Guy Tillim is one of South Africa's foremost contemporary photographers. Learning
his trade as photojournalist nearly two decades ago, Tillim's oeuvre has proven
to be far more than that of orthodox reportage. His photographs have become
increasingly recontextualised as art object within the space of the artbook
His eye and lens would rather turn away from the 'Event', so prized by the
international press, to the less sensational yet more revealing moments between.Thus Tillim's images emerge from the complexities of aftermath and the nuanced details of everyday life in what is reductively termed 'conflict zones'. They freeze gestures and textures that might otherwise be overlooked and a tension is created between the banality of place and the drama of historical context. This unease questions clichéd assumptions about war and its effects, and urges the viewer - like the photographer himself - to enter a space of 'disquiet, introspection [and] wonder' about the nature of humanity (from Tillim's introductory note to Departure).
So Tillim's images are engaging not merely because of the narrative from which they emerge. They compel as images. He is a photographer's photographer and has a masterful grasp of the tricks of the trade. As much as photography is an art of distancing, isolating and capturing, so too is it an art of light and shape. Tillim seems to delight in the semiotic power of recurring compositional motifs: the frontal pose of portraiture, the central horizon, the framed distortion of a car windshield or the power of strong diagonals.
Many of the images are concerned with the way light falls onto objects, or is reflected, refracted or filtered. The quality of light acts to draw the eye towards detail while also serving as emotive device. There are moments when the photographs seem almost painterly. This quality is in part the product of a fruitful collaboration with master printer Tony Meintjes, whose meticulous approach to paper and ink allows the surface a heightened physicality, a gravitas to match the power of the image-as-window.
'My journeys have been idiosyncratic, often purposeless, not so much to commit journalism as to travel for its own sake.'
'My brand of idealism, that had its roots in the time I started photographing in South Africa during the apartheid years of the 1980s, has dimmed. There was right and wrong, it seemed clear to me on which side I stood. One would forego, what I might now call subtlety, for the sake of making a statement about injustice. The world's press set the tone and timbre of the reportage it would receive, and I for one was bought by it. Perhaps that is why I now look for ways to glimpse other worlds, which I attempt to enter for a while. But one cannot live them all, and usually I am left with a keen sense of my own dislocation.'
'Of course, there is always this: to change what is ugly and brutal into something sublime and redemptive. So I have photographs I like for reasons I have come to distrust.'
'Mark Twain was one of many American and European writers who were outraged by what they learned from photographs and eyewitness accounts of the atrocities in the Congo. In his King Leopold's Soliloquy, he imagines the King gloating over his money but raging against his enemies, particularly 'the incorruptible Kodak . . . the only witness I have encountered in my long experience that I couldn't bribe.' The 'Kodak' is still incorruptible, and in Tillim's hands has been an eloquent witness to the suffering and exploitation that continue in the Congo today.'
- Adam Rothschild, author of King Leopold's Ghost.
'Tillim's work has a sense of tension, an edge, and his continuous searching and exploration marks him as an exceptional photographer.'
Rory Bester on behalf of the DaimlerChrysler Jury Panel.
'He draws us into a cycle of interpretations and viewpoints, ways of seeing and interpretations, he forces us to be open to connections and references in a way that converts apparent 'weakness' of judgement into the strength of precise and repeated looking. And precisely this justifies calling Guy Tillim's work, in the words of Paul Valéry, 'résistance au facile', resistance to the easy way.'
Renate Wiehager in Daimler Chrysler Catalogue.
'To those who would dismiss Tillim's work on the grounds that it is not Fine Art photography but photojournalism (and I hastily acknowledge Bill Bryson - responding to critics of the abuse of rain forests in the production of the New York Times - as my source for this happy expression), I offer the following riposte: Fuck 'em!'
'Why images like these are so interesting, and so worthy of introspection, is
because of the way they deconstruct the languages of photojournalism, manipulating
our learned responses to visual reportage and placing those languages at risk.'
Ivor Powell in Art South Africa.
'Tillim establishes a sense of 'quiet authorship' in this work: his images are
not intrusive on their subjects, nor do they offer any direct judgments on
their content....Tillim seeks 'fragments of truth', where the complex fragmented
realities of every situation are alluded to or referenced, as opposed to being
spoken of directly.'
- David Brodie in 10 Years 100 Artists.
Tillim's latest series, 'Johannesburg', is on exhibition at The South African National Gallery. These colour digital photographs are the results of an intense period of time spent during 2004 in and around the suburb of Hillbrow in Johannesburg. The 'big issues' of housing, xenophobia, forced removals, redevelopment and pending gentrification are approached in true Tillim style. Varying levels of intimacy with the space reveal the precariousness of the situation. We see documentation of the residents, details of their material possessions, places of relaxation and everyday activity and also moments and debris from various evictions.
Tillim's previous bodies of work have centered on the post-colonial African state in flux. Documenting his travels through war torn Angola and Zaire/Congo, as well as time spent in Sierra Leone and Eritrea, Tillim has produced both colour and black and white images that bear witness to what he has seen and experienced in these troubled spaces. In 'Leopold and Mobuto' (2004), the impact of the Belgian king's brutal reign is revisited through images of fallen statues and scattered remnants of empire throughout the DRC.
With subtlety, Tillim draws this colonial narrative into analogy with the fall of dictator Mobuto, first ruler of post-colonial independence. Here details of palaces in decay serve as metaphors for the corrosion of nation and dissolution of power structures. The ominous, brooding volcano of Goma echoes the general sense of dis-ease. It embodies a foreboding of chaos realised in the displacement of man by nature, and, more commonly in Tillim's work, man by man.
In 2003 Tillim produced a series of portraits of mai-mai child militias from Beni, eastern Democratic Republic of Congo. These images depict adolescent boys and young men in training, wearing makeshift camouflage created from dried leaves and weeds with logs as substitute AK47's. These photographs echo a similar series taken in 2001 in Sierre Leone of young kamajoor militias who formed in response to the tyrannous rebel action of the RUF.
Time spent in 2002 in Bie, an Angolan province near Kuito, produced another series, the 'Kunhinga Portraits'. The subject of these pictures is refugees of the small town Kunhinga who have fled their homes, five days walk away, in search of refuge from feared persecution as a result of events during the close of Civil War.
'Departure' is a collection of images from disparate places: from Guyana to Kabul, Transkei to Jerusalem. Spanning a period of production from the late 80's to 2002, this exhibition and the accompanying publication of the same name, encapsulate the highlights of Tillim's early work. The central theme is that of journey, with the photographer as transient interloper and onlooker. The viewer is reminded of the broader context of conflict, not so much through images of bloody violence but rather in the textures (a bullet-riddled wall, a cracked windshield) and details (an amputee's prosthesis, an ominous helicopter). The subjects therefore appear within this broader context but are humanised through their everyday activity (children playing and swimming, people dancing, working or watching tv).
Two international solo shows await Tillim in 2005: on PhotoEspana in June and at the Photographers Gallery, London in August. His current exhibition at SANG moves to The Johannesburg Art Gallery in May. Tillim remains elusive about what he will turn his lens to next. He is, however, moving his base back to Cape Town after four years of living in Paris.
Born in Johannesburg, South Africa, 1962
Bachelor of Commerce, University of Cape Town, 1983
Joined Afrapix, a collective of South African photographers, 1986 - 1990
Mondi Award (South Africa) for photojournalism, 1998
Mondi Award (South Africa) for photojournalism
Finalist, Prix Care for Humanitarian Reportage, France 2001
Prix SCAM (Societe Civile des Auteurs Multimedia) Roger Pic, France
Higashikawa Overseas Photographer Award, Japan 2003 and exhibition at the Higashikawa Photo Festival, Hokkaido
DaimlerChrysler Award for Photography, South Africa, 2003
'Kabul, Afghanistan', 1996. Durban Centre for Photography
'Kuito, Angola', South African Museum, Cape Town, 2001
'Kuito, Angola', Gallery Dupon, Paris, 2001
'Kuito, Angola', Societe des Auteurs Multimedia, Paris, 2002
'Kunhinga Portraits', Michael Stevenson Contemporary, Cape Town, 2003
'Kunhinga Portraits', Sala Uno, Rome, 2004
'Departure', Bell-Roberts Gallery, Cape Town,2003
'Departure', NSA Galley, Durban, 2003
'Departure', Photo ZA, Johannesburg, 2003
'Congo Democratic', Bell-Roberts Gallery, Cape Town, 2003
'Congo Democratic', Fotofiesta Medellin, Colombia, 2003
'Leopold and Mobutu', Michael Stevenson Contemporary, 2004
'Johannesburg', South African National Gallery, 2004