Squatting near the earth, and pulling at handcuffs locked to one wrist, a white South African man is hugged fraternally by a black friend. Children curiously look on, somewhat charmed by this animated storyteller, briefly passing through their world. His skin is rough and worn – his life has aged him early, and his hair is shaved close. He has entered the squatter camp to escape the police, to seek help, and disappear. It’s a pattern deeply marked in the lives of those like David Jakobie, the young man whose presence paces Jodi Bieber’s intense and affecting photographs of troubled Johannesburg neighbourhoods.
Something about the size of Bieber’s Between Dogs and Wolves surprises at first. It is almost slight, diary-like, its modesty a tonic, perhaps, after the heavily paged surveys and monographs of recent years. Yet in a sense this book is also a survey, and a self-reflection, drawing together the concerns of a photographer at the dawn of democracy in South Africa. Bieber’s book is a complicated, atmospheric work. Complicated, because the work dwells on the periphery, neighbourhoods at the edge of any civic interest, and at the edge of any consideration. In this work we are far from the key moments of change or the news events that surface to alert crisis or success.
The book has no concise narrative telling a simple story, because nothing here is in these districts is simple. More appropriately, it works as a series of vignettes, intimacies that work in clusters, pictures lapping against each other, yet remaining strong enough to be complete in themselves. Learning her photography on the streets of Johannesburg, one can sense the guidance of the Market Theatre workshop, where Bieber worked with David Goldblatt. Her work shares many of his strengths – the ability to work long-term with dedication, sensitivity and a formal dexterity that moves from delicate portraiture to the most animated scenes of nervous, unfolding drama.
As a thread to hold onto, children run through Jodi Bieber’s pictures, and her work plots the tender passage from innocence to obligation, as roles are adopted, gangs are joined, and relationships are formed. They are searching studies of what childhood has become here: a child prostitute, held in shadows, nestles into an iron-gated doorway; children somersault on a washing-line trapeze as their elders redundantly squat against a housing block’s fire-smudged wall. There is little sense of regular industry or metropolis in these photographs. Instead, Bieber works closely, relating the conversations and consequences of neighbourhood life, as groups drink and housekeep their fraying, functional homes. Like the young twins who stare with uncertainty from the book’s cover, children are never far from tension. The calm shade of domestic interiors rub against the stark happenings that punctuate these lives –whether the tragedy of a child’s funeral or the fall into blissful inebriation, such exertions marks the lives of those who can expect, to borrow from Eugene Richards, few comforts or surprises.
In such environments, it would be easy for a photographer to be seduced by the superficial, but these pictures travel further, and reward scrutiny as they relate the briefest of lives. In Westbury, home of the Fast Gun gang, the slightest tilt of a young boy’s head is enough to reclaim him for childhood, despite the armour of hoods, masks and guns. Elsewhere, a worker cradles his child in a stark, unadorned home. He appears infirm and awkward – the copper mines perhaps having already taken his health. Looking at Bieber’s portraits, I return to Milton Rogovin, whose photographs succeed because of a willingness to work with persistence and empathy, and without judgment. Among these children meanwhile, there is an expectancy that at any moment a change will come, a threat will be realised. A gun rests close to hand as card players kill time; an unclothed child, hardly reaching table height, is bare and vulnerable in a fruitless kitchen. Rough edges in life, it seems, are always close.
A family sleeps on the bare foundation block of a potential home, and two young girls dance themselves into a perfect world at a birthday celebration in an unfurnished local hall. Adolescence paces this work in all its tender stages. Jodi Bieber eloquently relates the decisions of her subjects as they grow, flourish or fall. Yet nothing quite prepares us, among the unravelling of all these lives, for the sight of a new-born baby. It had been abandoned, left in a bucket, on a bed of black plastic sheeting in the Turffontein veld. It is the imperfect dawning of a vulnerable new life in an imperfect society – foetal, formally beautiful, and almost heartbreaking.
In a commentary that anchors the book at its close, Jodi Bieber talks of her own childhood. Her family photographs appear too, warm in colour and contentment. Her work in some part might be about this distance, about coming to understand a world in which, without photography, she would have played no part. Moreover, it is about a selfless immersion into communities that a photographer is unable to dismiss. Anders Petersen once suggested ‘I need to be at touching distance to know that I exist’, setting his work apart from a kind of photography that remains comfortable and remote. Bieber, it seems, shares that aspiration.