A carefully crafted grid of moving limbs, Pantsula dance is hypnotising in its complexity and energy. Snappily dressed athletes kick, twist, cross and spin, moulding their frames into sequence after sequence of graphic forms with complete obedience to the rhythm. With roots in the Sophiatown jazz culture of the 1950s, Pantsula is one of South Africa’s most widespread township subcultures. Far more than just a dance style, members use dress, language and visual culture to express their lifestyle, while it’s also a method of telling stories of both pre- and post-apartheid struggle and celebration.
It’s easy to see how Pantsula could grow into a five year obsession as it did for Johannesburg-born photographer Chris Saunders. His passion for this hugely visual mode of self-expression has manifested itself as a collection of portraits, films and flip books, that feature in a forthcoming book and a large-scale exhibition planned for UCLA in 2017. No stranger to South African subcultures, Chris started shooting bands aged 15, and has become the go-to guy for a genuine take on the country’s rich fashion and music scenes.
“Pantsula tells you something about the history of Johannesburg with every step.”
Alongside his commercial projects for the likes of Red Bull, Virgin Active, BBDO and M&C Saatchi Abel, he has formed considerable projects documenting working class Zulu dandies The Swenka, Millennial DIY fashion crew The Smarteez not to mention a whole host of exclusively South African musical genres, most notably shangan electro (something akin to psychedelic gabba) and Durban’s menace-laden electronic sound gqom. He’s currently working on a series featuring qgom producers and their equipment as part of an ongoing collaboration with South African culture bible Bubblegum Club, and his just-launched film Ghost Diamond (made with Hyperdub-signed musician OKZharp and funded by the British Council) is a glitch-filled psychogeographic exploration of Johannesburg that’s both dark and deeply gorgeous.
But a hip aesthetic is only a fraction of what Chris is about. His work attempts to document the richness of everyday South Africans, celebrating their creativity with contagious optimism and depth. Setting up a blog of street photography in 2007 (when the internet connection was finally quick enough not to be excruciating) won Chris the attention of Colors and soon after began a year-long residency at the magazine’s home at Fabrica, Benetton’s Communication Research Center in Treviso, Italy. It was here he shook off his frustration at the surface nature of the commercial shoots he had been assisting on, and started to develop the thorough research methodology integral to his work today.
“As a white photographer in South Africa, it’s really important to have done your homework, to know what you’re doing and why, especially if you’re shooting black or African culture. You can’t just come in from the outside; you need a reason to be there.” This approach touches every project that he works on, and hinges on collaborating with communities and insider experts. Off next week to work on a lifestyle shoot in Dubai, he’s sought out a local researcher to help him scout out alternatives to the suggested locations, paying her out of his own fee. “If you look at all the big fashion brands, or people creating interesting work, they have a research-driven approach,” says Chris. “To work in a commercial space but create original work that’s conscious or relevant, you have to go through that process.”
Looking back at South Africa when shooting for Colors gave Chris an external perspective on the undocumented phenomenon that was Pantsula. Not only was it ripe for an anthropological study but its unique brand of visual swag was being totally ignored by the mainstream fashion and arts media in favour of chasing international trends. “Pantsula was having a far greater impact on youth culture than magazines. They were irrelevant in a sense. It’s why publishing has struggled in South Africa, they were running on this old fiction that they were the leaders of culture.”
This disconnect, Chris says, is partly down to the architecture of apartheid, which kept wealthy urban centres like Johannesburg physically separate from the townships outside. Although very much alive and kicking, subcultures like Pantsula remained invisible to the mostly white mainstream media – something Chris has fought to challenge through his work. “I know exactly where I come from as a young white South African who will have in some way benefitted from apartheid. It’s important to recognise that you come from a place of privilege regardless of your political stance now and understand why a lot of stories haven’t been told.”
Visually Pantsula is simultaneously a photographer’s gift and a huge headache. Each dancer or crew develops a unique pose that makes them instantly recognisable in competition or social media. It was these existing visual codes that Chris used for the project’s still images, so stylised they are tinged with the surreal. Documenting the dances themselves was a much harder feat however. Deciding to take a step-by step approach Chris set up each dancer in a tight portrait frame, and asked them exhibit a specific move. As well as recording video, Chris split each routine into 25 frames and has presented them both as flip books and as huge contact sheets, where the images snake around the page for easy viewing.
Part of what makes Pantsula so fascinating to Chris is how the dance speaks about what it means to live and work in South Africa. For example, the first step of the dance is all about the journey of travelling from the townships to work in the city, its shuffling rhythm mimicking the wheels rolling over the sleepers. “It’s such a relevant storytelling mechanism. Pantsula tells you something about the history of Johannesburg with every step.” Given such nuance, distilling Pantsula culture into a set of images has been a huge challenge, part of the reason the project has taken him five years to complete, as has building relationships in the community.
“As a white photographer in South Africa, it’s really important to have done your homework, to know what you’re doing and why.”
Conscious not to just represent Pantsula without thinking outside his own experience, Chris has co-authored the book with Pantsula dancer Sicelo Xaba, alongside art historian Daniela Goeller. The three of them own the research equally and will share any profit from the book. “It’s to prove to people that there’s a different way of doing projects like this,” he says. Not only will it make for a more rounded documentation but it speaks of a political agenda that believes in art can change our society.