Schoolboys

I have been to India maybe thirty times, business took me there and privately, we have made many friends there, had a few dramas, got caught up in terrorism, been hospitalised and needed operations – I’ve lived to tell the tales and whilst this isn’t the point of this entry, it does start to paint a picture. I started taking a camera sometime after I first went to Bombay (as it was called then) and Bangalore (ditto) to record, not necessarily to document, what I felt about what I saw. I remember deliberately choosing a 35mm manual camera and choosing very fast film black and white film for the purpose, The camera was fast, I was used to it, the film would do a better job in recording the detail in the shadows, which is where I felt I wanted to be able to record. I exposed many hundreds of negatives during those years that I went there. I produced a book of those images which worked for me in expressing my feelings towards a country and society that is rushing headlong to become something something that it isn’t into something that it thinks it needs to be – western.

I suppose my reasons for undertaking this course might be summed up with a couple of photographs. Ernest Cole was a photographer who worked in South Africa, I wasn’t aware of his work, though I recognised a few of his prints, until I went to the Barbican to see the “Everything was moving photography from the 60s and 70s” exhibition. And this is the first post from me from that show, there was just too much there to post a ranging piece, so I will come back to individual photographers periodically.

These two photographers are, one by me and one by Cole – here they are:

Schoolboy India

This photograph came about when I commissioned a small boat to take me over the river from where I was staying to a small fishing village    on the opposite bank. The village was very small and had a daily fish market, which I missed, a few ramshackled huts and, what I think was the only solid building, a schoolhouse. We were allowed in, despite the two room school being occupied by children studying and were welcomed – the children all rose and said hello – we later found they were taking exams. There was no electricity and the school day was defined by the available light coming through open windows – I suspect in the monsoon they would close the class. I asked and was given permission to take some photographs. As you can see the boy was very happy to have his photograph taken, despite being ready to leave school and play with his friends. A charming shot perhaps.

I was reminded of this shot of mine when I was in the Barbican. Ernest Cole had taken one, not entirely similar but, and perhaps this is where I remember Goeff Dyers book “The ongoing moment” about how photographers will visit the same subject either by conscious or subconscious decisions. Cole’s image though has so much more about it.

Copyright Hasselblad foundation

Copyright Hasselblad foundation

Here is a boy intent on learning, there isn’t anything that will distract him, it will be his salvation. The intensity is palpable. His focus is solely about improvement.

Mine is a happy sweet picture, Cole’s has a poignancy that is missing from mine. It is about the difference between a photography student and a photographer.

Cole’s photography catalogues the plight of South African black’s in a way that would have been difficult even if he hadn’t been black – I shall review David Goldblatts’ work soon, whose ‘view’ has to be different. There isn’t a great deal of Cole’s work around, he died penniless after apparently selling his negatives to help pay for basic provisions. I have added my thoughts on David Goldblatt here on my Documentary blog http://umneydoc.wordpress.com/2013/03/04/david-goldblatt/

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9 thoughts on “Schoolboys

  1. It is interesting to compare the two images. The lighting in the Cole image is more evocative with the side lighting from both sides. The sweat on the side of the face and the kids expression give it intensity. However, when I look at the photograph I wonder if this was the demeanour of the child generally or whether this was an isolated moment which serves the purpose of making an image designed a) to represent a particular point of view or b) to simply make a great image.

    Whilst I too am attracted to Cole’s image and admire his skill, I seem to have developed a deep suspicion of this type of image….my comments on Migrant Mother follow a similar thought process….

  2. And I thought no-one was as cynical as me 🙂 The Migrant Mother comes ready wrapped in a vast swathe of contextual narrative and so, perhaps, is not a good comparison, but I agree with what you say in part. I do share some of your suspicions however the contexts are different. Cole WAS a black South African, photographing, in essence, what was happening to him (he is that boy) – and in the broader context what happened to him in America, where he fled to avoid prison and maybe worse – whereas Lange was from a comparatively Middle Class background, university educated, liberal background and apart from race, almost the antithesis of Florence. That being said, there is no doubt that Lange’s photograph MADE a difference, whereas Cole’s image rests in a few people’s minds at best and contributed nothing to his nation’s public, or private, consciousness.
    The composition of Cole’s image is interesting I think, it is all aspirational, the general flow of all the elements are upwards, his eyes are lifted, his limbs are all positioned in the same direction, almost as if they meet on the blackboard. I suspect that the two children in this post have/had almost identical levels of poverty, however the huge, and monumental difference is the level of oppression and expectation. India, had when I took the image, a feeling that it was on the cusp of world greatness, it could be argued that it has now reached it – the boy is in a school and has a terrific work ethic, whereas the boy in Cole’s image has an altogether different expectation, life expectancy, health care, literacy rate……

  3. What a sad end for Cole! Yes, I was already thinking that Cole’s image really represents him and he was speaking through it. Certainly the two images are very different. I wouldn’t exactly say that your image is ‘sweet’. What it does for me is to illustrate the story you told about how it was taken. I wonder what happened to that boy.

    • Unfortunately not many photographers make much money, but it does seem a poor way to go under the circumstances. I’m waiting for a (another large) book on Goldblatt, and that whilst he photographed essentially the same subject, at the same time and in the same country his effect might be said to have been greater because he was white perhaps. Certainly he has survived to tell the tale. It’ll be interesting to compare the two. This show at the Barbican was a revelation – so much more to think and write about.

  4. They are indeed an interesting contrast John. I think the biggest difference is obviously the engagement with the photographer in your shot compared to Cole’s and I am wondering how different the two would actually have been if the Indian boy had been looking intently away. Since we visited the Barbican I too have been interested in Cole and Goldblatt and whenever I think I’ll post my thoughts, I think of something else! I’ve done a little research on Cole and it seems that his images from House of Bondage were extensively used by the ANC, so hopefully he had some impact.

    • There was so much at this exhibition that I’ve decided to do it piecemeal – interestingly I’m finding that the work of Egglestone seems out of kilter with the rest of the work. The ‘rest’ (with the possible exception of Sidibe) seemingly documenting some kind of strife, political or otherwise, whereas Egglestone seems to producing a document that is the political statement, what do you think?

      • I’ve just cross-posted my thoughts on Cole/Goldblatt with you, but interestingly next to Egglestone in the catalogue rests my postit note with the words Why here? written on it !! I’ll try and answer that in the next few days.

  5. John, you say the differences are the result of student photographer vs photographer. Maybe, but only in as far as you have chosen to interact with the child—and Cole either didn’t or ‘staged’ the image so that it looked like he didn’t? I think that all comes down to how ‘photographers’ irrespective of prowess opt to ‘frame’ the image at the time of capture. Cole had a story to tell—as did Lange as Keith mentioned above. Your story was different.

    • Vicki, you say ” the differences are the result of student photographer vs photographer. Maybe…” – I think (know) the difference was that Cole almost certainly had a fully formed story or purpose when he took the shot – whether he needed to compose the boy or not is irrelevant, into a narrative that was born from the circumstances of his life. I saw an opportunity to take what I thought would be a compelling image, but serving no narrative that I was conscious of then or now.

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