Dialogues, from Africa: Juan Orrantia with Alexia Webster

Bulengo IDP Camp- Goma, DR Congo
Neema Bonke, 35 years old, is from Masisi has three children and is separated from
their father so she is raising them on her own © Alexia Webster/ Prince Claus Fund

Post by Juan Orrantia

Dialogues, from Africa is a series made in response to Alejandro Cartagena's running series in fototazo, that wants to extend the dialogue across the Atlantic, but further south. Having been based in Johannesburg for some time now, I have always felt the need to create a space of dialogue where photographers working in Africa and Latin America learn about each other's work, but that is not filtered through the galleries or mainstream media of the Global North. The world we live in is not one where limits are traced easily, and within these spaces photographic traditions are increasingly varied, recognized, ignored and reconceptualized. Africa is as complex and varied as Latin America, and this series wants to recognize the current engagements of photographers from the continent with their own histories and the current environments of contemporary photography. In so doing we hope to open a space that enables a dialogue with their peers in Latin America.

Bulengo IDP Camp- Goma, DR Congo
Bariki Bahati, 19 years old, is from Masisi has been in the camp for one year,
© Alexia Webster/ Prince Claus Fund

Juan Orrantia (b. Bogota, Colombia, based in Johannesburg, South Africa) Relying on the evocative as a form of documentary, his photographic works use banality and imagination as sites from where to explore experiences of the aftermath of violence; the lives and affects of postcolonial cities; memory and the cocaine trade; and the legacies of anticolonial thinker Amilcar Cabral. Awards include the Tierney Fellowship in Photography, solo exhibitions in Germany, Colombia and South Africa, as well as participation in various group shows including the New York Photo Festival, Le Cube (Paris), Cape Town Month of Photography, Bonani Africa Festival of Photography and Ethnographic Terminalia (New Orleans). His work has appeared in fototazo, Foto 8, Sensate, and other online media platforms and journals.

Alexia Webster is a South African freelance photographer born in Johannesburg. She has traveled widely through the African continent as a documentary photographer. Her work has been published widely including The New York Times, The Guardian, The Washington Post, The Times, San Francisco Chronicle, Sunday Telegraph, The Age AustraliaSydney Morning Herald, This Magazine Canada, Marie Claire and SonntagsZeitung Switzerland. Among her various awards are the Artraker Award for Art in Conflict, Prince Claus Fund: Grant Recipent, and the POPCAP'13 Piclet.org Prize for Contemporary African Photography. In 2007 she received the Frank Arisman Scholarship at the International Center of Photography in New York City where she completed the program in Documentary Photography and Photojournalism. She can be followed on Instagram.

The 'Refugee Street Studio' project © Alexia Webster

Juan Orrantia: Where are you based? Why?

Alexia Webster: I'm based in South Africa, my country of birth. I mostly live half the year in Johannesburg and the other half in Cape Town. Johannesburg, my home town, is one of the most interesting places in the world I think. It's a beautifully intense, creative, scary and complicated city with some extraordinary people and spaces. It always inspires new work and ideas in me. Cape Town on the other hand is a smaller, quieter place of really astounding natural beautiful, but is full of many unaddressed contradictions and inequalities.

Though in many ways South Africa is still quite a bruised society and many of the inequalities of apartheid live on, it's also a fascinating and constantly changing place. Our country is made up of such diverse and different ideas and ideologies. This makes it a really exciting place to live.

JO: What are your projects about, and what are the major themes in your work?

AW: In the last couple of years the theme of family heritage and ancestors has started to come up over and over in my work.

Bulengo IDP Camp- Goma, DR Congo
Akili, 3 months old, is the daughter of Mapenzi Mwamini, 18 years old. The family
were farmers in Masisi before they had to leave. © Alexia Webster/ Prince Claus Fund

Bulengo IDP Camp- Goma, DR Congo
Marta Shamamba from Kitchanga is 60 years old and been in Bulengo for one 
year and three months © Alexia Webster/ Prince Claus Fund

Bulengo IDP Camp- Goma, DR Congo
Ramazani Ruhungai is a 74 year old farner from Bwito © Alexia Webster/ Prince Claus Fund

Bulengo IDP Camp- Goma, DR Congo
Twins Kikuru and Kito, 3 years old © Alexia Webster/ Prince Claus Fund

JO: What drove you to the series we are seeing?

AW: All the years I was growing up, hanging in the hallway of my childhood home was an old black and white photograph of my grandparents, my great uncles and my mother as a toddler, posing in a photographers studio. They were recent immigrants to South Africa from a small village in Greece. I would stare for hours at my grandparents, looking so glamorous and young, dressed in their finest; at my 3-year-old mother, sitting obediently with curls in her hair; at the studio painted backdrop of a misty romantic world. To me they looked like characters from the old Greek tales my grandmother would tell. This photograph, of all the images I have, is one of my most treasured.

After years of working as a photojournalist I began to struggle more and more with the actual value and importance of the photographs I was taking, especially for the people in the images. So, inspired by my love of my own family portraits, I created the first 'Street Studios.' They are public outdoor photographic studios set up on street corners which invite passing families, individuals or groups of friends to pose and get their photo taken. The photograph is printed there with a portable photo printer so you can take it home with you for your family album.

Since March 2011, I have created a number of Street Studios around South Africa and then in 2014 I began the second phase of the Street Studios Project in which I am creating street studios in refugee camps across the world. This series is from the Bulengo IDP camp just outside of the city of Goma in the D.R. Congo. The camp has over 50,000 residents who have fled fighting and violence in the northeastern regions of the country. Most refugee camps are spaces of uncertainty and transience. Many people arrive having lost not only their homes, but also most of their possessions, including their family photographs, when they escaped the violence. Exiled from one's home, facing an uncertain future and a disrupted past, a family photo can possibly be a powerful and precious object.

Outside Saint Georges Cathedral, Cape Town © Alexia Webster

Woodstock, Cape Town © Alexia Webster

JO: What is your experience with other photographers and traditions from the (African) continent? How did you learn from them (or their work?)

AW: There is an incredibly rich history of photography and great photographers in the continent as a whole and South Africa in particular. My biggest inspiration and influence for many years was the work of David Goldblatt. His images of South Africa since the 1950s are so moving and eloquent. He is also incredibly generous with his time and offering advise and direction to young photographers. I remember him once telling a group of young photographers many years ago that they should carry periscopes in their pockets so they can always get the bigger perspective on what they were wanting to photograph in front of them.

But there are also quite a few younger photographers here in South Africa whose work and ideas I think are really interesting and inspire me to think outside of the classic box of photojournalism into a more personal, intimate exploration. Photographers like Dean Hutton, Musa Nxumalo, Zanele Muholi.

JO: Are there themes your work shares with other African photographers?

AW: With the Street Studio series, the design of the studios takes some of its inspiration from West African portrait photographers of the 1950s and 60s such as Malik Sibide and Seydou Keïta, who created such beautifully intimate and tender portraits of family and community. My Street Studio work is also influenced strongly by the street photographers of the early 1900s in Johannesburg who would set up backdrops on street corners to photograph the newly arrived migrant mine workers. The young miners, forced to leave their loved ones and communities to work underground, would send the photos of themselves back home to their families in the villages.

Kaptein Street, Hillbrow, Johannesburg © Alexia Webster

Outside Saint Georges Cathedral, Cape Town © Alexia Webster

Woodstock, Cape Town © Alexia Webster

Du Noon, Tableview, Cape Town © Alexia Webster

Kaptein Street, Hillbrow, Johannesburg © Alexia Webster

Outside Saint Georges Cathedral, Cape Town © Alexia Webster