This article appears in The Photo Issue 2015
In 2006, when Magnum photographer Mikhael Subotzky started his yearlong project documenting life in and around a prison on a traffic island in the rural South African town of Beaufort West, journalist Hazel Friedman published the crime novel Hijack! Written under the alias Guy Brown, the book is one of the first published references to nyaope, a popular street drug that is a cocktail of low-grade heroin, cannabis, and antiretroviral drugs. Friedman recorded that nyaope was (as it still is) "all the rage with the youngsters in Soweto, Mamelodi, Soshanguve, and Atteridgeville," black settlements surrounding Johannesburg and Pretoria.
It is also popular in Thokoza, the black residential neighborhood southeast of Johannesburg where photographer Lindokuhle Sobekwa lives. Sobekwa started documenting the rituals associated with nyaope in 2013, after a local Thokoza youth asked him to take a photo with his crew. "I was nervous, but I told myself if they try anything I would run away with my camera," Sobekwa told me. "I held my camera very tightly." He had good reason to worry: Youth unemployment is a key driver of crime. But it turned out that all they wanted was a photo.
That evening, reviewing his photographs, Sobekwa was struck by the access he'd been given to a shack owned by a man named Mabhuti. He started returning to Mabhuti's shanty. Photographs of drug addiction and pictures of poverty share a generic sameness: Bare circumstances mirror bare lives. While his photo essay contains familiar scenes of idleness, argument, and narcotic collapse, Sobekwa, who was born in 1995 into a working-class Xhosa family and is considered part of the "born-free" generation, also followed users farther afield, where they panhandled and foraged for scrap metal to sell. This is how he met Jerry, a white drug user living on the street.
Similar to Larry Clark's work in Tulsa, Sobekwa's photos (the black-and-white pictures in this series) are defined by their focus on an insecure family, one created by circumstance rather than biology. Unlike Clark, who was implicated in the good times, Sobekwa has merely been a dispassionate observer motivated by a belief that his photos might have an educational value. When he started out making photographs, Subotzky, who is 14 years older than Sobekwa, had a similar outlook. Photography was a way of learning and communicating.
Much like Sobekwa, Subotzky made his breakout 2004 photo essay in his backyard. Raised near Pollsmoor, a maximum-security prison outside Cape Town, Subotzky—a second-generation descendent of well-off Latvian immigrants—voluntarily spent time locked up with prisoners. "I would explain to as many people as possible in the room what I was doing before I took photographs," he said. "Anthropologists talk about the term 'deep hanging'—I suppose I tried to do that."
While at Pollsmoor he saw a corpse for the first time. Christopher Sibidla had died in a prison fire. Subotzky photographed his body at the request of Sibidla's mother and presented it to her before the funeral. "I could hardly look at the image, but she took one look at my print, kissed its surface, and pushed it to her chest, thanking me for helping her to put her son to rest." The image continued to haunt Subotzky, and in 2012 he smashed it, along with a number of others from his archive, for an exhibition. The gesture was his way of reconciling his feelings about witnessing as well as photographing a violent and traumatic act, and writing it back into the photographic object itself.
The difficulty at stake here is not unique to Subotzky. Documentary photography, a practice that doesn't mind its own business, is bound by ethics. Sometimes it is better not to make an image, but as Sobekwa's photos of Thokoza attest, the instinct to make them can be powerful and brave. But knowing exactly when to be mindful and say no—that is the ongoing challenge for every photographer.
Sobekwa's series of photographs was initiated as a part of the Of Soul & Joy Project, organized by the Rubis Mécénat Cultural Fund and Easigas.