Photography and the occult/Sassen

I have always admired Viviane Sassen’s photography. Many years ago I met her commercial agent in London and saw her early fashion work which was tight. Tight in the sense that it was simply composed, and lit with a raw, uncompromising flash-on-camera. So simple and tight, in fact, that is had a sort of Tonka Toy naivety and would make a good lesson for photography students on how to compose.

To me the way in which the over-produced fashion magazines of the late 90s/early 00s allowed pure fashion and fine art to coexist has oiled her transition over to the high art world. It’s good: her work doesn’t engender the typical spaghetti artspeak which more dyed-in-the-wool art photography can spark, and it’s beautiful. A New York Times critic who was obviously battling for words, and hadn’t been to Africa, said, ‘Sassen’s images ‘convey how strangely vivid and tantalizingly sad the world can seem to a mind and eye divested of the usual filters of perception’. Right buddy.

The work is fairly brutal because the people and faces which appear in her photography are generally cast in shadow and reduced to parts in a strict formal plan. I suspect that her conscience is pricking and she would rather sever heads than make millions from smiling/abject black faces. One also gets the feeling that she has no clue whatsoever about what runs Africa so she has decided to address it on a totally superficial level, and I don’t think the photographs go a helluva lot further than that.

The lack of clues in relation to identity in her work and her technical and formal aplomb do, however, make for compelling viewing because solving such beautiful puzzles in such pristine, high-white, environments is always a whole lot of fun.

I made these shots in 2004.


NOOR images masterclass/the witness bear

When I first arrived in Cape Town I attended a couple of public photo crit sessions during which the art component and the documentary component panned each other with tomatoes. The artists clutched their heads and used phrases like ‘I-den/tity’(’90s) and the documentary photographers used phrases like ‘bear witness’ while scrunching up their bad taste windbreakers with the a clenched fist in the heart region. The NOOR agency are running a masterclass-apply here- in Cape Town soon. NOOR is a famous photo agency who supply many publications with content which is generated by the ‘documentary’ photographic method. If they don’t pack out their class with their kind I am sure that the same sorts of two-bit fight will be had again. Of course if the NOOR photographerssat around in regions of ‘civil and political unrest, environmental issues, war, famine, and natural disasters’ and discussed, at length, the implications of new technologies on their trade it wouldn’t work, but it is surprising that their manifesto doesn’t mention this at all. It will be interesting to see if they do engage with the more abstract components of news making and photography like the way in which the stories are presented and who reads them. I made this photograph on the Cape Flats in 1998. The entire family was inebriated and the medic is checking to see if the stab wound has penetrated through to the lung of the stabbed. It was made in a time when I privileged form and the instant over most other things.

Stab Victim, Mannenberg, Cape Town, 1998


Rippling yellow shirt

I made this shot last weekend at Muizenberg Beach. The spots in the sea are people and when my friend, Professor Michael Godby, saw it he said, ‘It’s a lesson in diminishing perspective’ with a smile on his dial. Before Andreas Gursky began to utilise photoshop he made a book called ‘Photographs’ which, in part, is an observation on how the human organism arranges itself. It’s beautiful.

From the preface to the Gursky book: ‘When I saw Andreas Gursky’s large-format print entitled ‘St. Moritz’(1991) for the first time, I immediately felt it was familiar. I couldn’t say exactly why. It was only much later that I recalled Alfred Hitchock’s film ‘North by North West’. The English director had a penchant for the subliminal and the concealed which really come into its own whenever his images suggested a sweeping view and a clear outlook’

BTW ‘North by North West’ has the best opening title sequence ever.

Tom on TV



Big Issue Interview

The Big Issue artist interview page

The Big Issue interviewer asked me if the work which I did addressed the decline of the white regime. I replied thus,

‘I think it’s stretching it to say that the decline of the white regime is a theme in my work. That said, as a white man photographing South Africa, the decline of the “white regime” is going to permeate my photography. Maybe it’s implicit in what I do and maybe you are right, which is good because these subtexts mature with age and sometimes become poignant even if they were not planned that way.’

I got to thinking about how the context in which work is viewed changes over time and how work can change it spots. In Boksburg, by Goldblatt, particularly struck me as a body of work whose meaning has been adapted to current thinking, in hindsight of course. It has also struck me that had DG adopted a radically stylised approach Boksburg would probably not have weathered the fickle and choppy seas of criticism. The guy does have some wildly predictive Red Indian soothsayer genes, but I suspect his craft lies less in the ability to predict the future and more in his ability to denude the work of stylistic trickery thereby opening it up to a variety of contemporary interpretations. Viva.


Kimberley Hotel

While digging through my archives I was shocked and horrified to find a sequence featuring a lady of the night, a pool table and a beer bottle. These shots were made about 10 years ago.

The Kimberley hotel was a place in which many sorts of transaction occurred. A crack den was situated diagonally across the intersection on which the Kimberley lies and a man with whom I was acquainted used to be the runner. I think he has long since exited the Kimberley precinct. Although a poor man from the street he could always be found reading in the corner of the bar. Books by Daniel Defoe I think. He was a gentleman who somehow found himself running errands between a brothel and a crack den.

I will look in the second layer of Kimberley negs and see if he appears in his corner with Man Friday.


N1 reviews and interviews

I worked for the Sunday Times as a press photographer, early days, so I guess it’s only fair that they return the pound of flesh in review form. The review is by Oliver Roberts with whom I shared an immediate rapport.

Funnily enough the Rapport newspaper was one of the rags which didn’t review the show. Please also find paper reviews by the STAR, Mail and Guardian and the Citizen as well as a radio interview with SAFM’s Michelle Constant.

Matthew Patridge’s Mail and Guardian review:

The Road Trip

The road trip is never just about the road itself, its about the story that the road takes you on. As a medium, photography seems naturally suited to genre of the road trip. As a catalogue of time, its series of tangential points are designated with the immortalising importance, however minute, of the direction of the photographers’ lens.

Dave Southwood’s latest exhibition, ‘N1’ at the Goethe Institute on Jan Smuts Ave, is a just such a case in point. Using the N1 as an alibi for taking other pictures that parallel the journey, Southwood brings closer an investigation of the surfaces and textures of the classic road trip.

The N1 is a stretch of road that begins at the northern end of Buitengracht Street in Cape Town, just before the entrance to the waterfront, ending at the Beit Bridge borderpost on the Limpopo River. As a highway, it is one of the country’s main arteries, sluggishly meandering through five provinces.

One would therefore expect landscape to be the predominant feature in such a show. However Southwood’s desire for his to pictures to ‘communicate as phenomena’ in an almost ‘pre-cognitive state’ means that the nuances of everyday life are allowed to strongly permeate through the narrative of the exhibition.

Petrol stations naturally feature. Yet, in a testament to Southwood’s deliberate intention not to lock down an experience of the road and journey, they are not as you would expect. Rather they are suggested as points and gestures along the lies of a narrative, through subtle intimations such as colour and the lonely drift of people milling about outside a service stop.

The cracked porcelain of a wash hand basin in a dimly lit truck stop echoes the recurring, mundane experience that the show charts. Yet this tiny observation is juxtaposed with soaring and grand topographies. In an exquisitely printed image of a truck crossing a misty bridge, the tonal gradation of this invisible plane of vapour allows the viewer to become lost in the transience of the experience.

A single signpost against a blue sky on a barren lanscape reads ‘Love the Road Ahead’, whilst the horizontal red and yellow lines through the car window in another shot speaks of a respite from that very road. In this sense the exhibition takes us through a series of beginnings and ends, illuminating the distance inbetween. Attesting to this is the titles of the works which only provide the geographical co-ordinates of where each image was taken.

In this way the viewer is left to make sense of each picture themselves, giving Southwood’s unique mode of storytelling a typically open end. As style itself becomes a narrative mechanism, the medium colour format enhances the visual experience. The bright pink of jersey in the midday sun is blown out against a vivid azure sky.

What is more impressive is the range of photographic space and depth that the series investigates. In one of the few images of the actual N1, when the road narrows into single lanes as it passes through a jagged cut out section of hill, the detail in the shadows is fully visible. Here the technical ability of rendering a flash lit subject becomes a central concern of the work, giving the landscape an illuminating presence.

Considering the recent petrol crisis in the country, this exhibition serves make visible that which is normally disregarded through the tedious routine of travel. The ordinariness of a broken window-pane and the decomposing carcass of a cow is celebrated as a arc on a journey that dares to look and contemplate beyond the banality of blinkered everyday vision. Southwood’s images sift through the roadside junk, exploring light looking for, but not casting, meaning.

Runs until 14th – 26th July at the Goethe Institute on Jan Smuts.


This is my house

On Thursday last I met Paul Tesha from Dar Es Salaam. He is a quiet-spoken, polite guy who is an economic refugee from Tanzania. He was first in SA in 2006, but was deported back to his domicile on being caught. He returned in 2010.

He makes up part of a band of Tanzanians who live under a bridge in Cape Town. Last week all the men were forcibly removed but they have begun to trickle back into their previous place of residence.

So it is under these rarified and intense conditions that I engage with Paul.

‘Please show me where you live, Paul’ I ask.

He leads me to this portion of tar and says, ‘This is my house.’


I made a website for all people because, in the words of the inimitable DJ Koze, ‘all people is my friends’. Lightning strikes the Pot of Gold.



When I lived in Berlin I became friendly with Ida who studied at the same university. At the end of an evening of excited chit-chat, suggestive glances and witheld information at Club Duncker she invited me back to her apartment. I declined on account of a reason which, as it left my lips, seemed utterly ridiculous. A major fuck-up.

The following night I changed my mind(surprise surprise) and called Ida to take her up on her offer of the same morning. She said that the sell-by date of the offer had passed.

A few days later she came to my apartment and I gave her a glass of water for refreshment. I also made this portrait.

The body of water represents the crux of my relationship with Ida and will always remain suspended between the possibility of sex and a late-night, half-can of refrigerated tuna fisch.