REVIEW: Travel Photographs “From the Road”, Cape Times, 24 November

“Postcards fromt he Road” – an exhibition of photographs by travel writers and photographers Don Pinnock and Justin Fox. At the David Krut Projects, Montebello Design Centre until December 3. LUCINDA JOLLY reviews

SO MUCH of the way the rest of the world perceives Africa and South Africa is via images. Images on TV, in magazines and from the cameras of famous South African photographers who are often well-armed with their particular beliefs and agendas.

These images, sometimes edgy and dramatic, become fixed representations serving as benchmarks of how we are seen, sometimes long after their shelf life has expired. That said, at the other end of the spectrum, the same could be said of travel photography with its bias towards beautiful exotic places.

At a walkabout of Postcards from the Road, Don Pinnock, one of the exhibitors, suggested that probably none of the photographs in this exhibition would get into a magazine. Why not? The 28 photographs on exhibit are not immediately threatening.

They follow the traditional composition found in documentary travel photography, there’s no ground-breaking way of looking at the subject, format, technique or composition here. However Pinnock explained that these images would be rejected on the grounds that travel magazines want pretty pictures.

Granted some of the images just can’t help being pretty even when the context is decidedly not. Silk prayer flags flapping against the desolate Himalayas in Kashmir, the shadow of foliage on a wall during a solar eclipse and drying clothing artistically laid out on a dry river bed.

What Pinnock and co-exhibitor Justin Fox are keen to bring to the viewer are images and their accompanying stories that don’t make it into a magazine.

As Pinnock says “all these images are not what we would normally take” and yet they are how he and Fox write, which is “writing beyond the obvious” and the stories behind the narrative.

Perhaps the most unusual aspect of Postcards from the Road is the unorthodox process by which the photographs were selected.

Drawn from archives containing thousands of images, they were culled to just 14 images per photographer ranging from as close as Mozambique, to as far afield as Antarctica and China. Co-curator Jacqueline Nurse writes in the prologue that an “instinctual process” was used, one which has its roots in “the old parlour game, Consequences, adapted by the Surrealists into what is now known as cadavre exquis or the Exquisite Corpse” which allows the unconscious to serve as a filter. Even more unusual was that the photographers had no say in the selection. Pinnock and Fox were however allowed carte blanche regarding the texts.

Although the viewer will enjoy these images which are free from the confines of an editor’s brief, it’s the text that carries the charge, and the audience at the walkabout were party to some interesting and at times heightened responses and projections.

For example, the text accompanying Fox’s image of trinkets from the Jiayuguan market in China bearing images of Chairman Mao which state that “Hitler’s rule caused the deaths of 60 million people, Mao’s rule killed between 40 and 70 million people” brought about a strong response from a Chinese national who insisted that many Chinese still regard Mao as a hero and the deaths he caused were not necessarily directly related to his rule as those directly attributed to Hitler were.

Other strong reactions were to the text accompanying Fox’s image of a bricked doorway in Ibo Island where unseen on the other side were squatters going about their lives. Fox wrote “Frelimo offered a brave new, Marxist future that would be plagued with the stupidity of social engineering and the dark evils of civil war.”

The notion of “stupidity of social engineering” was taken up and grilled. Even Fox’s Stooped Man in Barcelona, a very tender image of an elderly man stooped with osteoporosis against an immense wall, created a reaction. This time the public response was not within the political context of the photographer but a highly personal one about the horrors of ageing.

Finally Pinnock’s image, Shirt House, Lucira, Angola, which shows a beautifully colourful habitat fashioned from T-shirts donated for wear, also raised issues. Firstly the impulse of giving was criticised as serving the self rather than being altruistic and, furthermore, the lack of regard to the recipients’ context was criticised, shade rather than warmth is what is required in Africa.

Although the text may both limit and extend these interpretations, nevertheless the images of Postcards from the Road allow for many interpretations. The result is big responses from small scale images.

Check it out.

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