Am I a Photographer?

This week I attended a Q&A discussion with David Goldblatt, one of South Africa’s most legendary photographers, at the Market Photo Workshop in Joburg. The Market Photo Workshop, which Goldblatt founded in the 1980s, is a school for aspiring photographers, many of whom come from disadvantaged backgrounds. The Workshop is currently running an exhibition of Goldblatt’s photographs that lasts until the end of July.

The Q&A was moderated by three Workshop students, who asked Goldblatt a series of questions and then took questions from the audience. I was enthralled by every second of the hour-long discussion.

Goldblatt, with his photos behind him, speaks before a rapt audience during the Q&A.

David Goldblatt is a funny, engaging guy. Even though his work is of a very serious nature, he doesn’t take himself too seriously. When asked if he considers himself primarily an artist or a documentary photographer, he answered neither. He doesn’t see his work as art (in fact he’s “not very interested in art”), but rather as a record of his observations through a camera lens. And he believes every photo that’s ever been taken is a document. So in Goldblatt’s opinion, he’s no more of a documentary photographer than a girl in a bar taking iPhone pics of her friends, or a cop photographing speeding cars under an off-ramp.

Goldblatt’s photographs appear in art galleries around the world and sell for thousands of dollars. Someone asked him how he reconciles this since he doesn’t think he’s an artist. Goldblatt wasn’t sure how to answer but said he’s glad for the income. “I would never buy my prints at those prices,” he added.

Goldblatt became famous as an apartheid photographer and continues to focus on issues of race and violence in South Africa. What messages does he try to convey through his work? “I don’t have a message,” he said. “I’m not a messenger.”

Someone asked how he thinks digital cameras have changed photography. Goldblatt (who still shoots with film) said he thinks it’s wonderful that digital technology has allowed millions of people to shoot “good” pictures. However, he admitted to feeling irritated when he goes somewhere and, “All I see around me are people with cameras shooting every fu**ing thing they can.”

I quietly lowered my camera when he said this.

As I listened, I started thinking about what photography means to me.

Photography is in my blood. My father (now retired) worked for 30 years as a newspaper photographer and photo editor. Some of my earliest memories are of running around on the grass with my sister and our friends, listening to the click of Dad’s shutter.

This is one of Dad’s favorite photos of all time, circa 1976. That’s me in the plastic tub. My best friend Claire (still my best friend today) is on the right. (Photo: Tenney Mason.)

Halloween, circa 1983. I’m the baseball player. Claire is the Mexican bandit. My sister Susanna is the queen and Claire’s sister Shannon is the rabbit. (Photo: Tenney Mason.)

I remember sitting in Dad’s darkroom in our basement, watching images emerge from a tray of chemicals under an eery red light. I remember riding home through Maryland farm country on summer evenings, complaining when Dad insisted on stopping the car to shoot pictures as the sun dropped below the horizon.

I whined on Christmas morning, when Dad dragged everyone away from their presents and herded us onto the front porch for a family portrait session.

I may have whined back then, but today I have a beautiful visual history of my childhood.

Claire (right) and I at her parents’ piano, circa 1977. (Photo: Tenney Mason.)

Me playing softball in 1990, age 16. Please excuse the water damage on the edges of the print — I found it buried in a box while packing for my move to South Africa. (Photo: Tenney Mason.)

I was always interested in Dad’s photograhs and photography in general, but  I took few photos of my own as a young adult. I have almost no pictures from my college years or my 20s. I’m not mechanically inclined and never considered buying an expensive camera. I concentrated on writing and operated under the belief that I wasn’t a “visual” person.

Until March 2007, when I took my first trip to Africa. Before my two-week journey to Tanzania and Rwanda, I took Dad’s advice and bought a Canon Powershot S3 — the best point-and-shoot on the market. My only intent was to capture some decent visual memories of what I assumed would be the trip of a lifetime.

When I returned home and looked at my pictures, I realized I might have some of Dad’s talent, after all. Africa brought out a creative side in me that I didn’t know I had. Cliché, but true.

I took this photo on a gorilla trek in Parc National des Volcans, Rwanda, March 2007. 

Another big thing happened on that 2007 Africa trip: I met Joe. We teamed up on a communications project for the NGO I worked for — I was the writer and Joe was the photographer. Joe was the first person I met when I stepped off the plane at Kilimanjaro Airport. The rest, as they say, is history. (Again, cliché but true.)

Years later, here I am: a photographer’s daughter, sharing her life with a photographer (pipe down, Freudians), taking photographs for her blog about living in Africa. Thanks to modern technology, and lots of help from Joe, I take photos that people seem to think are “good.”

Let’s face it: I’m no Joe and I’m no Dad. I’m certainly no Goldblatt. But I’ve come to love taking pictures as much as I love writing. I can’t do one without the other.

I took this picture 10 months ago on the Melville Koppies with my Canon Powershot S3 — the same camera I used in 2007. I think it’s one of the best photos I’ve ever taken. I use a fancier camera now, but I still carry my trusty Powershot in case of emergency.

Goldblatt got me thinking, and now I can’t stop turning the questions over in my mind.

What does it mean to be a photographer? Am I one?

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  • Reply Jeroen July 1, 2011 at 8:57 am

    Excellent – more old photos!

    • Reply 2summers July 1, 2011 at 8:59 am

      These were the best ones I could dig up on short notice. Maybe I’ll have to do a part 2.

  • Reply Tilly Bud July 1, 2011 at 9:49 am

    I think Goldblatt was being selfish. If you love to take photographs, if you do it as well and as often as you can, you are a photographer.

    Some of these are superb. Did you get really close to that gorilla?

    • Reply 2summers July 1, 2011 at 9:54 am

      Well, the Canon Powershot has a pretty good zoom. I certainly wasn’t right up in his face like that — I would say I was about 4 meters away. That was the most amazing wildlife experience of my life. There’s nothing like sitting in the most remote piece of African jungle while 25 gorillas cavort around you for a full hour.

  • Reply Tilly Bud July 1, 2011 at 9:57 am

    Wow. What an amazing experience. I feel a blog post calling you…

  • Reply Derek Smith July 1, 2011 at 10:37 am

    Heather. this is a great post. The problem with digital I suppose is that it makes each man and his dog a “photographer” and I get quite amused when I go through Flickr, FB etc and amateurs putting all kinds of watermarks and “XXXX Photography” on their pics. I never do that and it has happened that my pics had appeared on blogs etc with no credit. I’m not hassled. The few times people asked me to do a shoot for them I asked them to donate the bucks to charity, I know, as soon as start accepting payment the pleasure will be gone for me. Weird, I suppose.

    I shoot with all kinds of toys – Canon. Iphone, lomo, but I will only start claiming I a real photographer when I can shoot high quality images in Medium Format Analogue which I’m doing extremely badly at the moment. Digital is instant gratification, analogue is craft…..

    • Reply 2summers July 1, 2011 at 10:44 am

      Thanks so much for the comment, Derek. I feel like I (we) could discuss this issue endlessly. I’d also like to write a post about how computers, blogging, and social networking have changed writing. In the same way that digital photography allows more people to be “photographers,” computers and blogging have allowed more people to be themselves “writers.” It’s all so interesting to ponder.

  • Reply Richard July 1, 2011 at 10:41 am

    A very emotive and well written piece Heather. Love all of the pictures but particularly the one of you playing baseball. (PS The water damaged look is very in these days by the way)

    • Reply 2summers July 1, 2011 at 10:50 am

      I’m not sure about this (need to confirm with Dad) but I think that picture might have run in the local newspaper that Dad worked for at the time. My team came in 5th at the National Championships that year!

  • Reply amblerangel July 1, 2011 at 10:42 am

    This and the post on letting the lion loose on the rehab center are my two favorite posts of yours. Love the pics of yours and your Dads. The one of you playing softball is just fantastic! The water damage just adds to it….. Of COURSE you’re a photographer.

    • Reply 2summers July 1, 2011 at 10:45 am

      Thanks, Emily. I like hearing which of my posts are people’s favorites. Dad will be pleased to read your comment, too 🙂

  • Reply Enivea July 1, 2011 at 12:00 pm

    Until I was given my first digital camera, I considered myself more of a writer, even though I had an interest in photography. Now, I tend to let the image do more of the talking. What does that make me? I guess I’d call it a communicator. I like to share what I see around me with others and as I don’t get on well with a paintbrush or anything like that, the camera fulfills the brief.
    Very thoughtful post Heather. Have to admit, I’m with your father – the first photo is a fabulous image – captures the joy and innocence of childhood brilliantly! Yep, you have your father’s eye:-)

    • Reply 2summers July 1, 2011 at 2:18 pm

      Thanks so much, ‘Phila. I think I’m a communicator too. And I also don’t get along with paintbrushes.

  • Reply Debbie Johnson July 1, 2011 at 1:20 pm

    I like the water damage! It makes it look all aged, like you were playing softball in the 1920s!

    • Reply 2summers July 1, 2011 at 2:25 pm

      It kinda feels like it WAS the 1920s.

  • Reply Kathryn McCullough July 1, 2011 at 2:35 pm

    This is a fabulous post, Heather! I know next to nothing about photography, but I have certainly enjoyed the process of pairing photos with text via my posts.

    How wonderful to have such an incredible visual record of your childhood! Your father’s photos are stunning–as are yours and Joe’s!

    And you’re one hell of a photographer!


    • Reply 2summers July 1, 2011 at 2:38 pm

      Thanks Kathy. I’m definitely very lucky to have Dad’s pictures, and his genes 🙂

  • Reply thirdeyemom July 1, 2011 at 2:49 pm

    Beautiful inspiring post! I almost think this is one of my favorites. I love the pictures from your youth and the one of the gorilla is absolutely amazing. I am only using a point and shoot cheap digital camera and would love to somday learn how to take better pictures and get a better camera. I just need to learn how! You are indeed a gifted photographer and writers. Thanks so much for sharing!!!!!!

    • Reply 2summers July 1, 2011 at 2:54 pm

      Thanks Nicole. As I said, I have a lot of help on the photography side. Without Joe I could never have learned to use such a complicated camera!

  • Reply Mia July 1, 2011 at 3:55 pm

    Awesome experience! Goldblatt is so inspiring. I did hang my head in shame a bit – I am quite a happy snapper, but I’m working on that. In the end documenting life is the goal. Just imagine if you did not have those old pics from when you were younger. Would your life be emptier? I don’t know. Did it make everyone smile? Definitely.

    • Reply 2summers July 1, 2011 at 4:00 pm

      I don’t think there’s anything wrong with being a happy snapper. There’s no such thing as too many pictures!

      • Reply Jaco Roets July 1, 2011 at 6:36 pm

        Mia and I are literally bringing back thousands of pictures. I have a really sad “mik-en-druk” camera (point and shoot). It never ceases to amaze me how certain things “come to life” when you photograph it.

      • Reply 2summers July 1, 2011 at 6:39 pm

        Indeed. Some things can’t be captured photographically. But other things actually look even more amazing in pictures than they do in real life. It’s weird.

  • Reply paulphillips17 July 1, 2011 at 7:34 pm

    Thanks for this 🙂

    There is a fantastic documentary from the BBC in the UK from last year where Rankin visited SA to learn about how photography had changed and shaped the country. Goldblatt was on it and came across very well. Well worth trying to find it and spending a relaxing hour enjoying a photographer talking to other photographers.

    • Reply 2summers July 1, 2011 at 7:47 pm

      Thanks for the tip! I could listen to David Goldblatt talk all day.

    • Reply Derek Smith July 1, 2011 at 8:51 pm

      Heather, i’ve got a copy of this if you’d like to watch it – pm me on FB abd I’ll take it to tomorrows walk if you want to borrow it- Its very good, It features Goldblatt, Greg Marinovitz and I think Jao Silva before he got so badly wounded as well as an excellent South Africa photographer Lolo Veleko that inspired me to buy that Mamiya 645

  • Reply Slowvelder July 2, 2011 at 4:34 pm

    If you are called a mother as soon as you have children I guess you can be called a photographer as soon as you have a camera and take photo’s. I think to use the title on a business card would be when you take pictures to earn money, otherwise it is only one of the many things you call yourself – woman, writer, partner, chef, mother, artist…….. what’s in a title really. It’s about what you feel in your gut, its about your passions.

    • Reply 2summers July 3, 2011 at 4:08 pm

      Thanks for reading, Jackie. It’s nice to have you back!

  • Reply jackie July 3, 2011 at 3:45 pm

    I loved reading this Heather – awesome –
    Im sorry I missed David Goldblatt’s talk – but I do so much mileage in the day and to travel again at the end of the day …. but I saw his recent TJ exhibition at the Goodman gallery and was blown away .. he seems quite a character

    • Reply 2summers July 3, 2011 at 4:08 pm

      Thanks Jacks! It really was a great talk. I need to make a point of going to more stuff like that.

  • Reply sophia July 3, 2011 at 8:58 pm

    What does it mean to a photographer? I don’t know.
    Are you a photographer? Absolutely.
    You’re dad may have passed on the eye to be a talented photographer, but that you’re a talented writer too is down to you (and why you’ve been on our blogroll for quite awhile now). I imagine your dad is very proud!

    • Reply 2summers July 3, 2011 at 9:27 pm

      Wow, thanks Sophia. That’s a comment that will make a blogger’s day. Thanks also for including me on your blogroll — I’m going to check out your blog. Truth be told, my dad is also a very good writer so I think I owe him there too.

  • Reply cashancountry July 3, 2011 at 9:40 pm

    Hmm. Sorry I missed that talk too. I attended some crit sessions Goldblatt ran in the late seventies/early eighties. He was a tough person to convince but what stuck with me was his question, ” Why did you take the photo?” He really challenged people, and was not above telling you that if you took a picture knowing there was ‘stuff in the way’ or ‘hoping the shutter speed was sufficient ‘ then you were wasting your time, his time and also materials- chemicals paper etc. It seemed rather brutal back then but he earned my respect because there are a lot of ‘happy snappers’ who now and then make a good pic but cannot tell you how or why they did it. C’est la vie, people will say, “Who cares? It’s a great image, accident or not”. Does it become art , documentary or just a random image? He was kind behind his gruff exterior, and encouraged us to explore ‘light, form and emotion’. Something like that, … the ‘craft’ of photography was big then , not sure if he was pro or con or indifferent, I know he did not care much for too much cleverness in the darkroom. Sorry for the speech! Goldblatt strikes me as a kind of Robert Capa/ Jao Silva. He is a complete master of his medium.
    Great post as ever!

    • Reply 2summers July 3, 2011 at 9:43 pm

      Thanks for the comment, as ever! What is a crit session?

      • Reply cashancountry July 7, 2011 at 7:36 am

        We brought pictures we had made and let people comment on them. When all had had their say he took over the discussion, asking the why’s and wherefores and often disagreeing with the more destructive remarks of other participants. I had moved several times and my darkroom was packed up so had no new or current pics. It was fascinating though and a big step up from being a casual photographer. Rather like college seminars. There was a good cross section of people there, some very talented amateurs, as well as a few pros or people who used photography as a part of their main occupation, I remember there was an architect there.

  • Reply lisa@notesfromafrica July 13, 2011 at 3:34 pm

    Great post – loved all the old photographs your father took! I agree that you’ve inherited some of his talent.

    We may not all be photographers in the same league as Goldblatt, but for me it’s a wonderful and relaxing hobby. In the same way somebody who is not a professionally trained chef, can enjoy and be good at cooking and have that as a hobby. I get so absorbed when I’m out on a photo walk.

    • Reply 2summers July 13, 2011 at 9:27 pm

      Lisa, I love getting so many comments from you all at once 🙂 I really enjoy photography as a hobby too, and I’m really glad to have discovered it. You’ll have to come to JHB sometime and go on one of our photowalks!

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