Through portraiture, photographer Justin Keene sets up a dialogue with South Africa
- Rebecca Irvin
- 6 June 2019
Before Justin Keene became a working photographer 18 months ago, he was training and seeking work as a lawyer. It is perhaps this that has afforded him a sense of responsibility and social purpose in his approach to photography. As he says: “Naturally you bring your life experiences into your work.” His series shot in Cape Town aims to capture the ways in which South Africa conceives of itself today, through portraits of the people embroiled in its political, societal and legal issues. In particular, he tells us: “In my work I look at youth and the age of tomorrow, exploring ways people are able to secure a future without much opportunity.”
Working solely with film photography, using a Contax G2 with a wide-angle lens and a Bronica SQA, Justin is drawn to the ways in which analogue processes interact with and are dependent upon qualities of light. His series is shot entirely using natural light, and without flash, lending the portraits an unembellished and piercing bareness. The sun-bleached backdrops and reflective quality of the natural environments foreground the place of the sharply outlined figures in South Africa’s physical and social landscape, while the warmth of the interior shots merges the photographed subjects with their domestic settings, suggesting a comparative ease that is mirrored in their relaxed postures.
For Justin: “The idea that a roll of film has a specific number of shots really pushed me to develop a more intimate process with the people I photograph; something about film feels more personal.” It is this emphasis on intimacy and dialogue that makes the difference between touristic snapshots and portraits that engage on a personal level with their subjects as autonomous individuals.
Justin is conscious of the fact that “photography in South Africa has always played an important role in shaping the country’s visual identity to the rest of the world, and so the photographer takes on a required level of responsibility. People in South Africa are aware of the power that a photograph can possess, especially for someone from outside the immediate community; I try to keep present in my work an acknowledgment that in many ways I am an ‘outsider’ to the communities and people I photograph. I don’t want to be someone who is unfairly taking away from a community, so I try to develop personal relationships with the individuals, many of whom are willing to help me develop my work in the future.”
This dialogue is not without contention. Justin admits: “It is not easy overcoming prejudices that people still have in South Africa about a European descendant with a camera taking photographs; you have to work with each person. Largely I do not choose who I take photographs of, I always ask and sometimes people say no, and you have to respect that. In South African society there are still the remnants of apartheid and associations with struggle photography and documentary realism when people see a camera. In my work, I try to show the people how they want to be seen, not how I want to depict them.”
Justin tells us that: “More than ever, South Africa’s history is playing a crucial role in shaping the country’s future. The country is very tribal and still racially divided despite the intended effects after the birth of the Rainbow Nation in 1994. Settlers and white governments in South Africa have a lot to answer for and political populists are using the power of a young and impressionable electorate to win votes – the legacy of apartheid is far from over. I see my work looking further into the relocations that happened under apartheid as a way of exploring desegregation and national rebuilding in relation to identity.”
As Justin continues to document shifting South African identity on the level of individuals, he says: “Many people in South Africa in the years following Mandela’s tenure have become disengaged with politics, blaming corrupt politicians for their present condition, yet photography has the ability to re-engage and give a voice to people often considered forgotten, even if it cannot necessarily solve the problem.” Moving forward, he states: “I want to go deeper into this and look at how history has brought us to the current situation; I see myself delving into archives and family histories as a way of discovering my own place in South Africa.”
Ultimately, Justin’s photographic practice functions according to a dialogue-focused approach, based on personal engagement, remaining receptive to the issues and tensions at play and being sensitive to the ways in which the individuals he photographs perceive of themselves and their visual autonomy, rather than asserting his own gaze. He says: “This dialogue is also a big part of the photographing itself, in finding that person’s true essence in an image. I have found that only by showing a willingness to properly engage with people over time will you gain their trust, and only then will you be able to fairly photograph someone.”
About the Author
Becky joined It’s Nice That in the summer of 2019 as an editorial assistant. She wrote many fantastic stories for us, mainly on hugely talented artists and photographers.