Archive: Issue No. 111, November 2006

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Jodi Bieber

Jodi Bieber

Between Dogs and Wolves: Growing up with South Africa by Jodi Bieber
reviewed by Tambudzai LaVerne Sibanda

Jodi Bieber, London-based South African photographer, recently released a provocative photographic anthology entitled Between Dogs and Wolves: Growing up with South Africa. This rather difficult book affords a disturbing glimpse into the lives of individuals in some of the toughest neighbourhoods around Johannesburg over the last 10 years. Bieber invites the reader on an exclusive journey into a vibrant gangster subculture, scarred by the legacy of apartheid.

The arresting image of a newborn diagnosed with HIV/Aids at Cotlands Baby sanctuary, with twisted and contorted hands, writhing in pain, portrays the sorrow, frustration and anger of those living in these communities that most of us privileged so conveniently choose to ignore. Bieber offers no apologies for her raw images that depict young children at play: her subjects are far removed from the tender innocence that usually characterises seven year olds. An image of a young girl, sucking the butt end of an unloaded gun in an act that looks like an attempt to commit suicide, evokes revulsion. Inevitable questions arise: what has become of our children?

Bieber's highly emotive body of black and white images, offers only a 'partial view' of the realities of her subjects, whose narratives until now have remained untold. The frantic scribbles on the walls become a metaphor for the tortured conscience of these youth. In an attempt to make sense of the frustrations and contradictions of their complex lives, many find solace in graffiti, desperate to carve a safe, albeit temporary space for themselves in the semi-urban landscape. Robbed of adequate guidance, these children-adults, for whom Bieber attempts to speak, find their families amongst other youth on street corners, huddling up near blazing bonfires. Despite the subjects' internal suffering, the images capture a strong sense of camaraderie and loyalty.

Bieber's look into a world stained by moral bankruptcy and poverty speaks a language of gambling, mandrax smoking, booze and guns. In a documentary style, she portrays individuals whose circumstances are so bleak that they have been reduced to bestial, heinous acts - their behaviour somewhere between dogs' and wolves'. These are people who live in a liminal, intermediatory space between innocence, domestication, and untamed wildness. In spite of the aggression and squalor that characterise her subjects' lives, Bieber chooses to honour them as humans.

Her signature is the intimacy and poetic tenderness with which she captures her subjects - outwardly their faces are hooded, yet Bieber challenges the reader to peel the mask, to reveal children who are vulnerable, broken and misunderstood. After all, these are just children, who, like everyone else, love to giggle and laugh. In one image Bieber captures the uncontainable joy and fearlessness of children swinging on a communal clothesline. Many of these children, who are victims of abuse and come from homes with absent fathers, only know fearlessness. A poignant series of images tells the story of Lynette and Bradley, a mother and her seven-year-old son, struggling for authority in the house. Provoked by his mother's attempts to beat him with a leather belt, Bradley knows only to retaliate with a knife, venting his anger. Solid black pages throughout the book, speak volumes of the pain, despair and deeds of darkness that are best left unarticulated.

Bieber's anthology forces the reader to confront the realities of an alien community, attempting to bridge the gap of ignorance. Her collection of work can read as a parody of the achievements government claims to have made over the last 10 years. She asks difficult questions that require the reader to stop and consider the true state of the nation. The tragic image of Tebugo, a child prostitute whose tattered small jersey contours her body, only just concealing the most vulnerable parts, will warm any heart. On the surface she is just another statistic, another young girl caught up in the system, however, the intricately patterned wrought iron gate against which she leans becomes a metaphor for her sophisticated mind trapped in a complex situation. She tells Bieber she hopes to one day become a lawyer, to fight injustice against children. Tebugo's life contrasts starkly with that of a young girl in an impoverished white community; photographed sitting cozily on her father's lap, it appears as if she is protected and well looked after given the circumstance. But, a pair of crutches carefully laid at the man's feet tell the story of the father's disability, which becomes a metaphor for a crippled masculinity prevalent in theses troubled communities.

David, a 19 year old nicknamed 'Fitas', living on the margins of a lower class white neighbourhood, crouches on the ground with his back arced, a pose echoed by the bowing water pipes that form the backdrop. His pose speaks of an utter sense of defeat and despair that transcends race. An image of him lying peacefully in a graveyard narrates a history of loss in his life. Death appears to be the only form of respite from this tiring life.

Inevitably one asks how Bieber dares to represent the depth of experience of her subjects through a lens of 'whiteness and privilege'? I believe that Bieber is only too aware of her position as an educated, privileged white woman, evidenced by an honestly written text at the end of the book. Images that are blurred, rendering her subjects out of focus reinforce notions of distance. Careful to familiarise and immerse herself in the stories of her subjects, Bieber never claims to understand the full picture of their struggles.

An old adage claims that there is a silver lining to every cloud, and Bieber's book does offer the reader a look at happier moments shared by individuals in the communities for which she speaks. She captures images of individuals singing joyfully in their homes, or a father and son practicing trapeze acts for a captive audience. These are the few moments of respite and escape from a cruel world. Nestled in the middle of the book is a beautiful surprise: here is the only colour image, boasting olive green tones and warm ochre hues. It tells the story of the potential and dreams of young ballroom dancers. The dewy faces of the young girls and boys speak of an unchallenged innocence and hope for a possible bright future.

Hardcover: 144 pages
Publisher: Dewi Lewis Publishing (Oct 30, 2006)
Language: English
ISBN: 1904587321