SA 25 years later: Jabulani Dhlamini's photos question what's really changed

Photographer Jabulani Dhlamini examines the strength of the rainbow nation's foundation in his latest exhibition, 'Isisekelo'

05 May 2019 - 00:00

Jabulani Dhlamini was born in the Free State town of Warden in 1983. His father was largely absent, thanks to the migrant labour system which governed many relationships in black families under apartheid.
When Dhlamini moved with his mother to Soweto in the '90s, he discovered, in their new house, an old disposable camera. Without asking permission he began to take pictures of his classmates.
His mother paid for the development costs of his first few rolls of film before telling her son it was time for those he was taking pictures of to come to the party. He started charging a nominal fee to cover the costs of the pictures. He soon became known for his photographic skills and his services were in demand for weddings and graduations.
As he recalls it now, Dhlamini says: "When I was doing that kind of work my main job was simply to make sure the photographs were well lit. I had little input in the process because it was a client-based system. I think there's more of me in my recent work than when I started, Jabulani, coming out and being part of the work."
In spite of the success of his hobby, Dhlamini, above, had no intention of making photography his life's work. He wanted to be a pilot and in his Matric year he applied to the SADF for training. But a struggle with stomach ulcers meant he was ineligible to complete his training and then became set on following a different path.
As he remembers: "I went back to Soweto and continued taking photographs. In 2006 a girl from my street was graduating at Vaal University of Technology and I was asked to photograph her. Also, a friend told me there were people on campus doing photography, and he introduced me to the department. I decided to enroll to do my diploma in photography."
At VUT, Dhlamini met and was introduced to the work of SA photography greats like David Goldblatt, Santu Mofokeng and Zwelethu Mthethwa, and he began to realise there was more to the medium than the client-based requirements of his work in Soweto.
He realised that his identity as the child of a single mother, while different to many of his classmates, was common in SA and he began to work on a project about single mothers. On the basis of the project he won a mentorship at the Market Photo Workshop in Johannesburg, where he was mentored by award-winning photographer Jodi Bieber.
The rest is history, and history is very much part of Dhlamini's photographic project. Last year he showed a small series of work focusing on the commemoration of the passing of Winnie Madikizela-Mandela in Soweto — notable for their focus not on news-style depictions of people, but rather for the contemplative and evocative framing of spaces and buildings in the neighbourhood. He has also shown work focused on Sharpeville and its residents.
His latest body of work, titled Isisekelo (Zulu for Foundations) presents a selection of disparate observations of space, linked by his interest in how in the 25 years of democracy, Dhlamini says he's realised "we've paid a lot of attention to the superficial changes that happened since the first democratic elections, but haven't focused enough on how these changes have affected people on the ground".
So, pictures of the familiar, nondescript four-room houses of Soweto — split into halves in suburbs like Phiri and White City Jabavu — come to stand for an interrogation of the fact that, in spite of the promised changes of 1994, things seem to have remained dispiritingly the same for many.
"I started in 1996. That's when the constitution was signed. It became a foundation for the nation, but there are things happening now that compelled me to do this project because I started to question that rainbow nation foundation. What I've observed is that you have to deal with the foundation to change things," he says.
Likewise, his picture of students taking selfies on the empty plinth at UCT that until recently housed the infamous statue of Cecil John Rhodes is an evocation of not just the struggle that enveloped the country during the months surrounding its removal, but also an optimistic vision of a future without Rhodes.
None of this is indicated in the presentation of the photographs - there are no Goldblatt-style expositional captions to direct you, instead Dhlamini's photos rely on an evocation of ideas and memories that viewers bring with them to the images.
This is at the heart of what Dhlamini does as a photographer. He says: "What pushes me is the response I get from people when they see one of my photographs in the context of what happens in their own lives. These are not just photographs; they're an archive of history and moments and memories.
"I try to have people relate to the broader issues that arise from what I'm doing. There's a point of intersection between me and people who see my work."
Dhlamini shows viewers that there are a thousand words in every picture.
• Jabulani Dhlamini's exhibition 'Isisekelo' is at The Goodman Gallery, Joburg, until May 11.

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