What we ask from a photograph

Peter Bialobrzeski’s images of the interiors of Sowetan shacks provide more questions than answers. But isn’t that the point of photography?

A photograph of someone in their home, we call an environmental portrait. While showing us much more than just the person, we still regard the image as essentially describing – or at least depicting – its subject. Our eyes tend to be drawn towards the human in a photograph. Whatever surrounds them we think of as an extension of them. If questioned, we will probably admit that whatever we cannot say about the person we can infer from the surroundings. And why wouldn’t we, given that we all set up our own homes according to our tastes and preferences?

Now take away the person from the photograph, leaving behind an image of a room. Would that still be a portrait? In the true sense of the word it would not. However, if we think about it long enough, we might consider that a photograph of a room without a person in it can still be a portrait of whoever lives in it. But there is considerable uncertainty about whether what we think we can infer from the image does that person any justice. What does what we are seeing – or rather what we think we are seeing – really say? What conclusions can we draw from it?

Contemporary photography has been utilising this uncertainty to great effect. Needless to say this development comes at a cost. As the viewer, we are asked to spend time with the images; to read them, so that we can ponder the questions we are being asked. If we’re not willing to spend that time, if we think the images are ‘boring’ (a common complaint), of course it is the photographer’s loss, as we disregard his or her work. But ultimately it is our own loss, as spending time with a set of photographs might make us discover things we had not thought of before. That, in fact, is the promise of contemporary photography: by presenting us with images to think about, it offers to turn us into different versions of ourselves.

Peter Bialobrzeski’s new book Informal Arrangements is a wonderful case in point. The book contains photographs of the interiors of shacks in Kliptown, Soweto in South Africa, without any of their owners being present. The mind immediately starts wondering: who lives in these places? Why are newspapers used as wallpaper? What does what we see say about the people? With apartheid gone for 20 years now, why are conditions still so bad for so many?

We can’t expect any answers from Informal Arrangements. But in a day and age where large parts of the media present simple black-and-white answers, having someone pose some not-so-simple questions might not be such a bad thing. Ours is a visual culture and, surprising as it may be, photography can make us pose many questions. Informal Arrangements certainly does.

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