South African photographer Cedric Nunn grew up in an environment he describes as ‘very image-scarce’. The protests of the mid-70s had been met by a repressive silencing of the media that resulted in a void, a stifling of communication, and an isolation of audiences. But when Nunn first saw the work of Peter McKenzie (later to be co-founder of Afrapix, and chief photographer for Drum Magazine) he underwent an ‘epiphany’ – ‘a very powerful experience of identifying with the images and feeling that this was a medium that was meaningful, and that I could express myself through it.’ Nunn, at the time a semi-skilled sugar mill labourer, and workers’ activist, sensed that photography might enable him to address those issues – amongst them racism and racial division, of course – which he believed to be unavoidable.

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Tractor driver on a sugar farm, Mangete, KwaZulu-Natal, 1988 (courtesy BaileySeippel Gallery)

A fine retrospective of Nunn’s work – Call and Response – presents a self-edited selection of material from the early 80s to the turn of the century. As might be expected from a key member of Afrapix, the photographers’ collective that proved indispensable to anti-apartheid groups and the alternative press, there are pictures here from notable news ‘events’: Mandela’s 1990 rally at the FNB Stadium; the country’s first democratic elections in 1994; the peace accord signing between white farmers and the Zulu people in 1986; UDF militia guarding against Inkatha attacks; a 1980s SADF military parade through Johannesburg.

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Arniston kids body surfing off the Western Cape, 1989 (courtesy BaileySeippel Gallery)

Not so predictably, the bulk of Nunn’s chosen pictures are less headline-grabbing, more quotidian, and considerably quieter. He photographed children in a temporary school, and their benches that balanced planks on unsteady bricks; he photographed the labourers on a KwaZulu-Natal sugar farm, their clothes torn and shoes worn; he took many pictures of his own family members, including grandmother Amy Madhlawu Louw – 88 years old and still working the fields. Some of this collection’s most recent images are of Johannesburg’s destitute and poor – a homeless man clutches his belongings in bags while an OMO advert promises The Strongest Washing Powder For The Cleanest Wash.

It seems that these documentary – as opposed to photojournalistic – pictures, marked by sympathy and deft observation, most clearly represent what Nunn wanted to do. In an interview that accompanies the work, he comments, ‘I don’t have the urge to photograph protest anymore, but rather to go back to that original vision of depicting people and the circumstances that manifest in protest.’ And looking back at his output, and its almost inevitable overt politicisation he reflected, ‘I was a bit disappointed by the fact that I didn’t have that strength of conviction to follow my original vision. I would have produced far stronger work if I had followed that vision – those quiet images that I could have made if I had spent far more time exploring the backwaters and backstreets of the world that I lived in. If I had stayed with that, those are the images that I would have made…’

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Deborah Eksteen is comforted by her groom Noel Norris while visiting the grave of her recently
deceased father immediately after her marriage, Mangete, 2001 (courtesy BaileySeippel Gallery)

His comments echo the advice he was given in the early ’80′s, when the Sebokeng uprisings, the formation of the UDF, and the activities of the resurgent protest movement, all conspired to make ‘newsworthy’ and engaged photography an apparent requirement. ‘Beware of this intoxicating moment,’ wrote Lefifi Tladi (a key figure in the Black Consciousness Movement), ‘it will distract you.’

Maybe so. For Nunn, it appears that servicing the needs of a voracious media will always be compromised. Indeed, his still-pertinent views of the press – as revealed in a fascinating interview that accompanies the pictures – bear quoting in full:

‘When I look at the mass media today, I see it as a corporate media, as representing corporate interests. I hear the media in South Africa bleating about government’s crackdown on press freedom but I never hear them expressing any conflict about being embedded in capital, about representing the interests of capital. I have big problems with that because I think that they are extremely biased, extremely influenced. I don’t think anyone becomes an editor unless they perform adequately within the system that requires that they represent capital and show profit. You can’t do that and tell a completely objective story.’

Nunn did not aspire to objectivity either – he was avowedly partisan. Looking back, such were the extreme circumstances of the time and place in which he worked that even the so-called ‘quiet’ images were no retreat from the ethics of that partisanship.
Guy Lane

nunn_coverCall and Response – Cedric Nunn
publ. Hatje Cantz, €39.80.