The Lens Keeps on Looking

Guy Tillim in an interview with Peter Geimer — 19.7.2022

Photos— Guy Tillim

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Apartment building, Avenue Bagamoyo, Beira, Mozambique, 2008 © Guy Tillim

«In my work I try to be pensive.»

In an interview with art historian Peter Geimer, South African photographer Guy Tillim explains why he is searching for an position of utmost neutrality in a photo, how he frees himself from the burden of the past - and what made him photograph in black and white again in Berlin.

Peter Geimer: What has always fascinated me about photography is its initial indecision. The pioneers of the new medium in the nineteenth century were themselves not yet clear on what exactly they had invented. Was it an instrument of natural science? A new branch of the fine arts? An unforeseen image industry?

In the following decades a differentiation into various functions and branches developed – art photography, documentary photography, scientific photography, etcetera. This differentiation still determines how we deal with photographs today, it defines their institutional status, but also their economic value or unvalue.

On the other hand there have always been photographs that do not conform to the categorical division into documentary or aesthetic, realistic or constructed and so on. Against this background, your works are of particular interest to me.

You worked for Reuters, for Afrapix, a South African photography collective, and Agence France-Presse, but for more than twenty years your photographic work has also been on view in art museums and galleries. I assume that for you, in retrospect, the works shown there do not represent a radical break with your earlier photojournalistic work but are rather a variation on certain practices and interests?

Guy Tillim: This indecision you speak of has, I believe, been a consequence of rather primitive photographic vocabulary. I mean to say that verisimilitude of the photographic image is a kind of hair-trigger. There’s a rush to meaning and intention of the photographer that is often obscure. Hence the differentiation into various branches of art photography, documentary photography and the like is really an attempt to understand the design of the photographer. The boundaries between these categories are blurring.

There is a perception that a photographer’s interests and preoccupations are different depending on whether his work finds its way into the world through the press or an art gallery. You suggest that this hasn’t really been the case for me, and I think that’s true. For me the difference has been one of intention.

My impression is that in conveying an experience of the world, or a thing in it, there seems to be more and more of a concern with context; in other words, how not to isolate one thing or action at the expense of the whole. In my own work this has translated into the search for an absence of judgment or a suspension of prejudice. Making photographs is surely on the frontier of what it is to immediately describe something, so the art world is trying to make sense of an explosion of visual vocabulary and literacy. We are all photographers now.

After this break with photojournalism, my pictures generally seemed to have a life in books that followed an initial showing in a gallery or museum, but not always. Work I did covering an election in the Democratic Republic of Congo, for example, ran in a Kinshasa newspaper and was shown at documenta 12.

Please let us stay with this aspect for a moment. What you describe as «absence of judgment» and «suspension of prejudice» probably has to do with the fact that your work has long since detached itself from the conditions of photojournalistic practice with its professional rules and norms.

Admittedly the choice of motif – for example contemporary life in African metropolises such as Johannesburg, Dakar, Nairobi, or Maputo – still plays a decisive role in your photographs. But when you show your photos in the form of triptychs, as in «Museum of the Revolution», your interest in the subject is combined with a high level of attention to the specific potential of the images.

For a long time I was absorbed in trying to emulate European and American photojournalists that I admired. I still admire them but have made an effort to find my own way. This mimicry almost always involved trying to construct a kind of triangulation of drama, or tension, by pulling figures or elements half into or half out of the frame.

My expectation was that this device conveyed urgency and immersion in a scene, the commitment to a cause that hinted at a poetic, independent mind trying to make sense of a chaotic world. I carried these influences around, but I realized I was repeatedly looking for the same drama. It became absurd to me, even obscene, to try to make all these different situations conform to the same borrowed aesthetic.

From that realization was born a desire in me to embrace what I thought could be the greatest possibilities of photography, and even of community. One might call it a need for neutrality – though perhaps a «suspension of prejudice» is a better way of putting it. As a young photojournalist working with the anti-apartheid collective Afrapix in South Africa in the 1980s, I regarded my output as subversive.

Perhaps it wasn’t all that very. To quote Roland Barthes in Camera Lucida: «Ultimately, photography is not subversive when it frightens, repels or even stigmatizes, but when it is pensive, when it thinks.» I tried then to be pensive.

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Athénée Royal High School, Lubumbashi, DR Congo, 2007 © Guy Tillim

«In the act of taking photographs I’ve always tried to find a feeling of suspension where the burden of the past feels light and unimposing for a moment.»

This led to a series of photographs of African cities compiled in a book called «Avenue Patrice Lumumba», and then to a project on landscape in French Polynesia and São Paulo. In a body of work called «Museum of the Revolution», the pictures taken in African streets, I really endeavored to give form to that idea of neutrality: the banality of detail of an ordinary street that held you in suspension, no one element more important than the next, an absence of imposed drama, etcetera.

Roland Barthes, whom you mention, criticized in another text (titled «Photo-chocs») a certain kind of photojournalistic dramatization of political events. He writes that these images are «overconstructed,» that in their attempt to make a «good» picture, photographers have already anticipated the message of the image and left the viewer no freedom to discover anything unexpected here. These photographs, says Barthes, «lack both the scandal of the literal and the truth of art.»

In my opinion this criticism applies to a great many of the images that are awarded and exhibited annually as World Press Photo. One is able to too quickly grasp which visual punchline, which photographic rhetoric or aesthetic convention the image was aimed at. What you describe as an «absence of imposed drama» also seems like an attempt to do justice to the motifs depicted, for instance a street in today’s Johannesburg or Nairobi, by not imputing their reality too quickly to a pre-formulated photographic aesthetic.

In the act of taking photographs I’ve always tried to find a place, or a feeling, of suspension where the burden of the past feels light and unimposing for a moment. These moments grow longer and more coherent as I grow older, so in that respect at least taking photographs has gotten easier.

What precipitated this infatuation is hard to say. I think it has much to do with working as a photojournalist in South Africa where I became increasingly aware of an unsubtle portrayal of events leading up to the end of apartheid. I felt complicit in the very often simplistic concerns and preoccupations of the people for whom the images were often made. The quickly grasped visual punchline, as you put it, was the cliché about good and evil in South Africa, and I wanted to put distance between that impulse in me and my photographs.

Initially I found refuge in a kind of lyricism that I think is evident in a body of work I called Departure. These are mostly photographs made as I moved out of the news and attempted, with indifferent success, to pitch my work at the European magazine market, but essentially they were a chronicle of my idiosyncratic wanderings around the African continent.

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Julius Nyerere Way, Harare, 2016 © Guy Tillim

History shows up on the outside of things

I found my feet again in Johannesburg in 2004. The demise of apartheid in 1992 meant of course that the laws governing freedom of movement were demolished, and people previously excluded from proximity to economic hubs now streamed into the city. This precipitated «white flight» and a struggle for affordable housing, offset against the economic and political cost involved in the provision of services. In short, the New York of Africa was becoming an contemporary African city and I was impatient to record the transition.

It was here I realized that it was absurd to imagine that I could transform the infinite impulses of a city into a journalistic portrait in such a way that the various pieces would form a comprehensible whole, much like a completed jigsaw puzzle. For the first time ever I tried to be in a place without imposing drama and narrative, and now and then I was able to incorporate this state of being into an image.

A few years later I applied the same idea to work published as «Avenue Patrice Lumumba» – photographs made in African capitals. The decaying buildings had complex political reasons for being so and I was concerned that depiction of decay was a simplistic visual metaphor for an African political condition of a certain era.

I wanted to avoid that because my attraction to the buildings was of a different order: one of hope and expectation, however inappropriate, in the colonial era. And the overthrow of colonial regimes, with the pathos of failed expectations that went with it. In this quest for suspension, I imagined an exciting future, of being young in a place that was becoming something new.

Let’s stay for a moment with your photo book «Avenue Patrice Lumumba». Lumumba was one of the first freely elected presidents of modern Africa. In an act of extraordinary courage, he used the official celebrations of Congo’s independence in Léopoldville in 1960 to confront the Belgian king with the devastating consequences of his colonial policies. Great hopes – such as those of the African independence movements – were tied to Lumumba’s presidency.

Even though these hopes were pushed back by Lumumba’s assassination and Mobutu’s reign, Lumumba did not simply disappear as a political figure. Your photos of African cities were taken long after the events mentioned, but the country’s past is still peculiarly present in them.

I’ve never been persuaded by Bertolt Brecht’s famous sentence that a photograph of the Krupp-Werke or the AEG says almost nothing about these institutes because it can’t depict their reality. History also shows up on the outside of things. For instance an abandoned Grand Hotel in Beira, Mozambique, on whose terrace the new residents are hanging laundry out to dry, and in view of the port of Quelimane with the words «Digital Super Power Dish» on a satellite dish in the foreground, or on the faded calendar page pinned on the closet door of an administrative office.

For me the strength and beauty of your images from «Avenue Patrice Lumumba» is that they show those African cities as sites in the flow of history. Looking at the images, one gets the impression that all the elements of this urban landscape – the architecture, the everyday things, the vegetation, the people moving among it all – each have their own unique duration and lifetime and coexist at their different speeds. Measured against the rhetorical press images I spoke of, I find it liberating that these photos describe things very accurately while not imposing any kind of opinion or preformulated message.

The photographic reportage emanating from Africa in the 1980s and 1990s was fixated on calamities of the post-colonial era and I was no exception. However, I couldn’t help but become increasingly spellbound by the landscape and the architecture of the cities, and at a certain point I lost interest in the events and focused instead on the surroundings.

I wish I had done it earlier and simply paid attention to the details of ordinary things and structures in plain sight. They took on a fascinating shape and patina for me as an indisputably African identity was forged early on in those revolutions against the postcolonial regimes, in many cases embracing socialist policies and emerging as globalist, capitalist states. You put it so well: history shows up on the outside of things. The traces of it were all so evident.

I also found it liberating to approach an environment overloaded with certitude about post-colonial narrative, with a neutrality that I hoped would convey a kind of ambiguity. An ambiguity that is illustrated well in the Museum of the Revolution in Maputo. Here we find a panoramic painting produced by North Korean artists depicting the liberation of the capital from Portuguese colonial rule. It illustrates the rhetoric of a revolution even as the leader and his followers parade through those streets and avenues laid out with such grandeur by the colonial powers.

Lumumba signed his own death warrant by courageously confronting the colonial powers, so we can never know how his dream may have turned out. Perhaps no one was ready for it then, perhaps it is coming true now.

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Grande Hotel, Beira, Mozambique, 2008 © Guy Tillim

A search for new shapes can be seen in the photographs

It seems important to me that you once again address the political dimension of your subjects. It would be a misunderstanding if one were to see the interest in neutrality that you have mentioned several times as indifference, passivity or naive belief in the impartiality and objectivity of the photograph.

In fact this kind of neutrality is a form that does not arise by itself but must be found and worked out. In this respect I see your photos as an aesthetic alternative to the language of professional commentaries and manifestoes, which always know exactly what is happening and what to do next.

The photos in «Museum of the Revolution» are preceded by a quote from Achille Mbembe: «Postcolonial Africa is an interlocking of forms, signs and languages. These forms, signs and languages are the expression of a world striving to shape its own existence.» This interlocking and this search for new shapes can also be seen in your photos.

In «Museum of the Revolution» there is a certain detail that beautifully captures the transitory character of the country. At the moment of people rioting you almost always show them as passersby, quite literally: pedestrians traversing an urban palimpsest of new and old, discarded and surviving forms and signs. The «Museum of the Revolution» is not a tomb but a place where one is on the move.

Against this background your landscape photographs once again deserve special attention. In contrast to the street pictures, the places shown on them are sometimes deserted – the tropical vegetation on Tahiti, birds over the sea coast of Tikehau in French Polynesia. The very title you have given these images, «Second Nature», suggests that this cannot be about pristine and untouched nature but once again about culturally shaped and historical landscapes – visible, for example, in the presence of a wrecked car abandoned under some trees, which in its uselessness seems to gradually merge into the shape of the landscape.

There is no exoticism in these images, yet nature and landscape seem to possess something independent and distinct from their inhabitants. Do I see this correctly?

I think you see it precisely. I went to French Polynesia to photograph the landscape. I had read some of Captain Cook’s journals and looked at paintings made by his artist crew, particularly William Hodges on Cook’s second voyage. The painters were wonderfully skilled and attentive to topographical and atmospheric effects, but they often found it difficult to resist the urge to embellish their work with subjects lifted from mythology and set them in idealized landscapes.

Their output was hugely influential in visualizing the South Pacific then, and it remains so to this day. I wondered how I would get along. How would I find this neutrality I craved in a landscape so loaded with notions of the sublime? It would be no good to take the kind of position whereby one offsets the natural beauty with something unlovely – say, a bulldozer and construction site in paradise. When I arrived I made a lavish purchase of postcards and put them up thinking to myself, Okay, so it’s all been done quite well, how would I do it differently? For me the answer was far from obvious.

One could see that for the postcard photographers the detail and monumentality of a vista were relatively easy to describe, but what lay in between was more intangible and fugitive. So I resolved to find what I can only describe as a non-hierarchical way of looking at a scene where elements like the rock, the bay, the palm and the road all found an equality.

No one element cried out for special attention, but then no single element hid from a balanced and disinterested gaze either. I looked for an arresting ambiguity where it was not quite clear what was photographed. The gaze should wander. It was a state of mind more than anything else, and I think it resulted in a few interesting images. I tried to apply what I’d learned from this South Pacific adventure to African streets.

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Anaho, Nuku Hiva, French Polynesia, 2010 © Guy Tillim

«It would be no good to offset the natural beauty with something unlovely – say, a construction site in paradise.»

All the pictures we just talked about (Avenue Patrice Lumumba, Second Nature, Museum of the Revolution) are in color. At the beginning of your work there were also series in which you worked – exclusively, I think – in black and white, for example the impressive portraits of the Mai Mai soldiers, young guerilla warriors, almost children, camouflaged in leafy twigs and holding large wooden bats.

In «Leopold and Mobutu» there are shots in black and white, others in color. Historically this alternative has long been controversial. When, after a century of black and white, photography in color became technically possible and available, this development was by no means universally seen as progress.

For a very long time it was inconceivable for many practicioners of artistic photography to work with Agfacolor or Kodacolor: the color photograph was considered vulgar, a hallmark of popular culture and the entertainment industry. Today this ideologization of color has given way to a peaceful coexistence. Nevertheless, it seems to me that the choice of color or black and white still follows certain aesthetic decisions.

At the time I made those portraits of Mai Mai soldiers in the (DR) Congo in 2003, I was still working with black-and-white film stock. I had shortly before acquired a digital camera but wasn’t quite ready to work for two long months with this new technology in the wet central Congo. Storage and file processing was all new to me at this stage.

My preference for black-and-white film was twofold. It was the way I was used to working for newspapers and it offered control. Color printing in a lab was expensive and relatively complicated, whereas I was proficient in a black-and-white darkoom. When digital file-processing offered me that control, I welcomed it. The first real digital color work I did was in the Congo later that year – the technology was advancing in leaps and bounds in those days – and the year after, in Johannesburg, I took pictures in the inner city and then in 2004 published them in a photobook called Jo’burg.

Thereafter I became absorbed by digital color printing and it seemed ungracious not to explore its possibilities after all those years of monochrome. Lately, in my pictures of Berlin this year, I’ve returned to black and white. Again, I think it’s about control. I intend to use digital files to make black-and-white negatives and silver prints – that is, digital capture with an analogue output.

The best of both worlds I would venture to say. An analogue print has a kind of geography in and of itself – in a way that an inkjet print will never have. There’s another thing relating to the Berlin pictures. In my years of trying to emulate European photographers I was terribly jealous of the wonderfully dark tonality of their black-and-white prints, impossible to imitate under a bright African sky, so here we are.

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Karl-Marx-Straße, Neukölln, Berlin 2022 © Guy Tillim

«The camera sees more than the eye; it’s more dispassionate.»

A bright sky is something that Berlin seldom has on offer. All the better, however, if the light of the city contributes to your now once again experimenting with the possibilities of the black-and-white image. Can you say a few words about your current work here in Berlin?

You’ve worked in Rome before – also a city that draws its particularity from the palimpsest – like overlapping layers of time. Against the background of your previous work, one can imagine that Berlin might also be an interesting place for you. On the one hand a city of traces, on the other hand a city where one destroys what has become historical, for example the Palace of the Republic, in order to then simulate in the same place another past that is perceived as more pleasant.

Yes, now that the sun has come out I’m a bit depressed. I’m sorry I never got to see the Palast der Republik (Palace of the Republic), I would have tried to incorporate it in a vista or a fleeting impression.

As it was, I took some photos of the replacement, which was a promising image for a while but in the end didn’t make the cut. So my excursions around the city have been idiosyncratic, seemingly purposeless, but I hope not meaningless. It’s not for me to say really. The camera sees more than the eye; it’s more dispassionate.

Again the hair-trigger analogy, the mind’s eye seems to shut down when meaning is achieved, whereas the implacable lens keeps looking. I wanted to be more like the lens, especially in Berlin where the layers are very opaque for me, in contrast to African cities where I have an emotional connection to signs and traces.

In any case these Berlin images are constructed. That is to say, the single image presented is made from two or more images. It’s something I started experimenting with in Abidjan and Dar es Salaam. It’s not a particularly complicated feat of photoshopping but the crucial thing is, paradoxically, in deciding what to leave out rather than what to include. It’s an exercise in restraint rather than indulgence. And therein lies an integrity of sorts.

The photographic world is straining to deal with integrity of the image in the digital age. The phrase «the camera does not lie» has little resonance today, as Fred Ritchin points out in his recent article on ReVue Exiting the Photographic Universe. He describes the paradigm shift entailed in photography’s transformation into more of a synthetic medium, much like painting.

The analogue photograph’s architecture did not invite wholesale reinvention, he reminds us, its strength lay in largely leaving it alone. And he recalls Susan Sontag’s assertion that «a photograph is not only an image, an interpretation of the real; it is also a trace, something directly stenciled off the real, like a footprint or a death mask.» One wonders how visual vocabulary will rise to cope with this uncertainty. One hopes it is not with certitude.

Guy Tillim

Guy Tillim Guy Tillim was born in Johannesburg in 1962 and lives in Vermaaklikheid in South Africa. He began photographing professionally in 1986 and worked with the Afrapix collective until 1990. He has had solo exhibitions at the Huis Marseille Museum of Photography in Amsterdam, the Fondation Henri Cartier-Bresson in Paris, and the Museu Serralves in Porto, among others. He was photographer in residence and fellow at the Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin in the academic year 2021/22.

Peter Geimer

Peter Geimer was born in 1965. He is an art historian whose research interests include the history and theory of photography, historical painting, and film. After academic posts in Zurich and Bielefeld, he has been Professor of Modern and Contemporary Art History at Freie Universität Berlin since 2010. As Senior Advisor, Peter Geimer advises the Wissenschaftskolleg on the appointment of Fellows from the field of photography.

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