Boxes of old unlabeled photographs are commonly featured at flea markets worldwide. Some enterprising vendors dub them “instant ancestors,” hawking the prospect of acquiring fictive kin and ersatz genealogies to new publics. These traders peddle style over substance and invite their customers to conjure up backstories for signifiers that have lost their indexicality. In essence they stoke peoples’ penchant for nostalgia. As objects that are commonly imbued with strong sentiments (Barthes 1981), photos enable individuals to fabricate memories and to project their contemporary needs and concerns onto depreciated material.
This inquiry is based upon an unexpected archive: unclaimed material from a frame and photo developing shop in Johannesburg, South Africa. It expands upon numerous investigations into the visual economies and biographies of photographs. For example, Cohen (2014) and Feyder (2015) worked with caches of negatives that were found by chance or stored away for decades. In the first instance, the researcher's primary interests lay with the ethical implications of image making and display. In the second, the goal was to reconnect members of the “source community” of a particular photographer's work. The research strategies of both trumped performing a close analysis of the photos themselves.
Moreover, Haney (2013) investigated family-run studios in West Africa; the elite customers of these places have passed down portraits for generations, and the identities of both creator and subject thus remain discernible. Nimis (2013) similarly looked at networks of Yoruba studio photographers. Once again, knowing the source is critical to understanding aspects of the production side of image making, such as the contribution of distinctive professional styles and norms. While all these studies make important contributions to understanding African photography, the application of their insights is limited in the case of anonymous or semi-anonymous images, their creators, and their owners.
Other scholars have directed a great deal of attention to studio photographers such as Seydou Keita and Malick Sidibe in Mali, and more recently to relative unknowns such as South Africa's S.J. “Kitty” Moodley (Dubin 2014), Ronald Ngilima (Feyder 2015) and Daniel Morolong (McNulty 2014). Of special note are the opportunities that studios offered for flights of fantasy and aspirational self-fashioning, often under oppressive social conditions (see, e.g., Behrend 1998; Wendl 2001).
It is impossible to calculate the volume of unidentified photographs that survive in marketplaces, archives, household cupboards and drawers, in trash dumps—virtually anywhere, for that matter. Nevertheless, it is reasonable to assert that they encompass a vast but under-researched field that exists beyond the focal boundaries that prior researchers of African photography have mapped. This investigation suggests some ways of going forward to understand such phenomena.
SETTING THE CONTEXT
In 2014 I purchased over 800 personal photographs and documents from Ravi Lalla, the owner of Popular Picture Framers and General Dealer in Johannesburg. I had heard passing references a number of times to a photo shop that operated on the southeastern edge of the city. When I watched the documentary Jeppe on a Friday (Walsh and Lalloo 2012), Lalla's appealing appearance as one of film's featured subjects confirmed that the business continues to exist.
The first time I visited I was in awe of his shop, packed as it was with sample frames, kitschy artwork, thousands of chromolithographs of Biblical scenes, makarapa1 left over from the FIFA 2010 World Cup competition, African curios produced for the tourist market, and promotions for local products and services, such as cell phone carriers: “Yebo, Gogo! [Yes, Granny]” (Fig. 1).
Lalla has deep roots in this precinct that is known as Jeppestown, which once bustled with Indian-owned shops. This is where he was born and raised, and his father was one of dozens of tailors working in the vicinity. The buildings largely remain in Indian hands, but many of them now house businesses run by a cross section of South Asians, as well as Africans from other countries, including Ethiopians, Nigerians, and Ghanaians. Lalla launched this business in 1978 along with three family members, but he is now sole proprietor. The shop is unlikely to exist more than a few years longer: he anticipates retirement on the horizon, and no relative has interest in taking it over.2
To gain a sense of the surrounding terrain, imagine placing the needle point of a drafting compass onto a map at the Albertina Sisulu Road off ramp from busy Joe Slovo Drive. Placing the device's pencil a few blocks away in a southeasterly direction, a clockwise turn lands you in Jeppestown.
What was a prime residential enclave during Johannesburg's early history in the late nineteenth century evolved into a poor and working class district during the twentieth. In the mind of the local public, Jeppestown is closely identified with the Wolhuter Hostel, generally referred to as the Jeppe Hostel. The city council erected it in 1932 to house male migrants who continue to flock to the metropole to earn money in order to support their rural-based families. A board of inquiry into factional violence in the early 1990s dubbed squalid accommodations such as these “fortresses of fear” (Ackermann 1992).3
Jeppestown was also the site of eruptions of xenophobic violence in 2008 and 2015, primarily directed at Africans from elsewhere on the continent who have been driven from their homes by political turmoil or economic necessity, or have arrived on their own initiative to pursue business opportunities. Popular Picture Framers and General Dealer is sited near the hostel, set into the corner of a row of two-story commercial buildings bearing a suspended balcony. This quaint architectural embellishment shelters those on the sidewalk from sun or rain but survives only on a steadily diminishing number of historic Johannesburg locations (Fig. 2).
Continue the revolution of the compass another quarter turn. Passing numerous panel beating shops and residential buildings seized by gangsters for their own financial gain, you will see the Kwa Mai Mai Market (offering a vast assortment of African goods);4 skirt Jewel City (a fortress-like diamond and gold processing center); and pass by the edge of the Fashion District, site of hundreds of small design and tailoring operations.
Your arc also now encompasses the Maboneng Precinct (Sesotho for “place of light”), an assemblage of warehouses and disused factories that have recently been repurposed into upscale high-security apartments, galleries, co-working spaces, restaurants and bars. One critic of the project—and there are many—remarked, “Maboneng is a false tooth in a whole set of teeth … If you think of a veneer it looks just like the other teeth … [but] it's not real” (Rees 2013).
This landscape is rife with contradictions: Popular Picture Framers and General Dealer is flanked by privilege and despair. Its location embodies residues of the apartheid city along with a prime vantage point onto substantial urban transformation. As the social topography of the neighborhood changes, enterprises such as Lalla's represent a layer of bedrock that is gradually becoming submerged by post-apartheid forces and events, such as the aforementioned in-migration and ongoing cycles of central city abandonment and reuse.
MINING “RUBBISH”: FROM TREASURE TO TRASH
The selection of material that I purchased had been entrusted to Lalla by a multitude of people throughout the 1990s to be copied, enlarged or framed. Lalla places every order he receives within an envelope, each of which bears the customer's name; the desired service; sometimes an address, but not always; and the date it came to the shop. Although these possessions were brought to Lalla during a specific decade, their origins span the pre- and post-apartheid eras, and the forty-plus years falling in between.
At one time these items held significance for their owners, yet they remained unclaimed, even though Lalla requires his customers to leave a cash deposit for work they wish to have done. This is somewhat analogous to how pawnshops operate. In this instance, however, the customers lose their money as well as their items if they do not follow through with a transaction, and what remains possesses scant intrinsic value.
The photos were produced in either black and white or in color. They range from casual snapshots of people to formal studio portraits; reflect both the sort of blunders indicative of an amateur's hand as well as the expertise of the professional. The work consists, in other words, of a mélange of styles, subject matter, and sizes, thereby representing the broad span of the medium.
I discovered them in two large dust-covered boxes stowed upon the top shelf of a crowded back workroom-cum-storeroom, and in a sizable box resting on the floor. Accessing them required delicately moving, shuffling, and balancing frames, tools, and the detritus of a long-established business. As the years pass Lalla consigns orders that he doubts will ever be reclaimed to this repository, keeping only unredeemed ones from more recent years in the shop proper.
I looked through all the envelopes containing orders that were stashed away in these boxes and bought the 800 items—perhaps a third of the total of what I saw. I did not have fixed selection criteria in mind; in fact, I was somewhat dumbstruck when I learned that Lalla held onto such an inventory, and moreover, that his staff would so quickly consent for me to sift through it during my first visit. I was most drawn to depictions of celebrations and gatherings; individuals wearing customary clothing and/or beadwork; those clad in brightly colored or wildly patterned fabrics; images taken many decades ago, embossed with the patina of age; and documents that reflected notable achievements or recorded important biographical information. Much of what I rejected would likely hold minimal interest to anyone without a direct connection to the people represented, such as identity photos or conventional candid shots, the sort of representations that Batchen describes as banal, boring, ubiquitous and “repetitively uncreative” (2008: 121, 124, 132, 123).
These artifacts encompass a vast geographic as well as chronologic range, in some instances made evident by inscriptions written on the reverse of photos, or in the case of documents, marked on the front. They include an earnest and lovingly crumpled 1947 wedding portrait (Fig. 3), and a 1992 certificate of completion of training in internal security by the Suid-Afrikaanse Polisie (South African Police);5 span from birth and baptismal certificates, to government-issued permits allowing foreign nationals to be in the country, or records of lengthy service to a company or in recognition of finishing a correspondence course, “How to Be a Good Christian.”
In addition to the shop's patronage by local residents, the original owners of many of these personal effects were undoubtedly Africans who came to Johannesburg for employment. The address many of them provided was the aforementioned nearby single-sex hostel for male workers; Lalla confirms that residents from there have always accounted for a substantial portion of his clientele. Drawn from throughout South Africa as well as beyond its borders, e.g., Mozambique, these workers left their cherished photographs and important records behind.
This collection was thus formed through happenstance. It is difficult to resist the temptation to reflect on the circumstances that may have brought the individual pieces together: an abrupt departure by the owners from the city, for example, due to injury or some crisis at home. Perhaps a rupture in the relationship between an individual depicted in a photo and its owner or intended recipient. Possibly being cash-strapped and unable to pay the balance due. Or even death.
To examine this material en toto requires embracing a “methodology of the discarded,” an approach I have previously used to explore “symbolic slavery,” items of black memorabilia that end up in flea markets or second-hand shops (Dubin 1987), and a collection of photographic negatives that had been disposed of by a museum (Dubin 2014). Or, as sociologist Olga Sezneva puts it when describing the veneration of everyday items from the period of Soviet rule that are dug up and sold in informal markets, “The ontology of junk is anchored in the act of digging…. [Digging] reverses the erosion of space through time” (2007: 22, 16). The convergence of such bits and pieces in Lalla's back rooms is not purposeful as much as it is serendipitous.
METAPHORS AND MORE
This investigation contrasts with ones based upon the output of a particular producer or studio (Nwafor 2010), material organized thematically (Weinberg 2006), or characteristic of established genres (Cole 1967; Chikane 1989). In order to understand these photos as thoroughly as possible, and based upon my own familiarity with South African art and culture, I interviewed approximately twenty-five people in 2015 in the three major cities in the country: Johannesburg, Cape Town, and Durban. They included curators, collectors, and field runners [procurers] of traditional African art and material culture, and some amaZulu I am acquainted with as well. I showed each of them an assortment I had put together of about forty images.
In what follows I will highlight a smaller sample of photos and documents from Popular Picture Framers and General Dealer using the rubric of erratics. In literature, an anachronism is an element that appears out of its original time or place. Analogous to this in geology is the glacial erratic: from the Latin errare (to wander, to roam), it refers to a rock or boulder that has been carried along by an ice flow and then scattered, willy-nilly, as melting occurs, in a location that can be far removed from the point of origin. An erratic is thus an environmental anomaly, differing in composition from its surrounds. In many instances, because of its sheer size, it sticks out from the landscape like a proverbial sore thumb. Plymouth Rock may be the most famous example in America, but Fantastic Erratic (near Seattle) and Head-Smashed-In (Alberta, Canada) outshine it by their evocative names. This does not exhaust the word's meanings, of course. More typically, erratic denotes deviating from the usual course, wandering or straying, as well as inconsistency and unpredictability.
What if we expand this concept to the cultural realm? What happens when photographs such as the ones I found at Lalla's shop get swept up by circumstance and are then dumped in unexpected places? Simply by their waywardness, they have lost one of their intrinsic properties: the capacity to contain and convey particular memories. Battered and commonly stripped of key identifying information, and with the outlines of their journeys often untraceable, can we nonetheless plumb their meanings and identities?
The essence of this collection is its character as a memorial park of untethered, semi-anonymous remnants of peoples’ lives; some selected examples embody the temporal and spatial dislocations of erratics particularly well. I will also highlight a sense of absence and longing amongst family and friends, between parents and children, lovers and comrades. While photos can be a binding agent that helps people hold fast to one another, the connective tissue that reveals, sustains, and restores essential human relationships, labor migrancy stretches and frays such ties.6 Finally, I will explore how the alignment of different components such as poses, gestures, props and personal embellishments enhance or destabilize what is being portrayed.
Ultimately this investigation is part forensic excavation, part rumination, and part (informed) speculation. I will examine objects that might under other circumstances become triggers for nostalgic reveries for their owners, but here are approached more with an eye to understanding their genesis and manifold meanings. This mini selection consists entirely of portraits, from the official to the candid; the personal to the political; from the conventions of the studio to the informality of local settings; and feature traditional attire as well as Westernized wear. It is a cross section of the Black South African lived experience in the twentieth century.
My approach will activate three levels of conceptual analysis: macro, noting the social structural and cultural phenomena—the external social world—that influenced the creation and subsequent fortunes of these possessions; meta, engaging the metaphors of the erratic and the discarded; and micro, entailing close inspection of this intriguing visual evidence.
PHOTOGRAPHIC ERRATICS: FUSIONS OF LOSS, SEPARATION, DISPLACEMENT, DESIRE
The variety and inherent importance of the things that people first deposited and subsequently abandoned at General Picture Framers and General Dealer is surprising. The photographs protrude unexpectedly into the present day, and offer remnants and reminders of people with whom they are not ever likely to be reunited.
While our ability to decipher these images in full is constricted, a twenty-first century viewer may appreciate their journey and the incongruity with which their travels have now endowed them. As cultural theorist Susan Stewart wisely notes, “Without marking, all ancestors become abstractions, losing their proper names; all family trips become the same trip” (1993: 138). In other words, the specific details with which photos were once inscribed have been corroded, the distinctiveness of the memories they held has worn away. The particular thus blurs into the generic.
In the following, I analyze this variety of images from the Popular Picture Framers and General Dealer collection by grouping them into subsections.
A. IDENTITY OPTIONS
Figure 4 is an identity card issued by KwaZulu. Like other official documents that were never retrieved from Ravi Lalla's shop, it was probably brought in for the purpose of having photo copies made. This particular Bantustan or homeland was set aside by the apartheid government to ensure that the amaZulu could not hold citizenship in the republic proper. Established in 1970 as a quasi-autonomous territory, KwaZulu was one of ten such reserves, the population of each based upon officially drawn ethnic designations. It merged with the province of Natal, historically a British colony, upon the dissolution of apartheid in 1994, thereby forming the present day KwaZulu-Natal.
In addition to this type of card, an adult African man living and working in an urban area of South Africa under apartheid was required to produce an up-to-date dompas (stupid pass), a colloquial term for the government-issued passbook that was key to maintaining “influx control.” Not keeping it in precise order ensured imprisonment. Nevertheless, having everything complete would not necessarily shield someone from being thrown into jail on a policeman's whim.
Losing one's dompas thrust an individual into a perilous situation while being within a zone set aside for Europeans. Back home, not possessing an i.d. issued by the Bantustan would likewise propel a person into limbo. The severity of the consequences of being without documentation is what makes the failure of the owner of this card to reclaim it almost incomprehensible, and suggests the possibility of something dire having befallen him in Johannesburg. This identity card, marooned hundreds of miles from its point of origin and once central to this particular man's existence and well-being, has transmogrified into a mislaid vestige of a previous regime.
The group portrait represented by Figure 5 captures aspiration as well as imperfection. This cluster of individuals project the most fashionable impression that it can muster, calling to mind images included in The Black Photo Album/Look at Me: 1890–1900s (1996), Santu Mofokeng's celebrated collection of South African photos that amended and altered the public perception of Africans from earlier time periods.7 On a continuum of self-expression, this particular image illustrates the comparative freedom inherent in individually initiated portraits, as distinguished from the constraints of the identity photo, which anchors the other pole of the spectrum.
At a first glance these men appear to possess the props necessary to reflect prosperity: a painted backdrop signifying a well-appointed sitting room and clothes denoting material accomplishment. On closer examination, however, we notice a number of inconsistencies. For example, scuffed shoes and ill-fitting or mismatched garments subtly undermine the image they sought to project.
Moreover, notice the seated man on the viewer's far left: The cloth gathered at the chap's waist and arms is a possible hint that this may not have been his suit. Excess material is bunched up along the sleeves of the man on the far right as well. Contrariwise, look at the guy standing second to the left. His erect stance and elongated fingers relay gentility, whereas the length of the jacket sleeves cannot contain his long arms. Taking all these elements into consideration, the identities these men constructed, performed, and desired to project were somewhat spoiled.
B. MISSED MESSAGES
The man whose portrait has become a personalized pendant strikes a bit of a rakish pose (Fig. 6). His leather cap looks trendy; he would not appear out of place on the streets of Accra or Bamako today. The puzzling fibrous background might be a computer simulation—until we realize that would not have been available when this image was made. With that in mind, it looks like a piece of cinnabar-colored fabric or macramé. As striking as this piece of jewelry is, the fact that it is available for us to examine is suffused with sadness.
Ravi Lalla recalls a service he once offered: If customers brought him a photo, it could be transferred onto a small metal and glass disk to be worn around the neck by an attached chain. One is reminded of Victorian lockets that hid the photo of a loved one demurely from public view yet kept it near the heart of the wearer, as well as the elaborate mourning jewelry of the same era that incorporated hair from a person deceased. Whether constructed around a figurative representation or incorporating a bodily trace, such bespoke creations sustained an intimate connection between individuals who were physically separated.
Accepting such a token of affection publicly announced a romantic relationship and affirmed its stage of progression, akin to the so-called Zulu love letters (beaded squares, given by maidens to young men whom they favor; the colors and shapes with which they execute a design conveys a personal message; see, e.g., Jolles 1991; Biyela 2015; Nettleton 2014). Citing Stewart once again, “If the miniature is a kind of mirror, it is a mirror of unrequited love. Like other forms of magic, it guarantees the presence of an absent other through either contagion or representation” (Stewart 1993: 126). But magic may miscarry. The failure to retrieve the necklace reduces it to the residue of a relationship that had soured or otherwise slipped away, truncating the exchange to be shared between intimates.
Turning next to a snapshot taken in rural, bushy terrain (Fig. 7), we see what is undoubtedly a father and son pair. Here, too, what could have been a treasured relic laden with memories has been negated.
This photo displays extensive creasing, similarly to the wedding portrait (Fig. 2), reflecting a history of being taken out of a wallet or pocket, frequently handled, and repeatedly examined (see Campt 2012 and Vokes 2015: 109–110 for discussion of the haptic dimension of photographs). It evokes a mixture of pleasure that it was once touched, and pathos that it is now orphaned.
The man's body language is casual, relaxed. The boy, on the other hand, appears tentative, dwarfed by his parent. The consensus of my interviewees was that more likely than not this man has returned home on his annual Christmas holiday break from working on the Reef,8 a generations-old feature of the lives of contract laborers throughout southern Africa. If this was indeed the case, the boy may have only seen his father on a few occasions; the man would be a veritable stranger to him. The most telling clue about the relationship is that at first glance the two appear to be holding hands, yet in fact they are not. Although the child is the one reaching out, his hesitant look is understandable.
This photo actualizes the micro ramifications and inevitabilities of macro-level situations; the man and son play out a scenario that is multiplied thousands of times over throughout this part of the world. As with all the material in this archive, mysteries remain. Who brought this photo to Popular Picture Framers and General Dealer? Was it the father, the now-grown son, or someone else altogether? Moreover, why was it never picked up?
C. PLAYING TO—AND AGAINST—TYPE
With her arms outstretched, eyes directly engaging the photographer, and feet planted firmly, there is no doubt that Phumelele Khumalo possesses a formidable presence (Fig. 8). Had she posed instead with her palms extended outward, she might look as though in prayer. As seen, she is self-regarding, not self-effacing.
Khumalo's appearance announces that she is a fervent supporter of the IFP (the Inkatha Freedom Party, a Zulu nationalist group that historically has been at odds with the ANC, the African National Congress). She wears her political allegiance on her body. The ANC's colors are black, green, and yellow;9 the IFP added red and white to that configuration. Therefore, from her waist upward, Khumalo is emphatically IFP: her belt, bra, married woman's hat, and earrings, all knitted from wool, reflect her identification with the party. From below that uppermost belt she is wearing traditional beadwork and a married woman's skirt, presumably made from pleated leather (although it looks as if this one may be fashioned from cloth).10 The plaster (Band-Aid) on her leg becomes an incongruous feature of a self-presentation that is otherwise precisely constituted. Some viewers might think of it as a punctum.
The surname of the man who dropped this photo off at Popular Picture Framers and General Dealer was Buthelezi, a name coincidentally shared by IFP leader Mangosuthu Buthelezi. That was in April 1993, during the lead up to the first election featuring universal franchise in South Africa. It was also a period when the armed struggle between the IFP and the ANC for political dominance had intensified.
Because Khumalo stands before a large banner that features her name, she may be a candidate for a leadership position, perhaps in the IFP Women's Brigade.11 Art historian Sandra Klopper has observed “Inkatha's tendency to equate the wearing of [traditional] clothing … with a quintessential notion of ‘Zuluness’ …” (1996: 56). From this example it is clear that certain women enthusiastically embraced such a practice at this time. Although Khumalo's identity has survived this photo's journey, those friends, family, and associates who would most appreciate (or abhor) this confirmation of her passion have been denied the opportunity to do so, for years now.
“Zuluness” is at issue in Figure 9 as well. This sepia print captures a man outfitted as an umZulu; its vintage likely dates to the early twentieth century. The requisite elements of his social status are present: the kilt or apron made of animal tails, the back apron, the shield and a stick topped off by fur pom-poms, a beaded love letter around his neck, and the fur headpiece. The setting is out of doors, somewhere in the bush.
The fighting prowess of the Zulu warrior is legendary, generated in a particular time and reformulated under various circumstances (Hamilton 1998). Organized into age grade groupings and renowned for their cunning and ruthlessness, men were molded into highly disciplined and effective fighting cadres. As individuals—in stick-fighting competitions, for example—a traditional Zulu man in the twentieth century would refer to himself as a bull. When involved in a synchronized activity such as ceremonial dancing, however, the man thought of himself as an ox, willingly submitting to the needs and demands of the group (de la Harpe et al. 1998: 70).
This man could be poised for battle, but his solitariness is noteworthy; where are his age mates? Moreover, the man's right hand is empty, where a stick or a spear should be. The tilt of his head and his facial expression—most especially his furrowed brow— subtly build the impression of a skeptical, reluctant warrior at best, striking a recognizable pose but with a personal demeanor that sabotages his performance. Where there should be boldness and confidence, there is uncertainty instead.
Group affiliations grounded in the past likewise surface in Figure 10. This man is sharply turned out, displaying a hat, stylish mustache, smart shirt, a well-tailored, double-breasted suit, and nicely shined shoes. Webs of creasing and bursts of abrasions on the surface of the photo encircle him, making it look as if he is radiating energy. His fashionable appearance may divert attention from a key element displayed here, however. He makes a gesture with his right hand that indicates membership in the 28s, one of three notorious “numbers” gangs that originated in South African prisons and date to the late 1800s (Steinberg 2005). At the time that this photo was taken, gang members routinely spoke fanagalo, a pidgin language incorporating isiZulu, English, and Afrikaans.12 They follow the dictates of the Sabela, which “consists of the words, symbols and colors that differentiate one (gang) from another.”13 This man gives the “salute” of the 28s, a vile insult resonant with similar examples from other cultures. In this iteration it consists of extending the thumb outward and each of the two adjoining fingers in different directions: “With the salute of the 28s gang, the members will combine a salutation of Umsunukonyoko. This is a specific reference to someone[']s mother['s] genitals.”14 The warrior and the gang member share a commonality, namely consenting to subsume their individualism to a group objective. These two particular men had names, but now they have simply become social types.
Finally, Figure 11 depicts a sangoma, or traditional healer. His appearance is unmistakable, integrating certain characteristic elements: dressing in red and white (red symbolizing fire and transformation, white for power; Nkabinde 2008: 65); sporting a goatskin bracelet that is the artifact of a significant sacrifice made during initiation; and wearing various objects draped bandolier-style across his chest.
Some of the people I interviewed initially mistook this fellow for a masculine-looking woman; both his facial features and his posture may contribute to that (mis)perception. Expressions of masculinity and femininity are more fluid among sangomas than is the norm. Sometimes, for example, a person is summoned to become a sangoma by an ancestor of the opposite sex (Nkabinde 2008: 4), compelling him or her to act in certain ways. A study of the amaZulu some time ago reported,
Shenge [a male sangoma]'s professional dress is a black cloth skirt, like the ones used by women to wear over their black skin skirts (izidwaba). His skirt is embroidered with beads in the feminine fashion. An ordinary man would disdain to wear such a garment, but Shenge dons his with pride …. By contrast a female diviner … might well carry weapons: a practice normally impossible for women (Mertens 1975: 161).
In a more contemporary account, a self-identified lesbian sangoma disclosed, “In traditional Zulu culture, a man must be a man and do male things and a woman must be a woman and do female things but with sangomas it is more flexible” (Nkabinde 2008: 73).15 This visual evidence reinforces each report.
One additional element merits attention: a disembodied hand can be seen resting upon the sangoma's right shoulder. What might at first glance seem like an apparition actually has a much more mundane explanation. The sangoma was originally pictured with another person, who has been eliminated simply by placing a piece of paper over a portion of the scene. This allowed Ravi Lalla to reshoot a photograph on request to produce a new version more to the current liking of the client, thereby restaging the narrative as a solitary performance. Such deliberate reshaping of the visual record is not unusual in the West: Family albums often feature a literal gap where someone who has become persona non grata has been torn off a page or cut out of a photo. Because other photos in the Lalla collection were similarly edited, we can deduce that this was practiced in Southern Africa as well.
It has become routine for people to remark upon the relationship between photographs and death, from Susan Sontag's declaration that “All photographs are memento mori” (1977: 15) to Roland Barthes's pronouncement, “Whether or not the subject is already dead, every photograph is this catastrophe” (1981: 96). It is impossible to know the specifics of how the lives of the people depicted in the photographic erratics discovered at Popular Picture Framers and General Dealer played out. Regardless of their fates, by analyzing their photographs it has been possible to resurrect, or recall to some degree, their existences.
As noted, the failure to retain or retrieve certain photos can signify that the bonds between family members, partners and friends have unraveled as a consequence of being forced apart. The migrant contract labor system is the most important basis of such separations in South Africa.
Furthermore, it is reasonable to assert that the fissures that occurred between such individuals spawned some mixture of wistfulness and mournfulness in them—perhaps a measure of anger or relief as well. Death, separation, and a generalized sense of melancholia and nostalgia pervade this inquiry, even though it has been possible to unpack the meanings of these photographs to a greater extent than is usually possible with wayward or discarded examples. That makes them available to be enjoyed by different publics, based upon lineage as well as intellectual interest.
This inquiry braided together several strands of investigation: the social history of a photography business; an examination of the formation of an unintentional archive; and a close reading of orphaned photos. It opened with an allusion to “instant ancestors,” photos that have been lost, mislaid, or purposefully thrown out and are offered for sale to strangers. The small sample of unclaimed photos discussed here provides evidence of how Black South Africans transcended the constraining categories of government classification; with the exception of the identity photograph, these are personal, not public depictions, and reveal a range of self-presentations. For those outside of the communities depicted here, this chance collection of material broadens the understanding of how Black South Africans conducted their lives throughout the twentieth century.
As for the place where these items were found, Popular Picture Framers and General Dealer has been negatively impacted by social and economic forces at play in South Africa; many of the same dynamics have affected enterprises globally. Shopping malls have mushroomed, siphoning off customers; some routine tasks are cheaper to outsource; and the proliferation of digital technology has turned the general public into amateur photographers, obviating the need many of them would otherwise have for professional services. The shop's expiry date appears imminent.
In March 2016, after I had submitted this article for review, I set out to visit Ravi Lalla once again; I had last seen him five months earlier. I thought I had driven my regular route, but as I cruised up and down Main Street in Jeppestown his shop eluded me. Where I thought it should have been, the Siyabonga [“Thank you”] Super Market stood instead. I made several passes in the car and also checked out some parallel streets, but his business seemed to have vanished. I was so perplexed that rather than park the car and explore further, I headed home in frustration.
I returned to the area days later, this time stopping to query the Pakistani proprietors of the market, who indeed had taken over the space formerly occupied by Popular Picture Framers and General Dealer. Oversized bags of rice and maize meal were stacked on wooden pallets, replacing the barely contained chaos and matchless eccentricity of Lalla's old establishment.
As it turns out, Lalla had recently subdivided the space and opened a side entrance for himself onto the narrow street around the corner. His backroom spaces remain intact, whereas the public reception area has been foreshortened to less than a third of its original configuration. The change was prompted by the death of one of Lalla's relatives, who had managed the front of the business rather like a spaza shop, the South African equivalent of a convenience store. Going forward, his intention is to focus more exclusively on his frame and photo business.
Nevertheless, an array of ancillary goods and services remain on offer: packets of Indian spices, wooden kists (trunks, for generations a commonplace among the possessions with which migrant workers return home), and key duplication. Samples of Ravi Lalla's photographic services once greeted people at the entrance; they have been replaced by posters touting pills for male sexual enhancement. The sole customer who came in during my visit of more than an hour bought cellphone airtime for a paltry ten rands (approximately 65 cents US at the time, slightly more than the cost of the daily Star newspaper).
Popular Picture Framers and General Dealer has been greatly reduced in size, its foot traffic diminished, its ambiance and vibrancy diluted. A place that has for almost four decades produced and preserved memories for legions of customers is now a shadow of its former self. The dramatic change that has taken place leaves the impression of a death foretold, the life force of the business drained. It is not difficult to imagine that sometime in the near future all traces of Ravi Lalla's shop and everything that it represents will be dislodged and propelled like an erratic into near oblivion as a fragment of South Africa's continuously evolving urban history—with the space redeveloped to serve the needs of the city's ceaseless waves of immigrants, asylum seekers, strivers for success.
Hardhats worn by fans, modified into elaborate three-dimensional symbols of soccer clubs, national as well as international.
Author's interview with Ravi Lalla, Johannesburg, August 28, 2014.
Although this violence generally paralleled ethnic lines—amaZulu vs. amaXhosa, and vice versa— there is strong evidence that right-wing vigilantes and the police played a role in the background.
A mainstay of Lalla's business is supplying craftsmen in this market with religious chromolithographs, which they incorporate into the design of large painted and mirrored wooden kists (trunks) that are sent home as part of the betrothal gifts to a bride.
Bearing an African surname, this man was working for the apartheid regime.
For a comprehensive examination of the costs and consequences of the contract labor system, from a variety of perspectives, see Delius, Phillips, and Rankin-Smith 2014.
Mofokeng time stamps the portraits he gathered as reflecting styles of the Georgian (1714–1830) or Victorian eras (1830–1901) (2000: 46). However, the photos that he presents, as well as those from Lalla's shop, probably date from the subsequent Edwardian era, or somewhat later.
The massive seams or ridges of gold discovered in the 1880s that triggered the growth of the city of Johannesburg.
Klopper reports, “The ANC adopted the colours green (the land), black (the people), and yellow (South Africa's mineral wealth) in 1925” (1996: 66, n. 75).
There is additional evidence to suggest that women during this time used their bodies as billboards to project their political affiliations. For example, the photographer Peter Magubane captures a woman wearing an identical hat, along with some added embellishments: metal studs spelling out “IFP,” and a sticker featuring Buthelezi's face that urged supporters, “Votela [Vote] IFP” (2000: 32). Magubane also shows a lady wearing round Perspex (Lucite) earplugs consisting of bands of the ANC colors (1998: 34); Jolles presents a similar pair (1996: 181).
Phumelele can be a first name, but it also means “succeed,” or “to give strength to succeed,” so this banner could be showing support for this particular woman's candidacy I thank Stephen Long for this information; author's interview, Cape Town, June 27, 2015, and email communication, December 6, 2015.
It has been spoken primarily between African laborers of different language groups, e.g., on the mines, and while working with white employers in businesses or in their households. Its use has declined since the late twentieth century.
thenumbersgang.weebly.com. The most comprehensive account of the numbers gangs is Jonny Steinberg's award-winning book The Number (2005). It was based upon his extensive interviews with an inmate of Pollsmoor Prison in South Africa's Western Cape; no outsider has gotten so close to acquiring such an in-depth understanding of prison customs and norms. With few other sources available, I also used information from a gang-related website.
Research in recent years has explored the phenomenon of lesbian sangomas, a topic that is still largely taboo (see also Morgan and Wieringa 2005).