Collective Healing through the Archive: Nomusa Makhubu inserting the erased

by Sibongile Oageng Msimango

Documentary photography serves to present accurate accounts of historical events. The key word in this understanding is ‘accurate’, which gives the impression that what is documented is fact or undisputable truth. The issue with such a simplified definition is that it disregards the subjectivity and perspective of the photographer. It is through the eyes and the lens of the photographer that the image is constructed and captured. The extent of the subjectivity of the photographer can be noticed in anthropological photographic archives, where European photographers documented the indigenous people they encountered on their explorations without providing much context as to who they were, to which cultures they belonged or what their names were.

A prime example, is the archive of J.W. Lindt where he took portraits of various First Australian groups of people in the 1800s, in a studio that was dressed to look like the subjects were out in the wild, in their ‘natural habitat’. J.W. Lindt captioned the photographs such as “Aboriginal man” without even attempting to place them in the context of their respective cultures or mentioning their names. Would it be true to say that such documentary photography captured in a wildly adorned studio through the western gaze is an accurate depiction of an undisputable truth?

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