PhD students Tamsyn Adams (CA-DS) Sophie Feyder (History) recently curated the photo exhibition ‘Sidetracks’ in Johannesburg, South Africa. Certain iconic images have come to stand in for major events in South African history. But what about family pictures? What kinds of stories and histories do they convey? If one were to compile a history of South Africa using essentially private photographic material – family albums, studio photographs, hand-coloured portraits, framed wedding photographs etc – what would it look like?
Sidetracks – an extension of Tamsyn Adams and Sophie Feyder’s PhD research at the University of Leiden – is a travelling exhibition that draws on two very different family-owned photographic collections. The older of the two is a collection of family photographs, covering 150 years, and belonging to a white English-speaking farming family from Estcourt, KwaZulu-Natal. A more recent collection is made up of the work of Ronald Ngilima and his son Torrance, ambulant photographers who recorded the black, coloured and Indian communities living around Benoni in the 1950s, prior to the 1960s forced removals.
An old train map of the South African railway system, including Estcourt and Benoni stations, provides a starting point to the exhibition. In their original context, ‘sidetracks’ refer to the minor or auxiliary tracks on the railway system. In South Africa, during the time period covered by these two collections, the train had the potential to both connect and divide populations. Firstly, it enabled people to travel across the country, linking urban and rural areas. One photograph from the Adams collection, for instance, shows the family’s cattle at the Rand Fair Show in Johannesburg, where they would have travelled to from Estcourt by train. Conversely, an Ngilima photograph shows several young girls carrying suitcases and blankets, about to board the train that would take them from Benoni (near Johannesburg) to boarding school in Kwa-Zulu Natal. But at the same time as the trains allowed for this movement between places, they also also served to divide, a process most evident in the racial segregation of the train’s coaches. Train tracks also frequently functioned as a physical border between two areas, for instance between the Indian and the new Black neighbourhood in Benoni.
These ideas of connection, movement, division and even diversion – to use the figurative meaning of ‘sidetrack’ – were all central to imagining a reciprocity between the societies represented in the two collections. What started out as an email correspondence between the two PhD students gradually evolved towards a pairing of photographs that seemed to resonate with each other. Connections emerged where least expected, in terms of patterns of composition, conventions of posing, and subject matter repeated across class, race and generations. The result was a sprawling constellation of images – a photo-map that not only started to suggest some of the complexities of South African micro-history, but also raised questions about the process of looking at, and working with, photographs and photographic collections.
Although they represent intimate moments, many of the pictures selected for this exhibition also reverberate with the larger socio-economic forces at play in the country. Familiar histories are hinted at, most tellingly the history of South Africa’s racial divide, and the experience of living under apartheid. Black figures hover at the margins of the Fyvie photographs, escaping the photographer’s attention; beaming white pin-up ‘girls’ can be seen in calendars and advertising posters in the background of the Ngilima portraits. Yet beyond this, private photographs invite us to also acknowledge the quiet, non-sensational stories taking place at the margins of the ‘struggle narrative’.
‘Sidetracks’ was first exhibited in Johannesburg at the Market Photo Workshop Gallery in July 2013. It coincided with “Beyond the iconic image: Tracing South African Micro-histories”, a two-day conference organised by Leiden PhD students at the University of the Witwatersrand (Johannesburg), which explored how photographic collections and archives intended for small-scale and private usages could be mobilised to write alternative South African histories.