“Very soon after adopting an interest in photography I realised that I could use the medium as a vehicle to unpack my surroundings – to interact with and better understand them,” says South African photographer Robin Bernstein. Born in Cape Town and recently relocated to London, for the last decade his practice has followed this approach closely. His photographs are narrative-driven, always seeking a deeper understanding of the people and places he is surrounded by, telling their stories through quiet, contemplative imagery. Though, over the years, his storytelling has been influenced by an ever-evolving relationship to the documentary photography form, taking inspiration from a new wave of image-makers that are “pushing the boundaries of the documentary tradition” and questioning its presumed connection to “truth”.
In his ongoing project Mapalakata, Robin documents “a corner” of the Mpumalanga province in eastern South Africa – in particular the Mpumalanga escarpment. Known for its natural beauty, with “high lush cliffs” that “abruptly pierce the hot red earth of the lowlands”, it is also a land with a chequered past, having witnessed centuries of “epic warfare” and “the beginnings of the modern-day story of gold in South Africa”. During the two and a half years that Robin has so far spent shooting in the region, he has used its geological and historical significance “as a hinge to examine the societies, cultures, industries and conflicts which have arisen here”. He treats Mpumalanga as a microcosm of South Africa at large, exploring the “beauty, optimism, joy, suffering, pain and hardship” that it has seen, and which can be found more widely throughout the country.
Oscillating between portraits and landscapes, the photographs in Mapalakata capture the people and geography of Mpumalanga, as well as “relics of a forgotten time” that litter its wide expanses. “Today, plantations of foreign trees blanket the landscape while mills churn steam as they pulp pine into paper. In the valleys below, gold mines that have been chiming steel against rock for over 100 years ring their ceaseless chorus,” writes Robin in his artist statement, touching on the extractive activities that have long taken place in Mpumalanga. As a region rich with natural resources, it has seen many visitors throughout its history – from European colonisers to the Arab and Indian traders that moved through South Africa in the centuries before them.
These “visitors” serve as the thematic crux of Mapalakata, and even informed the project’s title (‘Mapalakata’ is a Bepedi word that was traditionally used to refer to the traders that frequented the area.) In his images, Robin contemplates their transient presence here, and the lasting influence various groups in Mpumalanga have had on the region’s long and winding story – one that in many ways mirrors the country’s story as a whole. “I attempt to draw attention to how the prevailing history of the region is continuously rewritten as dominant groups erase the narratives bound to their predecessors – each driven to occupy the space for the resources that it holds,” explains Robin. “Truth is maintained by those who have the most power, and this power is always dependent on who controls the resources. It is this triangular relationship between truth, land and narrative that I wish to highlight via the images from this body of work.”
Robin Bernstein: Mapalakata (Copyright © Robin Bernstein, 2019)
About the Author
Daniel joined It’s Nice That as an editorial assistant in February 2019 and continues to work with us on a freelance basis. He graduated from Kingston University with a degree in Journalism in 2015. He is also co-founder and editor of SWIM, an annual art and photography publication.