South Africa - Photography

Graeme Williams: From photographing apartheid to fine art projects

"Two Dogs" (1999-2000)
"Two Dogs" (1999-2000) © Graeme Williams

Graeme Williams is a South African photographer, who spent much of his career capturing his country's transition to democracy and documenting post-apartheid. RFI met him at the Also Known As Africa (AKAA) art and design fair in Paris recently.


After years in the field, working for agencies such as Reuters, in 1994 Graeme Williams gave up photojournalism and began to focus on magazine features and other long term projects at home and abroad.

He explained how photographing conflict influenced his life and work and why he needed to change direction.

RFI: How did you start your career as a photographer in South Africa?

Graeme Williams: I have been a photojournalist along the way.

Initially under apartheid, the emphasis was on working on projects that showed the effects of apartheid on society.

Then South Africa went through the phase where transition was really on the cards, we knew that Mandela was coming out. During that time I worked for Reuters and it became like far more day to day hard news.

Then, post-apartheid, I had to find my own voice, my own reason for taking photographs. My work since then has been more contemplative and more personal projects that have taken five years to work on.

I look at social issues and I try to avoid what they call ‘poverty porn’, just pictures of terrible things.

I’m more interested of finding aspects in the society that have a beauty even though sometimes it’s a harsh beauty.

RFI: Can you explain what was the Bang-Bang Club?

Williams: The Bang-Bang Club was four photographers. There was a uniqueness to them because two of them won Pulitzers.

One was shot dead, one committed suicide and one recently lost his legs in Afghanistan. A book was written and a film was made about them 8 years ago.

They worked as a team of four, I worked in a team of two, just myself and another photographer. We kind of did the same things.

It was a very strange time to operate. As a war photographer normally you take on a plane and you leave your middle class life. You go to Sarajevo, Israel … and then you live a life of a war photographer and come back home.

But what was weird about our existence is that we got up in the morning, photographed the horror of the night before and there would be a gap because you had some time … then you slip back to your normal life.

You might during the weekend go to a barbecue with friends and at 3pm you could get a phone call to go back to the war zone. It was a real psychic split and it was strange.

It took about two years for me to shift from where I related to normal life to where I was unable to relate to normal life any further. That actual violence became the domain which I could relate to.

So it was a very strange split. I was here with friends but I didn’t know how to communicate with them.

Whereas when I was out in the field, I felt alive. It’s a kind of PTSD (Posttraumatic stress disorder) symptom.

My photo book Inner City was a way of exploring the isolation that I felt and how I could make my way back into normal life. If you can call South African life ‘a normal life’.

RFI: How did it influence your work today?

Williams: There’s an edge to all my work.

I try to bring some tension to the photographs so the photos are not just portraits or landscapes. They have something that will jars you and kind of set you off balance.

I think that’s possibly in my nature but it has also been accentuated by that period.
I now have no real will to follow violence and be a war photographer.

That sense of looking which I’ve retained is allowing myself to see things that are slightly out of place. Some people might not notice them because they are just in a normal environment all the time.

So it’s a way of looking.

RFI: Your photo series called Two dogs exhibited here at the AKAA art Fair was taken during a ‘normal’ day?

Williams: People respond to it incredibly well. It was taken on holiday actually.
It’s the story of two dogs.

These two dogs were nephew and niece but they were inseparable and they lived this incredible life. They had breakfast, walked over the dunes together, played on the beach literally for 12 hours.

They had remarkable energy, they would fish together. On these photographs they had decide to play with me.

These photographs have no edge and I think it’s because I was on holiday.

There’s a real sense of joy and freedom to them.

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