Declan with Polly the Parrot : Ledbury Farm, Mazowe, Zimbabwe 2013 © Katharine Cooper
Cheryldean, Hestia, Marisan & Clara in the Park at Prins Albert, South Africa 2013 © Katharine Cooper
Belinda Bakeberg & Family: Apple Park, South Africa 2013 © Katharine Cooper
Stacy and the Little Stranger: Harare, Zimbabwe 2013 © Katharine Cooper
Jean Charl Greef, Artist & Surfer: Koffiebaai, South Africa 2013 © Katharine Cooper
Alexia & Dino, brother and sister: Sandton – Johannesburg, South Africa 2013 © Katharine Cooper
Coronation Park Rugby Team: Krugersdorp, South Africa 2013 © Katharine Cooper
Pieter Pretorious & Friends Playing Rugby: Groenfontein, South Africa 2013 © Katharine Cooper
Hein van Jaarsveld (double-leg amputee) & his Stepson, Dylan:
Krugersdorp, South Africa 2013 © Katharine Cooper
Zane and Vanessa, Childhood Friends: Koffiebaai, South Africa 2013 © Katharine Cooper
Nina, Mayrie & Max with Oupa Lindsay: Grahamstown, South Africa 2013 © Katharine Cooper
Danielle & Tiger by the Pool: Harare, Zimbabwe 2004 © Katharine Cooper
Katharine Cooper, Anna Karien & Nina reunited after 22 years at Beadle
Street House: Grahamstown, South Africa 2013 © Katharine Cooper
In 2012 and 2013 the young South African photographer Katharine Cooper, who now lives in Arles, travelled back to her homeland South Africa and Zimbabwe to photograph women, men and children of the white minority, people whose lives she might have shared. Cooper gave us the opportunity to choose and display photos from the resulting series, ”White Africans. A Journey To The Homeland.” She was also kind enough to answer a couple of questions.
I have read several texts about ”White Africans”. Most are very similar. Could you please tell us a little bit about it in your own words, its a very personal project. Please tell us how you went about it, and about the taboos you wanted to challenge.
– I suppose it was a very personal thing. It all begins with the white diaspora leaving South Africa and Zimbabwe for Europe, America, Australia, because of increasing hostility towards them, owing to the colour of their skin. They were given no choice but to leave, in order to make safe lives for themselves and their children, in communities where they did not feel like a threatened minority, in countries where they had rights and where the future seemed surer than in their country of origin.
– But it was heartbreaking for all of us to leave Africa. We lived our new lives with a constant nostalgia and longing. Some might call it permanent homesickness. I and friends of mine deal with these feelings on an almost daily basis. We have built homes for ourselves in the first world, but our hearts yearn for Africa. We are white, but we are not like the Europeans, Americans or Australians. We have an entirely different culture, vocabulary, and in the case of the Afrikaans people, a whole new language, which are peculiar to us.
– We are White Africans, afraid to proclaim it too loud, because of all the guilt that colonialism and apartheid make us bear. ”I wanted to confront this and proclaim verly clearly that certain white people in Africa have as much right to call themselves ‘African’ as as the people who settled in the Americas have the right to call themselves ‘American’. And I count myself amongst them.
You get the sense that the persons in the series, a few of them, are vulnerable and living under difficult conditions. You have taken their photographs with great sensitivity. But there is a tension in a several of the photos, there are more than a hundred, and quite a few of the persons look reserved. How did you approach the persons you wanted to take pictures of? Have they seen the photos?
– There is a freshness and innocence about these people that is lacking in Europeans. The expression is a result of the interaction between myself and the subject. I am such a reserved and shy person myself that it is in fact an ordeal I have to overcome every time I take a photograph of someone, to ask them if they would accept to pose for me. I am so afraid of exploiting or making people feel ill at ease, that it is an incredibly complex process for me to approach a stranger in the street and ask them to perform for my camera.
– Every time that someone accepts to look into my lens, it is an event. It is a meaningful encounter, full of gravity and mutual respect. Or at least, I hope so! Maybe they just think I am totally nuts! At any rate, I think this explains the expression on their faces : I do not want them to clown around, to smile, but rather to retain their full dignity by looking straight into the camera without smiling. I really do feel that the scowl is the best form of freedom of expression.
– As a general rule, I always take the name and email addresses of the people I photograph, in order to send them the images. Some people do not have email, so it is more difficult to show them. So, most of the people who are in these pictures have seen the end result and are pleased.
From seeing your photos, the ones on your homepage as well, I get the impression that you are both interested in the documentary tradition and the art and even fashion tradition of photography. Can you please tell us a little about photographers that have infuenced you?
– It is so interesting that you should mention that, because I have, in fact, been very much influenced by the old masters of fashion photography. I must say that Irving Penn is one of my gods, as well as Richard Avedon, Horst P Horst, Helmut Newton, Man Ray and Lee Miller, Edward Steichen. Of course there was also Diane Arbus in a more purely documentary style, as well as Jacques Henri Lartigue and Brassaï.
– Film has influenced me a lot too: Federico Fellini, Jean-Luc Godard, Luis Buñuel, Alfred Hitchcock and film noir as a genre. To me it is vital to bring out the glamour, the life force, the beauty in every subject. Straight documentary can never quite do this; one must mix in a drop of fantasy. Irving Penn photographed fashion like documentary: a bit of dirty carpet folded over a wooden crate on which he would place a woman in a couture dress; still life messed up with a dead fly; a celebrity squashed up in the corner in his studio.
You had a huge sucess with ”White Africans” in Paris. What are your plans for the near future?
– It is true that ”White Africans” was very well received, and I am so grateful to everybody – friends and strangers alike – for their sincere enthusiasm and real enjoyment of the pictures. I could not have dreamed of anything better or more rewarding. Now I am slowly getting my ideas together for the next project which will be happening in my homeland – South Africa – again.
– I cannot say too much because it is barely in embryonic form at the moment, but I am trying to get the ideas to flow onto paper (computer) so that I can ask the very lovely people in charge of the purse-strings for some funding. Without them, these projects would never happen, because, as we all know, artists are always broke!
If you like the images in this blog post, you should visit Katharine Coopers homepage.