Last week, this year’s Deutsche Börse Photography Prize Exhibition opened at the Photographer’s Gallery in London, showcasing the work of finalists Nikolai Bakharev, Zanele Muholi, Viviane Sassen and Mikhael Subotzky and Patrick Waterhouse.
Perhaps having just finished Lelyveld’s profoundly moving book Move Your Shadow, I was immediately drawn to the work of Mikhael Subotzky and Patrick Waterhouse, shortlisted for their publication, Ponte City. Displayed on the top floor of the gallery and quite fittingly so, Ponte City documents the results of a mammoth six year project on a 54-floor apartment block in Johannesburg, which was built during the Apartheid era and stands today as a living reminder to all those who suffered an inconsolable amount of racial antagonism and arguably today, still sits at the forefront of conflict in South Africa.
Built for the white ‘sophisticates’ in the heyday of the Apartheid, by the 1990s Ponte City hailed a new group of residents and with that came a pool of neglect. A building that once welcomed its residents to ‘heaven on earth’ quickly turned into an epicenter of crime, a symbol of urban hatred and South Africa’s tallest slum-dogged squat den, to put it bluntly.
In 2007, Subotzky and Waterhouse began their project, picking up the pieces that remained in the now half occupied residency. The result was a stunning culmination of visuals, architectural plans and the untold stories of past and present occupants, documenting the history of a building packed with contrasts and indicative of a nation’s changing cultures, ideologies, racial neglect and the less grandiose reality of apartment living.
In an impressive floor to ceiling light box, Subotzky and Waterhouse display the images they captured on each floor of the tower block; every door, view and television screen captured through the lens of a camera and with it, the accompanying stories, essays and documentary texts that put it all into context.
For me, what was so striking about this exhibit was not so much the photographs themselves but the sheer number of lives and stories subsumed within the solid walls of one tower block. We live in a world of hellishly confined spaces yet have mastered an unnerving ability to keep everything behind closed doors and Subotzky and Waterhouse’s project does well to address this. Ponte City reaches beyond the facade of rainbow coloured curtains and smiling faces, to expose us to the realities of apartment living, poverty and the unending prejudice that still lingers today. Visually perhaps not the most striking, but here is a body of work that sticks with you both for its content and ability to leave you questioning what has really changed in a country still evidently stuck between its past and present.
Downstairs, visual activist Zanele Muholi uses a different medium to challenge, specifically, the identity and politics of LGBTI communities in post-apartheid South Africa, with a wall of stunning black and white portraits. At a glance, individuals silenced and under explained, but shift your attention to the limply held, hand written words hanging to the left of the gallery and an unsettling likeness begins to emerge. For these are the real faces and real words of former victims, subjected to prejudice and curative rape but still stand before us. No rainbow filters through these images, but strength, defiance and dignity remains. They are the images of a ‘Rainbow Nation’ cast only in black and white and captured by Muholi in the most sensitive and simultaneously hard-hitting of ways.
Politically, here are two of the better contestants, but all indisputably unrivalled by last year’s finalist, Richard Mosse who, in his epic display of coloured jungle war zones, set the bar very, very high. For me, this year’s finalists lack any real visual flair but rather, comply with the often held high view that ‘content is king’. An interesting, defiant and provocative body of works nevertheless, and most definitely worth a visit.
The exhibition, featuring work by all four shortlisted artists is on show at the Photographer’s Gallery until 7 June | www.thephotographersgallery.org.uk