A photograph is an object which depicts a scene. Whether it is a landscape, a piece of documentary evidence or indeed a portrait, the act of the photographer pointing the camera creates the space into which the visual architecture is designed. The result can be simplified to an equation which equates to the viewer looking at objects created by the practitioner/artist. One-way traffic. So far, so simple.
In his totemic piece of work entitled RFK Funeral Train, American photographer Paul Fusco turned the equation back-to-front. The images depict people standing transfixed at the sight of the train carrying the coffin of recently-murdered politician Robert F. Kennedy as it snaked its way up the American east coast from New York City to the Arlington Cemetery in Washington D.C. in the summer of 1968. It captures a nation gripped by grief and disbelief, that we know. The often blurred images freeze forever a sense of shock and bewilderment. Taken from on board the moving train, Fusco’s vantage point allows him to be in the ascendancy, often looking down to individuals and groups of people as they form a human daisy chain to pay their respects and mourn the sudden loss of hope in a country in the grip of racial and economic tension.
What has always fascinated me about this body of work is this: many of the images are blurred and imprecise, vignettes of reactions, stares and expressions caught on the move. This gives the sense of movement, but it also does something to alter the perception of who is in control of the process. For me, it becomes clearer with each viewing of the images that there is an ambiguity which I cannot resolve. Fusco has the camera, and constructs the scene. But somewhere in there another dynamic takes over. It is almost as if, by freeze-framing these people, the subject of the photograph is re-imagined: it is now Fusco and his deceased travelling companion which are the primary focus, not the people lining the route.
I have always held these images to be ‘other’. A set which created uncertainty in my mind, asking for a deeper exploration of the relationship between the sitter and the artist, the subject and that which objectifies it. I have always had the intention of trying to experiment with this concept and recently on an assignment I found myself in a place and position which allowed me to reignite this interest. For nearly six weeks, I spent many hours travelling as part of police motorcades, often at high-speed, through eight different countries in southern Africa, with time on my hands and space to contemplate the vast and varied rural landscape and the chaotic and diverse urban environment. What became apparent to me, as the sirens wailed and traffic swerved, were the expressions of people, caught unawares, unsuspecting, slightly bewildered by the sudden encroachment into their lives as a convoy of important-looking cars headed by police outriders and other vehicles whizzed by.
As we sped through Malawi, Zambia, Namibia, Botswana, Mozambique, Swaziland, Lesotho and finally South Africa, scores, if not hundreds, of people were captured, frozen in time, their expressions betraying personal emotions, unaware of the content or context of what they were witnessing. Photographed without particular fastidiousness, the images presented in Africa Drive-By represent the moment when, like a reflection in a mirror, we see our own consternation, surprise, joy, shock, ambivalence or insouciance captured and turned back on us. They are us. And we are them.
Africa Drive-By is presented as a small-scale, 28-page ‘zine publication, with a limited edition first print run of just 150 copies, available exclusively through this website.
To flick through a copy of Africa Drive-By, click here…