Mikhael Subotzky – artist, Magnum photographer, and now fictional filmmaker – first made his name documenting the South African prison system.
It was 2004, a decade after the country’s first democratic elections. The crime rate was spiking and calls were being made for a return of the death penalty. In this atmosphere of conflict and fear, a prominent constitutional court case was mounted to determine whether prisoners should be allowed to vote.
‘It struck me as amazing that in a country where all our political leaders spent time in prison, this could even be a question,’ remembers Subotzky, 34, then a final year art student. ‘To take the right [to vote] away from prisoners would just be madness.’ Subotzky (who is white, slight, and Jewish – when we meet he wears his wiry blonde hair piled up into a bun) talked his way into Cape Town’s Pollsmoor Maximum Security Prison, camera in tow. His sober images show prisoners sleeping head to feet in grubby shared beds like sardines, scaling walls under a savage sky, and cowering from guards holding back jerking, barking dogs. In one photograph an inmate bathes in the stark-looking industrial washer – an alternative to the communal showers.
Over the last decade South Africa has been a rich artistic palate for Subotzky, who has been collected by the likes of MOMA and the Guggenheim in New York, and the Tate Modern and Saatchi Gallery in London. Yet, acutely aware of racial divides in his homeland, the artist insists that in his prison series he was careful not to ‘fetishise that place as an “other”, filled with black male bodies’.
Today Subotzky is rejecting another kind of fetishisation – the South African obsession with Australia. The artist is in Sydney to premier his first fictional film at the Sherman Contemporary Art Foundation (SCAF). WYE is an exploration of the relationship between Great Britain and two of its former colonies, Australia and South Africa. It is not always a happy one. ‘A lot of middle class white South Africans see Australia as this idyllic place. It’s just like South Africa in terms of natural beauty without the quote unquote problems,’ insists Subotzky, talking in a Paddington café. The phrase ‘packing for Perth,’ he adds, is a joke in South Africa – one with a sting in its tail. It is made in reference to South Africans who want to run away, to swap (in their minds) a country still divided by race and poverty for a less fraught terrain.
But when Subotzky visited Australia three years ago he found a nation still battling with its own bloody history, as described in Robert Hughes’ The Fatal Shore. The book profoundly affected him. ‘Initially when Australia was discovered by the Europeans it was fantasied as this beautiful exotic part of the world,’ notes the artist. ‘Very quickly that shifted into representations of a harsh, inhospitable upside-down land populated by freakish animals. That was psychologically necessary [so the English could] use this land as a dumping ground for unwanted people. Now South Africans idealise the landscape in order to justify something else.’
Entering SCAF to watch WYE is like walking into a darkened reflective fairground. Visitors lounge on deck chairs that sit on a bed of sand surrounded by glossy black mirrors. Unfolding on three large screens are snapshots of three characters’ lives. One is an early 19th century Englishman, the next a contemporary South African, and the third an Australian scientist from the future. WYE explores the way we place our own fears and fantasies onto new lands we tread. The English settler, in particular, views South Africa as a ‘vindictive landscape’, a world, to him at least, that is grossly alien. The South African, meanwhile, hides away in a remote lighthouse and contemplates whether he should join relatives in Australia or should try to ‘face the realities of South Africa rather than run from them.’
If the script sometimes descends into scantly disguised moralising, it is the images that stick: a fish, gasping for air, flapping around in the shallows; the great expanse of the South African seas; a close-up of a panting Alsatian, one eye blue, the other eye brown. The result is a film mesmerising and unsettling, the work of a photographer pushing his own limits.
Like his parents, Subotzky was initially set on a medical career in Cape Town. Then, aged 18, he set off for a trip around Europe; there he discovered his talent for candid documentary shots. In 2011, after a punishing years-long trial process, he won his place in the coveted world of Magnum photography.
Subotzky’s work has been ‘about engaging and trying to break down some of the boundaries I was born with.’ In 2008 he moved to Johannesburg, leaving the comforts of home behind. ‘Cape Town is quite sleepy,’ he says. ‘You can still sit in a restaurant surrounded by white people being served by black people. It’s not a way I can live.’ Since then Subotzky has shot everything from a black lesbian couple washing each other tenderly in a bathtub (South Africa still suffers from rampant homophobia) to the non-fiction film Moses and Griffiths (2012), acquired by the Tate Modern.
The installation follows two men, Moses and Griffiths, in South Africa’s Grahamstown. Both were long-time tour guides for significant buildings, the Observatory Museum and the 1820s Settlers Monument, the latter built in the 1970s to ‘guard over’ English language and culture. Subotzky shot the men twice: once giving their ‘official’ tours – in which they, without question, provided whitewashed Eurocentric histories – and second personal tours relating their own black histories. It is, says Subotzky, a tale of exposing and laying bare ‘institutional violence’.
Yet for all the rawness of his work, Subotzky does not believe a photographer can ever be a fly on the wall, merely observing. Photography is ‘hamstrung or handicapped’ and photographers should, he believes, ‘acknowledge how much they photograph externally reflects their internal world.’ Ultimately ‘I don’t think the camera lies,’ he says. ‘I just think it doesn’t tell the truth.’