In Conversation with Juan Orrantia

In Search of Decolonized Images of South Africa

Juan Orrantia is a Colombian photographer living in Johannesburg. He recently published the photobook Like Stains of Red Dirt. Salym Fayad is also Colombian and also works as a photographer in South Africa. For C&AL, the two countrymen sat down to talk about representation, independence processes and image subversion.

SF: The photographic tradition in South Africa is closely linked to the documentation of Apartheid and its legacies. For many years, photography was used as a tool to denounce and expose daily life in a context of brutal oppression. The enormous archive that was created (Alf Kumalo, Santu Mofokeng, Gisèle Wulfsohn, Ernest Cole, David Goldblatt, to name a few photographers) also left a legacy where the questioning of power dynamics in forms of representation is contained. The experience of having lived and worked in South Africa for over a decade influences our perception and how we practice photography.

JO: When talking about Africa outside the continent, there is an imagery that is still reminiscent of photos from National Geographic as well as other media from the 1980s. This imagery is surrounded by a discourse of the exotic. (In “How to write about Africa” Binyavanga Wainaina makes a satirical comment about the stereotypes with which the continent is represented.) Although we know that the photograph “lies”, that it is merely a perspective filtered by the subjective eye of a photographer, this idea of the exotic still persists.

In this sense, I suppose the most honest way to speak about South Africa is by dealing with these issues, that I have explored in other places, through my personal lens. Inhabiting this place while at the same time being an outsider is like being dislocated on some level.

When I alter or exaggerate colors, I hope to reveal this sacred little square, which is perceived as a window to reality. It is a matter of disrupting that conception, of subverting the meaning from the photograph itself. If before I was concerned with the question of how I represent something through photography, now, I am more interested in exploring how I can disarticulate or expound these representations.

SF: When working on the continent one comes across multiple connections between the African countries and Colombia on different levels. The connection to the Afro-descendant population in Colombia is an obvious example. But the similarities between the two regions are also expressed in present-day social inequalities, historical trauma, or in the vinyl record trade that went in both directions between Latin America and Africa. Another example is the impact of the Cold War, which in Africa is linked to independence movements supported by Cuban military interventions and to solidarity processes in Angola or Guinea-Bissau for instance.

JO: Maybe that’s why we Latin Americans feel a natural affinity to moving in and relating to Africa: we come from a place with a difficult history and that was also colonized. But it’s also important to question this notion; how true is that idea? Where does that feeling come from? This is something I explore in our collaborations as well as in other projects through photomontage and through intervention of colonial images and archives. I do this from a personal, reflective and critical stance, not only of history but also of the role and form of the inherent visual arts.

There is a connection between the Cold War anti-colonial movements. Film and photography were part of an aesthetic of dialogue with anti-colonial discourse and accompanied this historical moment. I am very interested in this dialogue, both conceptually and formally for these projects.

SF: Visual archives are often created and configured from the perspective of power. Modifying archive material to resignify the image is a way of ‘decolonizing’ the gaze, of disarticulating the mechanisms of representation.

JO: The idea is to emphasize the fact that an image is not the only version of a place but is also a response to the structures of the gaze.

Artists like Jo Ractliffe and Santu Mofokeng, for example, do so from their own experiences and stories. Ractliffe’s photos evoke traces, memories and silences from the conflict in Angola. Santu talked about concentration camps, the history of Apartheid, the townships, but from a poetic viewpoint through his personal experiences in these periods and spaces.

Another mechanism is the subversion of images. I try to take up ideas that link montage and film essay (for example Statues Also Die and Chris Marker’s Sans Soleil) to African history and anti-colonial discourse. Therefore, I sometimes incorporate text into images or create digital collages; to shake up meanings from these stories, from their places and images.

The photo book by Juan Orrantia, Like Stains of Red Dirt, was published in 2020 by Dalpine. More information here.

Salym Fayad, like Juan Orrantia, is a Colombian photographer based in Johannesburg. Fayad also works as a reporter and over the past years he has organized events that aim to strengthen the cultural links between African and Latin American countries, such as the African film festival MUICA, among others.

Translation from Spanish by Zarifa Mohamad Petersen