Tracey Derrick: Water that glistens, rinses and brings us home

POSTED ON: January 25, 2021 IN Clare Patrick, On Artists, Word View

by Clare Patrick

Working in the photographic darkroom is like a ritual, a meditative process that requires focus, care, and time. It is a collaboration of delicate synchronisation between the photographer, materials, machines, and chemistry. Tracey Derrick’s work holds the residue of ritual and time, understood through her commitment to darkroom processes and manifested in the themes of her photography. Water recurs throughout her images and across her years of working, as a subject, as a theme, as a surface and as a tool in the darkroom. Her considered use of water exemplified in three series: Basic Necessity, a series of portraits focused on her days spent with sex workers, images from Liquid Life which are drawn from projects throughout her career, and The Waters of Life series that is situated within the ritual of baptism amidst ocean waves. Water is a central component to each of these works, mediating the way figures interact with each other, with their surroundings and with Derrick as the photographer.

Most writing about Tracey Derrick has followed her name with a list of causes and identities, almost bullet-pointed, to detail a description of her work and the legacy of her career as a photojournalist/documentary photographer. While much commentary has emphasised her commitment to social issues, documentation of political struggles and triumphs across her various projects, less attention has been paid to the recurring symbolic devices that Derrick used to communicate her positionality in relation to her subjects. Thus, Derrick’s works are notable because of the conversations they initiate. Without shying away from contention, she focuses empathetically on scenes and communities that are often marginalised or overlooked. Throughout her life, her commitment to social issues and the power of photography as a tool for representation is reflected in her work and fixed in the resin of her darkroom practice.

Working on and with tenderness

Tracey Derrick worked on photographic projects across southern Africa. When she returned from assignments or projects, she lived on the outskirts of Cape Town, with her dogs and family. As a photographer and activist, she actively sought to work in spaces and with people frequently underrepresented and often misrepresented. She produced projects that were in service of socio-economic sectors, creating images that work as narrative bodies and as singular statement images. Gaining critical acclaim, she featured in high profile shows such as Africa Remix, curated by Simon Njami, and was included in the 2002 contemporary photography tome Blink.[1] However, as Sue Williamson notes, Derrick’s aim was always more about “raising consciousness about issues she felt to be important and insufficiently recognised”.[2]  She made images with refugees, church goers, sex workers, prison inmates, she looked at illness and her experience of it by including herself and her family. Across the trajectory of her work, the recurrence of water is prevalent and noteworthy, as a symbol, tool, subject and motif throughout her career. Her images are often grouped into series which she titled evocatively, allowing for open-ended interpretations. The various labels that some might ascribe to her subjects are never explicitly illustrated in her work, but rather they are elaborated on in accompanying texts which detail her thoughts and experiences while creating the work.

The images themselves offer tenderness, celebration, exaltation, tension, release; she demonstrates careful observations by positioning herself in relation to the images she framed. Notably, she rarely cropped or altered her images when processing them in the darkroom, instead taking time to frame and compose her images while working with her camera in situ. This choice, of minimal post-production interference, reflects a considered approach to image-making that translates in the mood of her works. There is a distinct sense of care and thought embedded into the photographs which was present before the shutter clicked and perhaps even before the film was loaded.

Playing with light and water in darkness

As a photographer who remained committed to darkroom photography, was her relationship with water more poignant than it otherwise might have been had she switched to digital? The series titled One in Nine is one of the few examples of Derrick’s interaction with digital photography. The images evoke a sense of dryness and flat brightness. A washing line is repeated across the series, as though gesturing to moments when the lights are on and prints are washed and hung up for final checks and drying out. So, in her film-based works, is there correlation between the works and the elemental nature of water that ties in with darkroom practices of image-making? While photography is often understood to be non-tactile, Derrick’s analogue oeuvre highlights the fibres, the resin surfaces, and the capacity of film photography to create deep, rich contrasts. The prints demonstrate her understanding of working with darkroom materials with ease and comfort. Through her images created in darkness, developed and printed in water, there is a consistent foregrounding of light and water. Derrick appears to interrogate this presence both as a theme relevant to the concept of each series, while also reconnecting the viewer with the basic principles of photographic work.

One in Nine, exhibition poster, AVA Gallery, 2010 (Source: artist’s website)
Tracey Derrick
Chrysalis, 2010. Digital photograph (Source: artist’s website).

Washes and splashes of water as universal symbols of need and joy in “Basic Necessity

It was at the opening of an exhibition in Cape Town that I first saw a Tracey Derrick print in person. I was fortunate to briefly meet Derrick while standing in front of her work. She was warm in demeanour, and her gravelly voice was soft and gentle. I felt the compassion, which I recognised from her images.

Sally After Work, from the series Basic Necessity, was presented amongst a vast array of images by other photographers. The show was busy with content — visual and conceptual, heavy with feeling and sharpness. Curated by Simone Tredoux at the PH Centre in Cape Town, the show was titled No Ordinary Women, offering a comment on the positionality and presence of women photographers and their subjects, often turning their cameras onto themselves or other women. Additionally, the exhibition’s theme was concerned with the ever-present threat of gender-based violence and femicide that remains so prevalent in South Africa.

Sally After Work, from Basic Necessity,  1998. Photographic print (source: artist’s website).

Sally After Work remains, I think, one of Derrick’s most striking images — not for its tension, its revelation or drama, but rather in its quietness and in the way it feels somehow familiar. The image is cropped close along the lines of shower tiles, with a figure’s back in the foreground — her costume tan line curving in contrast to the grid of the tiles and in harmony with the soft slopes and mounds of muscle and flesh. A trickle of water pours over her right shoulder and her hair is spiky with wetness at the nape of her neck. The image is calm, it is gestural, and it is familiar. It holds the familiarity of watching my mother in the shower when I was little, the familiarity of a quick rinse off after a surf, the subtle sensuality of knowing the feeling of what is shown in the image and the comfort of this recognition. The water seems to me to be the key to the image — it designates the activity and the activeness of the subject, while directing the viewers’ eyes across the length of the image, to be intersected by the upward curve of her tan line as the water sprays out of its stream.

Sex work is work and the days continue after work

For the series Basic Neccessity, Derrick made images with sex workers, noting the bizarre and mysterious conventions that create barriers in society: demarcating work, money, sex and how intimate interactions take place. In the series, the images are gathered as a series of moments, depicting activities and interactions instead of framing distinct characteristics. The images indicate circumstances, experiences and the shared daily banalities that resound universally, despite differences of context. In making these images, Derrick observes and is a bystander.

Derrick’s positionality as a privileged white woman and South African citizen informs the dynamic of the images. Her own relative security and the rights afforded to her through her identity is implicated in her role as a photographer and the dynamic of the gaze present in her work. While Basic Necessity highlights and shares, it does not attempt to explain or speak for. As Juno Mac and Molly Smith state in Revolting Prostitutes, “sex workers — not journalists, politicians, or the police — are the experts on sex work”.[3]

Water is used as a device to establish visual cues of shared activity throughout the series, but it is also as a medium for her engagement and positionality in relation to the figures in the images. In the exhibition catalogue for “No Ordinary Women”, Derrick writes, “I admire their ability to ignore peer and social pressure and how they go beyond our rather mundane ideas of identity”.[4] Drawing from a shared sense of care and acknowledgment, the images in the series represent joy, normalcy, banality, and highlight the basic necessities that are needed for comfort and safety — water, touch, connection and laughter.

Photographic portraiture and representative power

Photography is a tool that can be used to visualise what is missed or obscured — therefore it can function as a reparative tool for careful, respectful representation and recognition. On portraiture, Teju Cole observes that images allow for an unpacking and imagining around fixed ideas and objects but warns against the tendency to find these signifiers as evidence of personality, emotion or individual circumstance. Specifically, he explains that “we tend to interpret portraits as though we were reading something inherent in the person portrayed.”[5]

Writing about the series, Derrick notes “we have more words for sex work than we have for money — they have as many about us,” and critically, she reminds us that “everybody sells themselves in some way.” [6] The images of Basic Necessity reflect what Cole maintains, that “a portrait is an open door. It can remind us of our ethical duty to other[s].” [7] The images overall, and specifically Sally After Work, reflect the understanding that “a photographic portrait records a human encounter. The photographer’s intent and the sitters’ agreement, and vice versa, are made visible … [and] also contains the tacit hope that a third party, the viewer, will be able to register traces of that previous encounter.”[8] In Basic Necessity, the images are records of Derrick’s encounters and the moments she observed. The images exist as objects holding clues and in this way can be read as portraits.

Consistent throughout the series, and Derrick’s work overall, is a commitment to the image. She approaches each theme, subject and composition with meticulous care, considering the framing and narrative so that every frame recorded is important. Whereas others have worked with text and captioning, or writing by people within the images, the portraits Derrick creates remain resolutely of her own making, physically as objects from her hands, and from her viewfinder as the offered perspective.

Through Derrick’s framing, glimpses of the life of sex workers beyond their work are shown, and through the presentation of the series under the title Basic Necessity the viewer is directed and guided towards the witnessing of these encounters. Sex work is both central and adjacent to the focus of Basic Necessity. It foregrounds the viewers’ supposed understandings but in doing so, it should “serve as a lightning rod for questions about work, masculinity, class, bodies; about archetypal villainy and punishment.”[9] The images exist regardless of how they are met. They document joy, necessity, water and work, presented from Derrick’s perspective in acknowledgement of the human encounter held in a photograph.

The image of Sally After Work stood out to me because of its quietness, along with the wash of water glistening off the paper. Film photography happens through the touch and precision of hands at work in a dance with time, chemistry and light. Working in the darkroom requires focus, consideration and slow working, becoming acquainted with the textures, contrasts and physicality of a print. To work in this way calls for care which, when practiced, translates into considerate representations that demonstrate a responsible visualisation.

Liquid Life as crossovers and familiar reminders

Liquid Life is a self-curated collection of work in which Derrick examines the resonance of water in her own life and work, centring it as an important interest that she returned to many times. Sally After Work is also featured in Liquid Life, which speaks to the crossovers she was exploring in the series — water as a connection across different contexts, climates and themes.

Tracey Derrick
Liquid Life series, 2003. Photographic print (source: artist’s website).
Tracey Derrick
Liquid Life series, 2003. Photographic print (source: artist’s website)

In Liquid Life, Derrick states the importance of water in life, of wetness as a source, a medium and a symbol, but more critically, as a central feature of her work which she shows through the reflection, memory and acknowledgement of her past work. Where many photographers work around a theme or series, Liquid Life is distinctive as a cross section of interests, places, people and contexts both professional and personal, constructed and candid. As a self-curated retrospective, this body of work is integral in demonstrating Derrick’s approach to image-making as involved and intimate, regardless of the environment, while also demonstrating a through-line about the importance of water in life.

Tracey Derrick
Liquid Life series, 2003. Photographic print (source: artist’s website)
Tracey Derrick
Liquid Life series, 2003. Photographic print (source: artist’s website)

The series is intimate to view, with many of the images having a personal quality to them. There is an unselfconscious gazing at bathing, swimming, showering. The images, although pulled from various projects up until its curation as a body of work in 2002, share a sense of familiarity and poetry, woven together through washes of water and sparkling contrasts in black and white. Photographs reminiscent of Sally Mann’s images of children in bathtubs, dancing in the sprinklers float through the series, offering a playfulness to her cataloguing of works that return to water and wetness, showing people and places that appeared in front of her camera throughout the years.

The authenticity of a photographic encounter

In an interview with Michael Godby, Derrick describes Liquid Life as a culmination of her work around water, signifying water as a persistent aspect of her images. Water is symbolically significant both in the conceptual underpinnings of much of her oeuvre, but also in relation to her commitment to the craft of photography and darkroom practice. Godby touches on Derrick’s darkroom processes, referring to what he calls her “sense of the authenticity of each image,” the idea that each photograph conveys a chance to experience the photographic encounter.[10] Authenticity rings through this series perhaps because it is a collection of images that Derrick has compiled by acknowledging the prevalence of water across her work; each image returns the viewer back to the cause of the series — the trickles, splashes, immersions and washes of water. Concurrently, an authenticity is reflected through Derrick’s printing techniques and dedication to working with film, which sees a distinctive inclusion of the film frame in her prints, signifying a lack of cropping,[11] which Sue Nepgen once noted as an integral aspect of Derrick’s approach.

The images of Liquid Life vary in subject, orientation, focus and location. By gathering images from across various projects, Derrick offers a view into some of the thinking behind her practice, as well as the points of overlap between her work and personal relationships. Liquid Life offers wetness to the viewer as a way of revealing how many critical, mundane, extraordinary and banal moments in life are accompanied by water. She asserts, through the images, the familiar truism that life overall is mediated by water. Derrick makes visible interactions through water and her relation to it through her camera.

Expressing photographic ritual and mythological potentials in The Waters of Life

In The Waters of Life, Derrick plunges into the waves, positioning her camera as a witness to ritual and religious birthing while water surrounds her, linking her with those she is creating images with. The symbolism of water within spiritual ceremonies rings through the images. Focusing her camera on a group of women participating in oceanic baptisms, Derrick observes that “their rituals are about calling the ancestors from the past and gaining knowledge and advice from them. Baptism is a symbolic death and spiritual rebirth — we die and are reborn many times. It is a ritual used to regain an inner equilibrium and to receive a powerful infusion of spirituality.”[12] The images are energetic, engaged and position the viewer amidst the waves as the focus of the lens is immersed in the ritual.

Waters of Life series, 1994. Photographic (Source: artist’s website)
Evil Away, 1994. From the Waters of Life series. Photographic print (source: artist’s website)
Nono, Sal and Priest, 1993. From the Waters of Life series (source: artist’s website)

Water and the ocean as a site of artistic creation and symbolism has been activated by many artists before, from The Birth of Venus and its many recreations, like Lunga Ntila’s The Birth of Oshun to other photographic works that trace themes of religion, migration and spirituality like Maria Magdalena Compos Pons’s De las dos aguas or Buhlebezwe Siwani’s Igagasi I . In thinking of the sea as a site of theatre and ritual, Ngkopoleng Moloi posits that “there is darkness and danger that looms above the seas but there is also freedom”. Discussing its prospects for creative imagining, Moloi offers that “the sea is repurposed and reimaged as a theatre stage upon which much drama unfolds.”[13] The Waters of Life presents a duality, where Derrick is a witness to the ritual that occurs but also presents the acts amidst the waves as a kind of drama. By centring the action of each image in the waves, with the camera’s focus submerged in the water, she asserts her interest in each image being within the wetness and in the symbolism of the waves.

Sandro Boticelli, The Birth of Venus, oil painting, 1485-1486 (Source: Google Arts and Culture).
Lunga Ntila, The Birth of Oshun, digital collage, 2017 (Source:
Maria Magdalena Compos-Pons, De las dos aguas, 2007 (Source: artist’s website)
Buhlebezwe Siwani, Igagasi 1, c-print on cotton paper, 2015 (Source: artist’s website)

Sea foam glitters across the frames of The Waters of Life series. In each of the images, figures are framed around the centre point of the picture plane, either offside in the foreground or balanced on either side creating a mirroring around the middle. Reception of Spiritual Energy harnesses the power of imagery and association that is conveyed to the viewer. The women are steady amidst the buoyed fabrics of their dresses and their gestures are held by the composition of the image. Derrick’s framing centres the narrative of the series by focusing on the mediation between bodies and water and the energy that moves across the images. Physicality and movement are important here. Derrick notes: “The ancient Greek word physis has important qualities for me with this work — it is used to refer to life energy as it manifests in nature, in growth and healing as well as in all dimensions of creativity. The feeling honours everlasting change, unlearning as well as learning, living as well as dying.”[14]

Reception of Spiritual Energy, 1994. Photograph (source: artist’s website)

Derrick’s framing of the figures before her asserts a relationship of witnessing and composing. The choreography between the photographer and her subjects is interjected by the directions of the occurring ritual. Derrick’s view is translated to the viewer as a recording of the encounter. The images are records of Derrick’s gaze, as her lens catches the light and the splashes, as the waves crest in an offering, evoking the rituals of baptism and photography at play. Photography’s distinct relationship to ritual is articulated by Olu Oguibe:

The photographic experience was in essence a ritual experience, which, though not enacted with cyclic regularity, nevertheless had its discernible structure and pattern. It had an inherent mythology, a ritual procedure, and a central character … As ritual, the photographic experience articulated a nexus of myriad associations, characters, and narratives, and provided a moment and context of orchestrated confluence, which was then marked or registered in tangible, memorable form. [15]

The technology offered by photography has seen the likes of John Akomfrah, Mohau Modisakeng and Paul Maheke engage with water as spiritual, historical sites that link to past and future selves. Photography can thus signify a balance of presence and representation, as both an affirmative device and archival object. When Oguibe describes the photographic experience as a ritual and notes the photographic object as resulting in “tangible, memorable form,” the linkages between symbolism and the power of photography’s ceremonial qualities become clear. 

Speaking across boundaries and flowing through contexts

In the same way that music speaks across language barriers and dance translates emotion into physical forms, art and photography allow us to see differently — to inhabit an alternate view, to glimpse someone else’s perspective through the framing and construction of a lens. By engaging with these points of access or avenues of interpretations, the possibility to imagine difference comes alive. In Derrick’s photography, her perspective is mediated through her composition of the image and reinforced through her commitment to little editing or post-production interference. Through her meticulousness in the darkroom, her careful printing and the attention she paid towards the creation of every frame, each image is an offering of her own perspective for the viewer. As water recurs in each of her works discussed, it serves as a symbolic reflector for Derrick’s presence as a photographer in the images.

In the three series discussed, her work prompts a meditation on water. While the subjects and topics Derrick focused on vary, her approach remained consistent in her expression of care and consideration through her representation without shying away from contention. The recurrence of water across her archive suggests Derrick was interested in water as a critical element in the process of film photography, but also across the broad intersections of life she explored. The images offer reminders of water as freedom, unconstrained, malleable, flowing, moving, changing, transforming — it crosses space and clings to itself, creating its own pathways and carving out new patterns previously undefined. When it moves across surfaces, it smooths and cleanses, when it gathers, it enables reflection and refreshment.

Clare Patrick is a curator, writer and artist based in Cape Town, South Africa. She has written for Foundwork’s Dialogues series, No!Wahala Magazine, Art Times, L’AiR Arts and The Brighton Photo Fringe, and presented exhibitions and talks in South Africa, the UK, France, Ireland and Morocco.

[1] Simon Njami, et al. Blink. (London: Phaidon Press, 2002).

[2] Sue Williamson, “Sue Williamson reviews One in Nine by Tracey Derrick at AVA,” ArtThrob, 2010,

[3] Juno Mac and Molly Smith, Revolting Prostitutes: The Fight for Sex Workers’ Rights (London: Verso Books, 2019), 21.

[4] Tracey Derrick, No Ordinary Women, exhibition catalogue (Cape Town: PH Centre, 2018).

[5] Teju Cole, “There’s less to portraits than meets the eye, and more,” The New York Times, 23 August 2018,

[6] Cole, “There’s less to portraits.”

[7] Tracey Derrick, “Basic Necessity: Sex workers around and about Cape Town,” 1999.

[8] Cole, “There’s less to portraits.”

[9] Mac and Smith, Revolting Prostitutes, 2.

[10] Michael Godby, “Something Raw and Real: Tracey Derrick discusses her photography with Michael Godby,” Kronos 33, no. 1 (2007).

[11] Sue Nepgen, “Review: Tracey Derrick at Okha,” ArtThrob, 2003.

[12] Tracey Derrick, The Waters of Life: Zionist ceremonies in the townships of Cape Town (1996).

[13] Nkgopoleng Moloi, “The sea is the theatre upon which the drama unfolds: John Akomfrah, Paul Maheke, Buhlebezwe Siwani, ruby onyinyechi amanze and Bouchra Khalili,” ArtThrob, 2020.

[14] Derrick, The Waters of Life.

[15] Olu Oguibe, “The photographic experience: toward an understanding of photography in Africa.” In Flash Afrique: Photography from West Africa, eds. Thomas Mießgang and Barbara Schröder (Götteingen: Steidl, 2002), 10.