At the age of 26, Mikhael Subotzky has already received more prestigious international photography awards, grants and commissions, than most photographers – much less artists – earn in a lifetime. He has exhibited his photographs in notable galleries in Africa, Europe and the US. He is the youngest person to be invited into the rank and file of the illustrious Magnum Photo coterie. And this year, after collecting the ICP Infinity Award for Best Young Photographer, he was invited by seasoned curator Roxana Marcoci to exhibit his new work, Beaufort West at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York City. He has achieved all of this in four years. Photo above: Winner of the young photographer award Mikhael Subotzky and winner of the lifetime achievement award Malick Sibide attend ICP’s 24th Annual Infinity Awards.
Born in 1981 in Cape Town, South Africa, Subotzky first began taking pictures in high school. He went on to attend the University of Cape Town where he became the first student ever to earn a perfect academic record. Turned onto the activist photography work of his uncle, the notable photojournalist Gideon Mendel, Subotzky’s university thesis was a photographic documentary of the prisoners in Pollsmoor Prison. The work came after a highly controversial court ruling that gave prisoners the right to vote despite their incarceration.
Pollsmoor also happened to be the prison where Nelson Mandela had spent many long years as a prisoner of the state, and it was in Mandela’s old cell that Subotzky hung his first solo exhibition, Die Vier Hoeke , on the April 27, 2005 – Freedom Day (which carries that name in commemoration of the first democratic post-apartheid elections held on that day in 1994).
That body of work began his phenomenal four-year trajectory. Right away his photographs began earning him accolades in South Africa, and the Goodman Gallery quickly gave him a solo exhibition. Europe showered him with awards. Everyone, it seemed, was ready for his work the instant it came out of the Colenta machine.
Now I will bet there is not an artist or photographer practicing now who can say that they never dreamed of such immediate financial success and artistic recognition, but that simply does not happen often. It breaks the romantic mold of the misunderstood artist who starves until people begin to recognize the genius or the beauty of the artist’s creation. When someone does create a body of work on their first attempt that is so good it completely absorbs all available accolades instantaneously, you have to be wary of him or her becoming a one-hit wonder.
When Duane Michaels, a veteran Magnum shooter bedecked with merit, meets a young photographer, he gives them this advice in Conversations: With Conteporary Photographers : "Don’t try and be an artist. Limit yourself to doing your work, and if the work is true and authentic, it will become art." Such seems to be the case for Subotzky, for underlying his images there is evidence of his uncompromising commitment to his work and his willingness to become fully engaged with his subjects.
Consider the realities of his process for Die Vier Hoeke , in which Subotzky had to convince the wardens of a maximum-security prison to let a white college kid come into their jail house, make friends with, and photograph the inmates. Do you think they were concerned about any kind of ill exposure? (The recognition of how ridiculously overcrowded and filthy the prison actually is, for example.)
To begin an engagement with the prisoners, he taught them about photography, how to shoot and use a camera, and he made them portraits they could send to their loved ones. He had to return to prison day in and day out for more than a year, and sleep with the devastating stories of hardship that lurk in the eyes of so many of Subtozky’s subjects. And definitely do not think it was easy cake getting the wardens to let him hold an exhibition in Nelson Mandela’s former prison cell on Freedom Day. When you consider these realities, you have to recognize and commend all the effort expended outside the actual photographic process.
This is the work that usually separates the passionate photographer from the hobbyist. Anybody can find a nice frame, snap the shutter, and develop and print the picture; but it takes real dedication to do so much work behind the scenes. It reminds me of Edison’s line that, "Genius is 99% perspiration and 1% inspiration," which is probably true of Subotzky’s practice as well, for it seems as though the bulk of his energy is spent not snapping pictures, but developing a rapport with his subjects that will ultimately infuse his pictures with the meaning and emotion one looks for in works of art.
Another crucial aspect of successful documentary photography is the nature of the photographer’s relationships with his subjects. In Subotzky’s case, his subjects are South Africans like himself. Yet unlike Subotzky, they exist in a world of suffering, misery, and in many cases, total hopelessness. This creates a natural duality between the comfort of working near or in one’s home and the discomfort of working with people whose lives are so radically different from one’s own.
When you look at Subotzky’s portraits of the inmates, they appear very open; he is right there in front of them, and they accept him. It is an intimacy born from trust, which is built slowly, piece-by-piece, over time. Writer Joshua Mack noted recently in Art Review (September Issue) that for Subtozky, "photography was a means not only to document what was a foreign reality to him, but also a way to overcome differences and connect with inmates."
Anyone who has carried out work in such emotionally and spiritually exhausting environments can attest to the deep ways that the work alters your perspective. For Subotzky, his perspective is that of a white South African, which adds tremendous undercurrents of political and social implications to his work and process.
Consider this angle: a privileged young white male photographs the abject poverty and despair of black Africans and the wealth and luxury of their fellow white countrymen. The exhibition earns the young photographer plenty of laudations and generous wealth, mostly from white patrons of the arts. The photographs are shown in institutions run by white men (MoMA , FOAM ), where the majority of viewers are also white. If you looked at Subotzky’s path from this perspective, you might be tempted to view him as simply a savvy post-colonial exploiter. But that would be naïve.
There is no way of getting around skin colors in a society where segregation remains a predominant aspect of everything from city planning to daily social interaction. In such a racially charged, environment I would think it takes a tremendous amount of courage and compassion for an affluent white male to step outside of his social strata and willfully engage and make genuine connections with imprisoned black men. And to do so over and over again displays a level of commitment and integrity that underlies all great social change.
In this way his work is more powerful in its moments of creation, when real human interactions are eroding racial stereotypes, than in its exhibition. And if the work succeeds, it is not because Subotzky can use a camera like no one else, it is because his photographs embody his efforts to confront social injustice on a personal level.
Subotzky’s current exhibition, Beaufort West , at the MoMA reaffirms his position as a dedicated chronicler of South African prison systems while simultaneously revealing his eye for irony and a sly sense of curatorial wit.
There are three categories of people in Beaufort West : rich white men men who hunt, watch sports, and sit in their antiquated colonial enclaves; the desperate and depraved black families who live in the community outside the prison; and the actual inmates. (There is arguably a fourth category – trash field scavengers – comprised of people who live like hungry dogs on the fringe of society.) South Africa’s problems with segregation are subtly invoked in the curation of the exhibition, as each of the aforementioned categories is hung on a separate wall. One possible implication is that these groups of people who supposedly make up a community are actually as disconnected as they have ever been.
Here I disagree with Mr. Mack’s assessment in Art Review that in Subotzky’s photography, "there is no them, only an us." I would argue that there is absolutely an "us vs. them" tension in all of Subotzky’s work, as it is an issue he is attempting to directly confront. The only picture where white men and black men actually interact is a scene of enforced submission as a black prisoner shines the shoes of a white man. Otherwise, there is no blending of class or color in any one frame. The issue of isolation and segregation is only exacerbated by Subotzky’s curatorial decisions to separate the categories of people on to their own walls.
But Subotzky is not without humor and he employs it well, using it to offset the omnipresent sense of doom, addiction and depression in many of the photographs. For example, outside the prison we see all the gory realities of life in this 21st -century wasteland: bums, bandits, the beat-up and the accused.
A young prostitute is getting felt up, gang members are smoking meth, and a rag tag brigade of trash diggers sort through heaping mounds of steaming rubbish. The incarcerated, however, are portrayed in a worship service, in a moment reflection, a moment of subordinate work, and in the serenity of a nap in the afternoon sun. The prisoners are more civil than the civilians!
This unexpected duality and irony brings up questions about chaos and order in relation to a person’s relative sense of freedom. In Beaufort West, where freedom is restricted, order and peace preside. Yet where freedom is unbridled, chaos claims the scene. A free man robs a house – what kind of freedom is desperation? What kind of freedom is the freedom to be poor and drug addicted? Imprisoned men worship the Lord – they are free to believe. There is a covert ratio here that for every person’s sense of freedom there has to be an equivalent amount of sacrifice. You can give up your freedom for peace, or give up your peace for freedom.
The young man may possess a very idealistic sense of the potential of photography to catalyze social awareness and stimulate change, but he is still young. He still has a personal vision to develop, which is something that can only grow with time. The glory of early recognition may be Subotzky’s biggest challenge. He will have to continue to work hard to maintain his position, because from now on we will expect his work to uphold its artistic value, and when it does not it will be our responsibility to point that that out.
But I doubt Subotzky is going to get lazy anytime soon. It seems to be hard wired into his personality to commit himself fully to his projects – with that kind of an effort you can never really fail.
He has seven solo exhibitions lined up for this year. One might be near you, and if it is I would recommend giving it your time.
A little shop-talk : Subotzky shoots with a medium format Mamiya in black and white and color using a variety of lenses. (For his newest series, Beaufort West, he stuck to a 50 mm lens.) He prints at the peak capacity of his film, blowing the images up to 30 x 40 inches-where the grain of the film is not quite yet pixilating – on a digital Colenta printer. He shoots both from the hip and off a tripod, only ever using the natural light. And if you check out his Web site and look at prison panoramas, you’ll get an idea of his extraordinary proficiency in the digital darkroom.