‘danger’ suggested in this set
    of images that there is in the images presented in Gildens piece published here.
    If anything, I’m left with the sense that,based solely on the 2 essays as presented, Emile was
    far more immersed in the situation that was Gilden.

    Does either piece fill in all, or many, of the blanks ? Nowhere close. Each is just one visual voice.

  • MW…

    i would like to think that either “reporters” or “artists” , anyone who reaches people with their work of any kind, is well educated regarding the subject they are representing…again, i would like to think that they then tell their story in the most powerful way making judgment calls based on methods of telling rather than out of ignorance…i am sure very compelling stories have been told in total ignorance of subject…but while i do support wholeheartedly the so called styled report, i of course do not support anything less than a reasonable knowledge of the subject..what gets left in , what gets left out are of course always prerogatives of authorship…


    well, i was only talking about Smith the essayist and his lack of balance there as being part of his power…why he exhibited no humanity for his own family is something else again and something i cannot fathom..the same with Robert Frank…i often quote Frank Sinatra who said, when accused of being a total jerk, “i only owe people my songs”…many artists do feel that way…and many great artists i feel very sorry for as human beings…but as i have observed many great artists, many false artists, and many folks in between over the years, i have noticed that distribution of ill temper, over blown ego, humanitarian, non humanitarian tendencies, humility, the whole gamut seems to be about equally distributed throughout the population at large…we focus on artists , celebrities, wealthy folks to come up with various personality theories attributed to the rich , famous, super talented etc etc…but i do not believe it…equally distributed personalities regardless of any of the adjectives is what i have observed…


    my feeling as well Mark, Carsten


    you are reading a whole lot into this set of photographs that i just do not see…i just do not read “dangerous animals” into these photographs..where do you see this? be specific please…..exactly how did Emile treat black people different here than Gilden did in Haiti? Emile says he returned to his homeland “to better understand”…never said he understood…there is no “guise of understanding” in that text..i have read it over and over…you said that, not him….Emile did not stake any claims to having empirical knowledge….You see Gilden as taking a more humanitarian approach? i see a few tender images here Gilden would never take..#3, #12..there is fear is some, loneliness in some, but why shouldn’t this be published in 2011? just cannot figure out why you have so ferociously attacked this particular photographer when there is so so much out there these days that probably does deserve a blast…again, he is not making an attempt to define Africa…simply one township that he grew up living next to, and wanted to go back and see life on the other side…seems a fair enough exploration to me…

  • Ok. I am hardly rested, but I decided it was time to take that second look, anyway. I kind of dreaded it, because I remembered how badly it hurt my head and strained my eyes on first viewing, due to the darkened-down effect and I did not want to experience that again.

    But, as groggy as I still feel, I had some decent sleep last night, for whatever reason I have committed myself to being one of those who regularly comment here, whether I have anything worthwhile to state or not, so I decided to give it a try.

    I can’t give it the intellectual analysis that some here do, but this is what I can say: I found every single image to be strong and powerful in its basic elements; they all told me stories and I did not feel that they were pandering or exploiting their subject matter. I felt that I was looking at the work of a talented photographer who grew up within the “privileged” race in a racist and brutal society, had come to understand that racism and segregation is a terrible thing and in taking these pictures, is exploring his own home, even his own family, perhaps less for our benefit then for his own – because he has a need to understand.

    Personally, I would still like to see the artificial pallor of darkness removed to give the images a little more punch and to remove the headache factor – but, on such matters, when I see that the creator is an artist, as indeed Emile is, I will yield to his judgement. Maybe it is a good thing that it gives me a headache to peer through that extra layer of imposed darkness.

  • There is so much to be indignant about in the world, including basic civil and humanitarian rights, that I am always surprised at the offense created when someone simply holds out their hand and says, look, this is what I see and how I see it based on my own personal experience, reality and vision. Should they show anything else? Honestly, I weary more of “fair and balanced” than “this is how I see it.” But perhaps it is easier to kill the messenger than to contemplate the actual message? I don’t know, this indignation at mere photographs continues to baffle me. I suppose this is just another testament to their power. Obvious, obvious, I know.

  • Oh, and I should say I thought the essay amazingly good but could not help feeling, as I often do, that I had seen it all before so many times.

  • “Danny Wilcox Frazier to show me his Detroit and then for Patricia Lay Dorsey to show me her Detroit…then i can decide which is the “real Detroit”

    And (as you know!) they would both be accurate visions of “their own” view of Detroit. As soon as a photographer points a camera at any subject they are immediately editing any “reality”


    oh yes, i agree with your last comment as well…but just think of those who actually live in the townships…if we are weary of seeing it, perhaps the folks in Diepsloot might be even more weary of living it…reminders are just that, reminders…

  • DAH

    I am sure that most of the comment you posted to Me and Framers was directed at Framers. Because I am quite sure that I have not “ferociously attacked” the photographer.

    To be clear, I think the artist statement is fine. When he refers to “Ordinary folks don’t go outdoors after nightfall and if they must, they hurry, worried they will fall prey to the lurking shadows” I interpret that as the ordinary folks that live in the township, not the outside world such as the photographer.

    But that said, I agree with:

    ” I realize the photographer is specifically trying to convey desperate and depressing, but how much does medium and method “color” the result?” — Jim Powers

    “gave me a headache just to try to look at these darkened down images” – Frostfrog

    “I feel as if I am being beaten with a rather blunt instrument.” – Gordon Lafleur

    And I am sorry, I know it seems all the rage these days – especially for “artists”, but sometimes an out of focus picture is just that. Sometimes it is better to just say “oops, fucked that up” and trash it.

    As I said, there are many images here I like. There are also many other that should not have seen the light of day… pun intended.

  • PETE

    yes , got it…all legit critique and i said so….this is not an essay that i thought would bring out this kind of ire….but yes i was really only responding to Framers who i thought went a bit over the top….i never woulda said anything about the reaction of the others….but you know i just like to blast you whether you need to be blasted or not!! smiling….that’s love bro!! and Framers is my friend as well…best clashes are always with friends..what else are friends for?

  • DAH

    Sent you an IM to your phone.. typo on latest essay….

    boarder should be border

  • PETE

    thanks for being a good copy editor..wanna job? as you well know that is one of the most important and toughest jobs on a newspaper or anywhere…copy gets read dozens of time at NatGeo and still they will catch something on the 20th time..the hardest ones to catch are like this one..words which are spelled correctly and yet the wrong word…you can’t just be looking for wrong spelling which is the tendency…anyway thanks for the catch…

  • Thanks for the offer, but Jenny would really wonder about your sanity if you made ME a copy editor! HA

    But I will be happy to let you know if I see anything.

  • Will return and read this proper tomorrow, have to get sleep and have to be up early and with a heavy heart, too. The place where I grew up has just been torched, and people are generally saying they’re not surprised because of the entrenched prejudices people hold for decades without ever deigning to actually find out if they’re true or not.

  • Ok…..so i made a promise, now broken again ;))….i thought i wouldn’t write on an essay until i returned from vacation, but i thought i’d add something to this discussion…Pete, promise i’ll be brief (at least bobblack brief!;)….

    first of all, i haven’t had a chance to look at any BURN essay Paul’s essay “memoir of a boy” as the last 2 weeks have been dedicated to writing and final editing of a picstory, so will try to add something to this…

    First of all, I too was surprised and struck by the vitriol of Sarah’s reaction. I certainly understand from where a ‘frustration’ of this work may originate, though it seems to me that this might be much more about viewers expectations of what a particular story SHOULD look like (their own requirements) rather than the essay itself…There is no question that this essay has a very specific point-of-view but i read that and experienced this less about Emile depicting the people in this township as ‘dangerous animals’ (that is, frankly unfortunate) let alone ‘irresponsible’ but much more simpler. I even wonder if much of the vitriol has to do with the fact that Emile declares his family background (white, which in S.Africa too can mean/suggest many different things) out in the open and then proceeds to document his experience upon return. In fact, nearly all of his essays about S.Africa are defined by the same emotional and visual sense: one of loss and danger and overriding sadness. I read this/felt this as much about his own ‘anger’ toward his homeland that is still mired in poverty and danger. In fact, rather than a way to depict that same ‘dark continent’ if found this more akin to a cri de coeur, a confounding howl for a country and a people, including the people in this township that still endure separation and deprivation and that deal daily with death and fear and danger. He wasn’t some young noble photog capturing the dark den for NG (forgive me David) but it seems to me (visually at least) that he was trying to convey no only his own emotional experience (maybe much of it born of stories he listened too while there) but also as an indictment of the nation that still wrestles with fundamental inequality and horror.

    Maybe the depiction is still too thin and still too surface-oriented, but there is pictures here that are a testament to the soul and humanity of the people living there. Image 18 is by far my favorite and is extraordinary beautiful (visually) but incredibly soulful, silent and (to me) speaks to the strength of one man’s humanity enduring hardship in a difficult place. It may, honestly, be one of the finest portraits i’ve seen emerge from S.Africa in a long time…and that sits smack in the middle of this essay….I also LOVE the 3rd image with the child’s hand on his father’s back….and yes, it is a difficult and maybe one-sided depiction…but it isnot without nuance…and while it doesn’t obviously show the ‘color’ (as in vibrancy) of the life in this township, it does indeed offer the viewer a glimpse, albeit short, into the sustaining humanity dealing with the difficulty….given that this is a straightforward ‘documentary’ project, i too would have loved to see some more images that confront with strength the misery and the impoverishment….Danny Wilcox’s essay is a stronger story, by far, by Danny is a photographer that has achieved a great deal of experiential depth, that Emile I feel has yet to learn…but it feels young and exploratory and the story feels to me as much about his own demons and his own commitments to this nation than anything else….

    It is true that we as reader must widen ourselves about our notions of other places and other people and other lives but that is OUR obligation…the photographer’s obligation is to attempt to as honestly and as self-true as possible to depict and share with the world their own experience and their own interpretation of it….sarah is right about supporting false myths, but i would ask, whose myths are being perpetuated at this point…in a world where we have the opportunity to see the world with the entire spectrum of photogrpahic imprint, we ourselves must learn to read what others offer as their take, knowing full well that it is not the greater truth, but a personalized reaction…if Emile were a grad student from say London and did this, i would probably be just as disenchanted but this story is also about a man returning to his country and trying to understand the transformation of a land, if that, and how that too may be fuel with rage, that there is still so much left undone…..

    As for balance…i agree…balance is for tv and newspapers…but in personalize story telling, it doesn’t bite…failure comes because there is no balance in the singularity of a person’s story…balance comes from having the ability to read and see as much as one can and from that drawing conclusions, if even in error….

    Though i love and respect Imants, he and i also have very different points of view on much of the work on E.Europe and that also has much to do with each of our own private experiences…and we should be honest in our critiques…that our reactions are always more about us than about the work itself….

    i would suggest that the best argument, anyway, for one photographer criticizing and especially if it is of an aggressive and attacking nature is to go yourself and make work in contra…that is what i believe in….if one feels this work to be morally irresponsible, make your own work in response…indeed we must get beyond our own mythologizing…whether that is about how the West depicts africa but also how we perceive others photographing africa….

    and lastly, for David: actually, i do know one book that is pretty ‘balanced’ when it comes to poverty (including africa) and family joy…both profound sadness and joy…and that would be Jonas Bendiksen’s “The Places We live”….a book i gave Burnian Erica when she let me and Marina crazy in her pad….a finer book of both the truth and the reality and the remarkable power and soul of living amid poverty i do no know…

    and while i’m at it, to give a plug to DAH, one of the most beautiful and strongest essays i know about Africa (and in color noless) about joy and light is David’s NG piece of Nariobi…(i have the mag)…a light filled, joy filled piece on Nariobi that is rarely depicted…but i’ll take both David’s and work like Emile…because the equation is made of diverse parts in order to udnerstand the whole….


  • Oh, and what Tom Hyde said!!!!! :))))

  • the comments here remind me that all peopled images have at least 3 people involved – photographer, subject and viewer – clearly we don’t all see the overarching tone of this essay in the same way…as a little exercise in curiosity I flipped quickly thru the images and wrote down the first words that popped into my mind, gut responses to each image:

    congestion, family routine, papa love, sleepy drugged, pleasure, solitary escape, home quietude, concern questioning, passage, happy pride, photographer aware, neighbor calls, hello friend i am here, off to work, time to play, sleepy strange, where are we going, pleasure smoke, reflection alone, light inside, privacy, hot hungry, lonely hungry, interrupted unsure, private pleasure, companionship relax, sharing heart, unseen unseeable, waiting, demise

    they seem to amount to – for me – a sequence of images about the search for quiet and pleasure and solitude and connection and security in a challenging densely populated space with marginal material resources and the uncertainty that brings


    very nice wrap up..thank you

  • I predicate my comment with the following disclaimer: I never critique a body of work negatively in a public forum. I don’t feel like I have the authority to post unsolicited negative remarks about someone’s personal work, even if the presenter has enabled the comment feature; they still haven’t personally asked me for my opinion. That said, the only time I feel motivated to comment on an essay is when I see something I love. To me, the most successful essays are the ones that don’t lecture. They simply evoke a mood. I don’t want to see everything represented. It’s a buzzkill. Photography works on me like music: I either get that crackhit mushroom cloud blooming in my head or I don’t. A song or a piece of music may be inspiring politically, literally hitting all of the right PC notes – slogans tossed in like croutons, but somehow, it doesn’t add up. This is a dark essay. It’s a window into a dense urban dystopia. Maybe it’s a microcosmic foreshadowing of a world to come. Why ruin it with some maudlin must-have? A small black child flying a kite against a cobalt blue sky. Leave this alone. It’s foreplay. If you need to get over the hump, google Diepsloot.

  • Monkeypoint, each to their own, but a lot of people enjoy having others comment on their work, even if it’s negative. And really, what kind of person wants universal praise? A normal one, you say? Maybe, but not people who are serious about their art. Save for a few unquestionable masterpieces, universal praise is more likely a badge of mediocrity, at best, wouldn’t you say?

    I too enjoyed Erica’s wrap up but wonder what she was smoking and why she didn’t share. I played the same little game and it was pretty grim. Fear was by far the most common one word description I came up with, which is consistent with the artist’s stated intent. Some struck me as fear that the residents feel living as and where they do. Others struck me that it was the photographer’s fear of being in a dangerous place showing through. But each to their own, eh. And thanks Erica, that’s a new way for me to look at photographs. I found I liked the work much better afterwards. Turns out I was cringing a bit at the fear and clicking through the essay faster because of it. I certainly see it as much deeper work now than when I made my first comments.

  • Yup, to each their own. This isn’t to suggest that I like everything universally or that I wouldn’t feel comfortable giving someone a critique if they personally asked me for my opinion. I’m not suggesting others shouldn’t do that here. As a matter of fact, Burn would be a total snore if that were the case. I guess this was just my way of saying: No, I don’t like everything, but I really liked this. The essay worked for me, like the opening scene in Dead Man. Sometimes, there is a kind of beauty in the horror.


    i need you two to kind of do a Siskell and Ebert review thing here..good stuff…i am hoping to have both of you up to the upcoming loft workshop..just to hang out…you will like each other i believe….doesn’t mean of course you will agree on everything..yes, that would be the big snooooooze….

  • I give that a thumbs up, Chief!

  • Without reading any of the interim comments since my last post….(which I hope to now do, now they’ve stopped burning all the cars in the city where I live and have grown up)

    I want to formally apologise, both to Emile and to the Burn Crew for commenting as harshly as I did. While I stand by the general points of the questions I raised, I did frame them far too strongly. I can only say that I am young, both in years and to photography, so I will make mistakes. And, in this instance, I had a very major personal situation to deal with, namely the riots in my city, putting me, my family, and my dear friends at massive risk. I was feeling particularly emotional when I was typing what I did. Had I been feeling more remote from immediate danger and the danger of misperceptions I hope I would have commented more carefully.

    I do have questions about this essay, and I do want to debate this. My views are not entrenched, I’m learning as I go, I just don’t take easily to just accepting the opinions of others if they don’t fit with my thinking. Always happy to change my thinking when a good counter-argument is provided, though.

    But it all really just boils down to this – Emile and Burn Crew, if the tone of my comments were harsh to the point of hurting you, then I am deeply sorry for that. I hope and trust that you can understand my viewpoint even if it requires me rephrasing it less provocatively in a few day’s time, as the dust of what has happened to my local area settles. That is no excuse. I hope and trust that you can understand that an issue like this cuts to my heart, and is complicated offer me – I trust that it also is for you and all my comments were offered in the good faith of learning through argument – but I shouldn’t return to this until I have had some moments to relax again.

    Big luv to all, and peace, xxx

  • Siskel and Ebert? Would probably be more like Martin and Lewis. Or Rowan and Martin. I’d be the dumb one of course. MP: “Say, Mike, that’s a beautiful photo.” Me: “Mike, that’s a beautiful photo.” But sure, sounds like fun.

    And Framers, don’t beat yourself up too much. You may find it difficult to believe, but I was overly harsh in a comment once. Bob forgave me, eventually.

  • “I am all for punching 10 people right between the eyes with a real point of view which seems way way better to me than barely brushing 10,000 with “balance”…boring, forgotten , yawn..besides the 10 who really got nailed by the work, will become 11 by tomorrow”
    David Alan Harvey comment on Andy Spyra “Kashmir”


    a big person is always willing to admit a mistake..not that you even made a mistake, but you think you did…but forget all that, forget the details…you come up as a big person…thank you…we only want big people here…!!

    hugs, david

  • MW..

    laughing already…i am such a sucker for the two man comedy team…nobody did it better than George Burns and his wife Gracie Allen…before your time, but check em out

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