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?

J.W. Lindt, Untitled (Aboriginal man holding an axe), c.1873. Courtesy: National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne

I pose this question in relation to Nomusa Makhubu’s work Self-Portrait Project (2011), where she explores how the anthropological ‘documentary’ photographic practices mentioned above consciously removed the identity of people of colour in the way they were represented. To make this point, the artist inserts herself into the projection of images of unknown Black bodies captured by the colonial lens under the guise of anthropology. By so doing, Makhubu addresses the sense of alienation that has trickled down generations of ruthless efforts to dispossess and erase Blackness, to ultimately strip Black people of their sense of Self. Representing Black bodies as people without social context is a way of objectifying them, and therefore dehumanising them. In Self-Portrait Project, Makhubu speaks to the power of the archive in shaping history, collective memory, identity and dignity.

I will also explore Makhubu’s body of work Trading Lies (2006) which further engages with the gaping holes in the way history is presented as universal truth as opposed to various perspectives of a given time and place.

The role of the archive is crucial: it blends the past and present to create the opportunity to retrace history and assemble the pieces of distorted contexts, which allows for Black people to reimagine and redefine who they are, instead of how they are told to be. It is at this juncture that inherited trauma is healed through self-representation. Thus, the aim of this essay is to highlight how reconstructing the archive encourages new ways to see the Self, outside of the confines of a repressive historical gaze, and the impact that the reclamation of Self has on the processes of grieving and healing trauma through reconstructing collective memory and renewing collective identity.

The misconception of the photographic archive as objective truth

Various artists and curators alike in contemporary art have been delving into historical records to interrogate, critique and comment on monolithic representations of the past. The misconception that the archive is automatically synonymous with empirical evidence has paved the way for subjective, politically motivated historical accounts to be interpreted as objective truths. Through understanding that the archive is produced, or rather constructed, it brings the fallacy of it being intrinsic historical fact to light.The archive is a “both less real or a ghost-like manifestation of memory” and a “crutch […] on which memory can rest and move forward.” [1] The comparison of the archive to a phantom implies that, firstly, it is an incarnation of the past that not only prevails in but also haunts the present; and secondly, that it is of a nebulous, ambiguous nature. Brown also posits that as much as the archive is produced from memory, the latter relies on it to continue to exist. Thus, there is an interdependent relationship between the archive and memory, where they are both a “diverse and shifting collection of material artifacts and social practices.” [2] One example of the material artefacts of which Brown speaks is the photograph.The photograph as the archive is not an autonomous object but instead per formatively reconstructed by the spectator as an ‘event’, therefore “framing a new space of observation and action for [what is] shown in it.” [3] It is a record of past events that “determines what should be included (and as a result excluded).” [4] The photographic archive “filters what we transmit to the future” and the manner in which it is recorded or altered influences “our understanding of […] the past.” [5] Archiving is therefore a socio-political process that “privileges, includes and excludes certain ways of knowing and being in the world.” [6] In this sense, the photographic archive is not “transparent, unambiguous or value-free, but is rather related to power relations in personal, psychosocial and socio-political ways.” [7] The photograph as part of the archive is a socio-politically charged cultural artifact. It is a visual account of past events from a single individual’s point of view and therefore is always subject to the gaze of the photographer and that of the spectator at a given time. This notion then sheds light on three important concepts: the first is that all forms of photography, including documentary, is informed by the positionality of both the photographer and the ever-changing spectator; the second is that the archive has an intimate relationship with memory, both on an individual and collective level; and the third is that although the archive is captured within and makes reference to a past moment, it continues to live and take new form in the present, subsequently shaping the future.

The photograph as the archive is not an autonomous object but instead per formatively reconstructed by the spectator as an ‘event’, therefore “framing a new space of observation and action for [what is] shown in it.” [3] It is a record of past events that “determines what should be included (and as a result excluded).” [4] The photographic archive “filters what we transmit to the future” and the manner in which it is recorded or altered influences “our understanding of […] the past.” [5] Archiving is therefore a socio-political process that “privileges, includes and excludes certain ways of knowing and being in the world.” [6] In this sense, the photographic archive is not “transparent, unambiguous or value-free, but is rather related to power relations in personal, psychosocial and socio-political ways.” [7]

The photograph as part of the archive is a socio-politically charged cultural artifact. It is a visual account of past events from a single individual’s point of view and therefore is always subject to the gaze of the photographer and that of the spectator at a given time. This notion then sheds light on three important concepts: the first is that all forms of photography, including documentary, is informed by the positionality of both the photographer and the ever-changing spectator; the second is that the archive has an intimate relationship with memory, both on an individual and collective level; and the third is that although the archive is captured within and makes reference to a past moment, it continues to live and take new form in the present, subsequently shaping the future.

Building on the third concept mentioned above, Ariella Azoulay [8] describes the photograph as a “testimony to the fact that something was there.” This is an interesting example of the temporal implications of the photograph: when it was taken, something or someone was present, meaning that the image is a visual representation of a present moment that transcends into the past, as the moment has already happened, and the time in which the spectator views it then becomes the photograph’s future. Therefore, there is an interconnected temporal dynamic between the photographer, the photographed and the spectator. Azoulay [9] speaks to the assumption the spectator may make, where not only do they acknowledge that the photographed person or thing was once there, they may still be there at the time that they are watching the image. This would mean that what may have initially been understood as a visual representation of a past event, may actually still be happening in the present.

Recognising these spatio-temporal implications of the photograph complicates the notion of linear time going from past to present chronologically and shows that these temporal settings can co-exist. Makhubu demonstrates this with her performance photography work. She uses disciplines that have their own temporal implications where the former is centred on the present moment and can never be relived in the same way again, while the photograph implies a certain longevity. A reference to which one can always go back.

The spectator’s interaction with the photograph in the present, enlivens this record of a past event, allowing it to exist both in the current moment and that of the past. Azoulay addresses the dual meaning of the term ‘still’ where on the one hand, it implies the fixed, unmoving image, and on the other, it implies an event that continues to exist in the present. Therefore, this idea of the ‘continuous present’ [10] linked to the photograph gives it the ability to occupy past and present at the same time. This then disrupts the “immobile” [11] quality so often attributed to the photograph by the mere fact that it is enlivened by the ability to occupy, an action associated with agency. As a result, instead of the photograph being interpreted as static or suspended, it should rather be viewed as “living history that perpetuates and renews itself through time,” [12] giving it the ability to “form and reform” [13] our interpretations of the past.

The enlivened nature of the photograph can be compared to that of performance where the latter is described as the “terrain of liveness” [14] where its content can go beyond the frame and directly impact the spectator [15] Azoulay posits that the photograph “requires engagement on the part of the spectator.” [16] She states, “One needs to stop looking at the photograph and instead start watching it. The verb ‘to watch’ is usually used for regarding phenomena or moving pictures. It entails dimensions of time and movement that need to be re-inscribed in the interpretation of the still photographic image.” Thus, Azoulay is not only alluding to the aforementioned movement of the photograph, but she also implicates the spectator, where they are expected to “watch” and “engage” as though a performance is being enacted before them.

This notion of the photograph as performance is evident in Nomusa Makhubu’s body of work Self-Portrait Project (2007/2013), where she “re-enact[s] colonial memory” [17] captured within Michael Stevenson and Michael Graham-Stewart’s book Surviving the Lens: photographic studies of South and East African people, 1870-1920. [18] Makhubu inscribes the performativity of the pose, often seen in portrait photography within the projection of the various people in the photographs. In numerous works in the Self-Portrait Project series such as Umasizanisane I, Inhlamvu Yamehlo (The gaze) and Mfundo, Impahla neBhayibheli (Education, Apparel, and the Bible). Makhubu stares straight into the eyes of the spectator, claiming a sense of agency, space and temporality. Makhubu stated [19] that as she stood before the camera, she actually could not see anything but the light of the projection shining on her. This parallel between Makhubu’s direct gaze into the camera and her inability to see beyond the light of the projection speaks to the contradiction of the colonial photographs in her work. On the one hand, there is the problematic distance created between the photographer and the photographed, where the colonial photographer fails to take responsibility for how their presence and positionality intrude on to the context they feel they are unimpededly documenting. I mentioned this distance earlier, where colonial anthropological recordings of social groups either do not recognise or they disregard the invasiveness of their manner of documentation. On the other hand, there is the performative aspect in Makhubu’s work where she poses before the camera, engaging with the photographs projected on to her. According to Laura Levin [20], the pose forms part of “anti-essentialist gestures of performance artists.” Roland Barthes [21] is of the belief that “what founds the nature of photography is the pose.” Thus, Makhubu’s poses, although minimal, talk to the performativity that can be enacted within the photograph.

Mfundo, Impahla neBhayibheli (Education, Apparel, and the Bible), 2007/2013. Digital print on archival Litho paper, 80 x 60 cm. Courtesy: Nomusa Makhubu
Umasizanisane I, Inhlamvu Yamehlo (The gaze), 2007/2013. Digital print on archival Litho paper, 80 x 60 cm. Courtesy: Nomusa Makhubu

In her essay on the work, Makhubu speaks of the relationship between appropriation and re-enactment, where she states that although she is re-enacting colonial memory, her removal from the contexts within which the photographed were placed is simultaneously “interrogative” and of “appropriation” [22] where she states that in a sense it may seem like she is “stealing someone else’s image.” [23] Makhubu’s reflection is indicative of her taking accountability for her interaction with and reframing of the archives on which her work is based. That even though these photographic archives were not taken by her and she is critiquing their colonial nature, the fact that she is still using them requires that she be conscious of her own positionality, something that the authors of the work failed to do.

Therefore, Makhubu sheds light onto the importance of viewing the archive not as a fixed, neutral portrayal of ‘what was’ but rather a visual representation of a past event that continues to be in the present. Makhubu confronts the misconception that the archive is intrinsically true because of the mere fact that it is a historical document; she exposes the limitations of placing such authority on representations of the past that are devoid of substantive context on the mere basis that they allude to a (discriminatory and essentialist) historical perspective. By using her body as a Black woman as a politicised site of re-enactment, she appeals to the performative aspect of the photograph and therefore simultaneously engages with and challenges the spectator. Self-Portrait Project is a cogent example of how the body itself can act as the archive.

The body as archive

In his work, The Body and the Archive (1986), Allan Sekula speaks of the intermingling between photography, visual representation, criminal profiling and physical features. Sekula [24] speaks of the historical double system within portrait photography where on the one hand it is “honorific” and on the other “repressive”. The former alludes to the “ceremonial representation of the bourgeois self” [25] and the latter informed by “imperatives of medical and anatomical illustration.” [26] In the latter context, Sekula [27] speaks of criminal identity photographs that were “designed […] to facilitate the arrest of their reference” where photography was employed by the police as an attempt to publicly incriminate suspects or offenders. He states that convicted offenders would “not find it easy to resume their criminal careers, while their faces and general aspects are familiar to so many.” [28] The fact that the photographs of offenders were intended to make their “faces” and “general [physical] aspects” familiar to the public leads to the likelihood of stereotyping offenders based on their physical description. Furthermore, Sekula [29] makes reference to the pseudo-science of physiognomy where features on the head such as eyes, nose and lips, were studied as a means to draw conclusions of individual’s psychological states, especially with regard to virtue and criminality. The assumption was that “outer appearances […] reflect inner states.” [30] This practice can be compared to the racial profiling that happens today where individuals are presumed guilty based solely on their racial identity, without considering that criminality is not based on race but rather circumstances, and that because of oppressive structures that targeted people of colour, the circumstances of many in those communities are structured in a manner that is intended to keep them excluded from financial and social upliftment. The repressive portrait photography on which Sekula comments is the equivalent of the ‘mugshot’ that forms part of the permanent record of offenders that keeps them excluded from the opportunity of true rehabilitation that the prison system is supposed to offer.

Sekula’s references shed light on the power of the archive to create conventions of representation, no matter how misinformed or misconceived, that withstand and prevail through time. These conventions speak to the previously mentioned ability of the archive to occupy different temporal modes simultaneously, therefore enlivening them.

Nomusa Makhubu makes reference to the living archive in her work Trading Lies, where similar to Self-Portrait Project, she places herself before the camera as part of the creation of the work. In Trading Lies, she takes her performance a step further by mocking the colonial figures in the exhibition hosted at the Observatory Museum, Port Elizabeth. This particular exhibition was intended to inform the public on how the early settlers lived in the former Grahamstown, now Makhanda, where mannequins of anonymous settlers are placed in the home-like setting. The greatest weakness of the exhibition is that it seemed as though the settlers were in a vacuum, where there was no trace of the people they found in the region upon their arrival. This representation of early settler life is an oversimplification and even falsification of the historical events that lead to their settlement. It is almost as though they arrived and found uninhabited land, which obviously was not the case. The fact that the museum itself failed to add substantive context to the scenes they created is another part of the problem. In the interview with Makhubu, she referred to the role that museums have in relation to the preservation and education of history: the museum is intended to be a space that is accessible, informative and that correctly portrays cultural capital; values which the Observatory Museum did not seem to uphold in this show. The title of Makhubu’s work is also significant as she comments on the charade of the exhibition: the exchange of lies makes it clear to the spectator that, unlike the museum or the colonial mannequins, she does not disguise the fiction in the roles she portrays but rather mockingly participates in the absurd scenes.

In her essay Artistic Citizenship, Anatopism and the Elusive Public: Live Art in the City of Cape Town, Makhubu speaks of the use of the body in performance where she states that “live art is often about appearing in public, the aspects that are immediately visible or noticeable are an artist’s race and gender.” [31] She states that “black bodies in performance are coded differently to white bodies” and therefore live art is “used to protest against racial inequality and deepening sense of anatopism of being unhomed and made to feel out of place.” [32] Makhubu speaks of two important aspects in her description of the body in live art: the first is its social coding that is not intrinsic but constructed within particular political paradigms such as racial and gender hierarchy, which makes it difficult for the body to be viewed as neutral. The second is the body’s ability to exist simultaneously in the past and present, where it can take different forms in various contexts while still attached and/or making reference to the historical associations ascribed to it within these paradigms.

An example of the two mentioned aspects is evident in Makhubu’s Imicabango (Thoughts) from her Trading Lies series where Makhubu is photographed seated, pensive at what is presumed to be the Madam’s dressing table, which would have never been allowed. Makhubu, a Black woman who during the period in which the settler house was set was most likely to be a domestic worker, seated at the dressing table relates to the protest against racial inequality in performance art of which she speaks. What is most interesting about Makhubu’s performance in Trading Lies is that she is not doing anything out of the ordinary of what would be expected to happen in a home: in Ingqwalasela (The Realization Insight)she is sitting on the bed, in Phumula (Rest) she is laying down on a Freud-like couch reading the newspaper and in Umfundi (The Student) she seems to be going through a photo album. These actions are familiar, maybe even mundane, yet in the given context are interpreted differently because of Makhubu’s identity, which is contrasted with the settler mannequins’ presence in the background in certain photographs such as Ingqwalasela (The Realization Insight) and Umfundi (The Student). It is at this point where I return to Sekula’s discussions on conventions of representation where it is the way criminality and race has been associated through imagery that confirms the distinction between the manner in which black and white bodies are perceived whether in performance art or in the public space, for example.

Both instances portray the role of the photographic archive in reproducing prejudiced images and as a result, moulding stereotypes. The politicised body as a living, organic archive is the common denominator in both Sekula and Makhubu’s works where it can be bound to a traumatic history that confines it and/or liberated by the variety of forms it can take in relation to a given space and time. Sekula spoke of how portrait photography either venerated or shamed people, based on factors like socio-economic status and race. Makhubu uses the portrait in Self-Portrait Project as a means to entangle her identity with that of the nameless people in the projections. Makhubu brings life to these projections while also exposing her own vulnerability of a Black woman in a former colony that was also subjugated to years of enslavement, indignity, displacement, dispossession and violence. Both Makhubu and Sekula emphasise how the body is not a neutral site but highly politicised archive that is constructed in a manner that glorifies certain physical features like blond hair, white skin and blue eyes, while demonising others, such as big hips, brown skin and kinky hair.

By Makhubu literally inserting herself into the projected photographs of anonymous Black people, she allows for a way to see herself in the people projected on her. They become connected in time and identity. Makhubu sheds light on the importance of being visible, being represented and belonging. Makhubu achieves this by shifting and challenging the archive for it to be representative rather than repressive. This then paves the way for the archive to be a site of grieving and healing.

Imicabango (Thoughts), 2006. Hand processed colour photograph, 100 x 70 cm. Courtesy: Nomusa Makhubu
Ingqwalasela (The Realization Insight), 2006. Hand processed colour photograph. Courtesy: Nomusa Makhubu
Phumula (Rest), 2006. Hand processed colour photograph. Courtesy: Nomusa Makhubu
Umfundi (The Student), 2006. Hand processed colour photograph. Courtesy: Nomusa Makhubu
The archive as a site of grief and healing

It is impossible to ignore or turn a blind eye to the level of trauma that persists in the framing of colonial archives. Whether it is the monuments venerating leaders of apartheid that still stand today, the divide between the suburban and township areas that continue to keep black bodies far from ‘white spaces’ unless when required to work, or the violence that continues to erupt on black bodies; the colonial legacy prevails in South Africa. However, there is hope in the ability to reconstruct the archive by addressing the social divides in a manner that does not reproduce the violence that created them.

Goduka (Going/ Migrant Labourers), 2007/2013. Digital print on archival Litho paper, 80 x 60 cm. Courtesy: Nomusa Makhubu

In Makhubu’s Self-Portrait Project, the work Goduka (Going/ Migrant Labourers) speaks to one of South Africa’s most complex narratives, which gravely impacted on the Black family structure and society as a whole: migrant labour. Throughout apartheid and even post-1994, migrant labourers have often been the subjects of many photographers. Whether taken in the mines or on farms, on their way to work or on their working grounds, the image of migrant labour in South Africa is a recurring one. What is particularly interesting, however, is that Makhubu does not choose to produce yet another image of migrant labour; she opts to place herself in an already existing one. It appears that this is the only work in the series where she adds a prop, outside of her own body; Makhubu holds a suitcase onto which the archival image is also projected. The image is important as the photograph is projected onto her and her own shadow is also projected onto the work. The double projection alludes to the non-linearity of time where the past is projected onto Makhubu and simultaneously her present shadows the past. Furthermore, Makhubu seems to tower over everyone in the image, most especially the white ‘baas’. This is an important gesture whereby Makhubu is also ‘going’, therefore implicating her as part of the labour force, yet the scale of her body supersedes that of the white male, who is on the polar opposite side of the social hierarchy in South Africa to where she as a black woman resides. While the white man stands in front of the labourers, she seems to stand in front of him as well, thus disrupting our understanding of who is supposed to hold the most power in the image. Therefore, Makhubu’s use of an already existing photograph indicative of a long history of the trials of migrant labour in a way that can completely re-interpret the agents of power, sheds light on to the possibilities of re-interpreting the archive. The archive carries immense weight in terms of how people think about themselves in relation to past experiences that become engraved into memory and that keep glaring at them in the face as they attempt to free themselves from. What Makhubu demonstrates is that although it may be impossible to erase these memories, and arguably may not be best to do so, there is power in the ability to reconstruct them in a manner that is disruptive, contemplative, deliberate and resistant. It is through engaging with the archive in such a way that allows us to grieve what we have lost and heal in the wake of what we can rebuild.

The archive is a manifestation of memory that is neither static nor autonomous. It is embedded in political structures put in place to include and exclude based on a socially constructed and unequal hierarchy that permeates all spheres of life. It holds the power to render visible or invisible, and by so doing creates a fragmented history that continues to divide South African society in the present. The archive possesses the ability to move between time and space, making it a living record that can reinvent itself based on who engages with it and in what capacity. It is enigmatic and fluid, taking various forms such as the photograph, monument and politicised human body, yet in all its incarnations it rests on the principle of engagement. Various art practitioners and activists have shown that there is an intimate relationship between the archive, memory and identity, where the common denominator is that they are all constructed and therefore can be disrupted, reassembled and reconfigured. The perpetual life of the archive allows for it to be reformed and to change the manner in which it impacts collective memory. Therefore, the idea is not to strive to forget the inherited trauma intertwined with memory, but rather to reconstruct the narratives that pave the way for collective healing.

Sibongile Msimango is a writer, editor, translator, thinker, curator and currently a Project Co-ordinator of HUB@GOETHE. She is interested in the idea of living archives, where she looks at  history as a hybrid entity that constantly resurrects the past within the present.

Notes

[1] Brown, “Memory, Identity and the Archival Paradigm”, 90.
[2] Brown, “Memory, Identity and the Archival Paradigm”, 90.
[3] Levin, “The Performative Force in Photography”, 327.
[4] Gareth “The Apartheid Archive”, 12.
[5] Gareth “The Apartheid Archive”, 13.
[6] Gareth “The Apartheid Archive”, 13.
[7] Gareth “The Apartheid Archive”, 13.
[8] Azoulay. The Civil Contract of Photography, 16.
[9] Azoulay. The Civil Contract of Photography, 14-16.
[10] Levin, “The Performative Force in Photography”, 330.
[11] Levin, “The Performative Force in Photography”, 328.
[12] Bastian, “Flowers for Homestead”, 117.
[13] Brown, “Memory, Identity and the Archival Paradigm”, 86.
[14] Levin, “The Performative Force in Photography”, 330.
[15] Levin, “The Performative Force in Photography”, 329.
[16] Azoulay. The Civil Contract of Photography, 14.
[17] Makhubu, “Self-Portrait Project”.
[18] Stevenson, Surviving the lens
[19] Interview with the artist, July 2019.
[20] Levin, “The Performative Force in Photography”, 328.
[21] Barthes, Camera Lucida,78.
[22] Makhubu, “Self-Portrait Project”.
[23] Makhubu, “Self-Portrait Project”.
[24] Sekula, “The Body and the Archive”, 6.
[25] Sekula, “The Body and the Archive”, 6.
[26] Sekula, “The Body and the Archive”, 7.
[27] Sekula, “The Body and the Archive”, 7.
[28] Sekula, “The Body and the Archive”, 9.
[29] Sekula, “The Body and the Archive”, 11.
[30] Rafter, “The Murderous Dutch Fiddler”, 71.
[31] Makhubu, “Artistic Citizenship, Anatopism, and the Elusive Public”, 35.
[32] Makhubu, “Artistic Citizenship, Anatopism, and the Elusive Public”, 36.

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