A year of reading, writing and consuming photographs as snapshots of stories

Activists, New York City Pride Parade (2016) Roddy Roye/Instagram

Review 2016: As a writer of political non-fiction, my interests tend to revolve around race, class and gender. I pay attention to human rights and governance questions, and keep my finger on what is happening in South Africa and the US because those are two countries I have lived and worked in for many years. I spent the early part of this year finishing my first book – a memoir about growing up in exile.

To cope with the long hours spent writing and editing, I often needed to take my eyes off print. Scrolling through social media was often one way of alleviating the stress, but this brought its own anxieties about procrastination.

So I sought out photographers. I made a conscious effort to consume images – because really what are images if not snapshots of stories presented visually? So my choices for my most important cultural encounters of 2016 reflect my turn to photography, my focus on the world outside South Africa, as well as my continuing need to read fiction to inspire my own non-fiction writing.

1. The Lowland – Jhumpa Lahiri (2014)

Cover of The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri.

The Lowland is about the relationship between two brothers who grow up in the marshy lowland of Calcutta. One chooses politics and the other academia.

It is the story of a family rent in two by political violence. The Lowland is about India’s loss – about the haemorrhaging of a nation that can’t fulfil the promises of independence. Lahiri is a lyrical and subtle writer – the prose in this book carries you away.

And yet she is much more than that. Lahiri is an observer of loss – one of the finest writers out there whose work focuses on human sadness. The Lowland is a work of fiction but for writers of literary non-fiction (like myself) Lahiri’s mastery of the craft of writing offers profound inspiration.

2. Citizen: An American Lyric - Claudia Rankine (2014)

The cover of ‘Citizen’ by Claudia Rankine.

Over the course of 2015 and 2016, Claudia Rankine wrote a number of lengthy pieces about Serena Williams.

Each article found a way to both pay homage to the athlete and to reflect on what she means to America – a country that has always had difficulty respecting women and black people and has seldom known what to do with unapologetic black women.

So I had been wanting to read Rankine’s book-length poem Citizen for some time. As race relations heated up at home in South Africa and in the US, and as the very idea that black lives matter begaan to lose its urgency and devolve into a philosophical debate – the focal point of an acrimonious new argument about the role and place of identity politics in a globalised world – I was curious about what Rankine had to say.

As the New Yorker noted in a 2014 review:

Citizen begins by recounting, in the second person, a string of racist incidents experienced by Rankine and friends of hers, the kind of insidious did-that-really-just-happen affronts that startle in the moment and later expand, poisonously, in the mind.

The accumulated power of micro-aggressions; the second-guessing of the self – all of this is unrelenting. Rankine saves us from the endlessness of racism though.

The cataloguing of the pettiness of racism confirms its largeness. It also affirms the humanity of those of us who – like Rankine – have lived through millions of moments that are designed to pull us down.

3. Ruddy Roye (Sept 16 – Oct 29, 2016; Stephen Kasher Gallery, New York)

While I was in New York for a meeting in late September, a friend who covers the arts and culture scene for the Village Voice took me to see a number of shows. By far the most powerful was an exhibition of Jamaican photographer Radcliffe “Ruddy” Roye‘s photographs. It featured 20 large-scale photographs, many taken in Roye’s neighbourhood of Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn and his longer-term and larger project called When Living is a Protest.

Roye has become a phenomenon on Instagram, which does not detract from his seriousness as a photographer. To the contrary. The accessibility of his photos and the fact of his 250,000 followers provides him with an important platform. This in a time when images of black protest are so often edited, altered and made to conform to standard tropes about rage and rioting.

As Roye notes:

The media has a way of deleting the stories of people who society does not want to deal with. This is my humble way of putting these stories back in people’s faces — forming a real and active dialogue about these issues.

Ruddy Roye on Instagram, Storytelling, and Risking the Angry Black Man Label. (Please note: This can be watched on Vimeo)

Roye is indeed humble; a street photographer who lives with and amongst his subjects. The near parity between himself and those he trains his lens on is as obvious as it is powerful.

While Roye has been heralded as part of an exciting group of black photographers documenting the Black Lives Matters movement, the image that struck me the most was of a dark-skinned couple – two men shimmering with sweat and holding rainbow flags, clasping hands and looking at one another in a show of queer pride. No hashtag needed: all black lives matter.

4. David Adjaye’s Urban Africa (Oct 26, 2016 – Apr 2, 2017; Museum of African Diaspora, San Francisco)

David Adjaye’s Urban Africa exhibition.

On a short trip to San Francisco in October I soaked in the Museum of African Diaspora, where internationally acclaimed British architect of Ghanaian descent David Adjaye’s Urban Africa was on show.

Adjaye spent a decade documenting the continent’s major cities and producing a photographic survey of buildings in 53 cities across Africa. It was an impressive set of images.

Adjaye’s decision – to survey the continent and to display its architecture and its modernity – is important because so often Africa’s search for meaning and affirmation comes from the past by resurrecting once-great empires.

Inherent in Adjaye’s project is an insistence that who Africans are now and what they have created in the last 50 years is of consequence and worth investigating, documenting and reflecting on.

This notion – that Africa’s lessons for the world are not only ancient – has certainly found its way into my thinking about the importance of small “p” politics. I have paused to reflect on the everyday rather than the systems and institutions political scientists are typically taught to consider.

5. Anthony Hernandez (September 24, 2016–January 1, 2017; Pritzker Center for Photography, San Francisco)

While in San Francisco, I also had a chance to see Anthony Hernandez’s photographs at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. The museum put on a retrospective of his work – 160 images from 45 years of thoughtful and prescient photography.

Like Roye, Hernandez is also a street photographer, and like the Jamaican, Hernandez has elected to focus on the privacy and dignity of people who live on the streets.

Anthony Hernandez, Discarded #50, 2014; courtesy the artist; © Anthony Hernandez.

By far the most searing photos were those in Landscapes for the Homeless, a series that was completed in 1991. It features photographs of the places homeless people live. There are no people in the images – only self-made habitats, spaces hidden from public view by blankets and curtains.

Like all great artists – writers included – Hernandez is at his best when he chronicles people’s attempts to live in dignity even as they make their homes in public spaces – in parks, abandoned warehouses and on the streets.

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