Strategies of representation: South African photography of the HIV epidemic

Doctoral Thesis


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University of Cape Town

This thesis is concerned with how South African photographers have responded to the HIV epidemic. The focus is on the different visual, political and intellectual strategies that photographers have used to document the disease and the complex issues that surround it. The study considers the work of all South African photographers who have produced a comprehensive body of work on HIV and AIDS. This includes both published and unpublished work. The analysis of the photographic work is situated in relation to other histories including the history of photography in Africa, the documentation of the HIV epidemic since the 1980s, and the political and social experience of the epidemic in South Africa. The reading of the photographs is also informed by the contexts where they are published or exhibited, including the media, non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and aid organisations, and the fine art gallery and attendant publications. In addition to the theoretically informed analysis of the photographic projects, I interviewed the photographers in order to learn more about their intentions and the contributing factors that shape the production of their work. Interviews were transcribed and used to develop my analysis of their projects and working process. While a number of photographers are included in the thesis, the major focus is on David Goldblatt, Gideon Mendel, Santu Mofokeng and Gisèle Wulfsohn. This thesis is not a comparative study but rather seeks to differentiate between four very different approaches to representing HIV and AIDS in South Africa. I specifically chose to focus on projects that demonstrated alternative visual and intellectual forms of engagement with the experience of the HIV epidemic. The selection aimed to reveal the relationships between the working processes, the contexts of display and publication, and the visual languages the photographers employed. My interest lies in how and why the photographers documented this challenging subject. A close examination of South African photography reveals diverse and complex visual responses to the HIV epidemic. Importantly, some photographic projects challenge existing approaches and encourage alternative ways of looking at, and thinking about, the experience of the epidemic in the South African context.

Includes bibliographical references.