FROM OUR ARCHIVES | 'I wanted to experience the piss of reality’: photographer David Goldblatt

26 June 2018 - 11:30 By Tiara Walters
Photographer David Goldblatt at his home in Johannesburg in 2013.
Photographer David Goldblatt at his home in Johannesburg in 2013.
Image: Alon Skuy

South African photographer David Goldblatt, acclaimed for training a critical, ultra-realistic lens on apartheid South Africa’s working classes, died yesterday from cancer aged 87.

In this extract of an article from our archives, which was originally published in The Sunday Times in 2013, he shared some insight into his work:

ON PORTRAIT PHOTOGRAPHY

In the bad old days, I rarely had people to protect me because I felt I had to show people I trusted them and they would then, hopefully, trust me. I can’t do that anymore, unfortunately. I mostly work with a big camera, disappear under a black cloth to compose the picture, and can’t expect to be safe in certain areas. I often have protection now. My best protection is Thabo, a fine, quiet man who carries a pistol and would decapitate anyone who got funny with us.

After doing a lot of portraits in Soweto, Hillbrow and other suburbs in the ’70s, I realised I was interested in people’s bodies. In those days, you might have been sitting on a bench in Joubert Park and I’d say, ‘Would you allow me to photograph your body?’ My core quest was often less transparent. It was partly a sexual, or sensuous, attraction I felt.

My core quest was often less transparent. It was partly a sexual, or sensuous, attraction I felt
David Goldblatt

If I found an elderly woman sitting on a bench, I might say, ‘Would you mind if I photographed your hands?’ And she’d say, ‘I know what you want to do. You’re going to put my head on someone’s naked body, so the answer is no.’

For a while, I felt my unfulfilled ambitions might lie in photographing people nude … but I would have to find people who are already nude, and that’s bloody difficult.

When I’m doing a portrait, I seldom speak. If we’re silent, you are conscious that I’m in some way — and this isn’t meant sexually — penetrating you. I’m looking at you and into you. And you’re looking at me in the same way. I don’t hide behind the glass. I set up the camera on a tripod and I want us to meet eyeball to eyeball. I want us to have that moment of embarrassment that often arises, particularly between strangers. When people are too relaxed they sort of collapse into themselves. But I also want that moment of trust.

I’ve rarely paid my subjects. Sometimes after photographing people, I gave them money because I felt it was simply unbearable that they had nothing.

ON HIS BOOK EX OFFENDERS AT THE SCENE OF THE CRIME

I’m photographing ex-offenders and I pay them. I’m not a journalist, nor am I tied to any moral code of journalism. I pay them because I recognise it’s an uncomfortable thing for people to do.

I’ve heard about murders and other crimes that people have never been charged for. The ex-offenders trusted me implicitly and I’ll never tell anyone. If the cops came along and told me, “You’re defeating the ends of justice,” tough luck. I’m sure that for journalists, this is not a unique position.

I haven’t set out to find a saving grace in people who have done awful things. But I’ve felt deeply sympathetic towards some of them. One Cape Town man had been a criminal since he was young. He was in his late 50s when I met him and he told me his wife had once given him away to the police. He put her fingers into a vice and tightened it until her fingers burst. It was an appalling thing to admit to and yet I couldn’t help liking the man. I liked him because of the openness with which he told me about his life.

ON THE DIGITAL ERA

I’m not interested in putting my life into film. I’m not obsessed with myself. I find social media puzzling.

Joseph Stalin’s PR people removed Leon Trotsky from photographs when he became politically unacceptable. So digital manipulation is an old technique. It’s simply become easier and more effective to do now. But I refuse to take anything out of pictures, like a branch sticking out.

ON ALTERNATIVE CAREER PATHS

Big trucks are beautiful machines. If I could, I’d become a transcontinental driver.

I considered becoming an economist. It wouldn’t have been that different from photography. In both cases, I would have dealt with the same phenomenon: values. Economics is concerned with ways in which humans value things. In photography, I have examined our country’s values. But I loathe maths. What I knew in my gut was that I wanted to experience the stink, the smells, the feel, the piss of reality. As a photographer, I knew I could experience something like that. 

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