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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