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Photography is a living language

One of the most progressive and boundary-breaking training institutions in South Africa, The Market Photo Workshop, is turning 30 this year. Creative Feel takes a look at the origins of this institution and how it has impacted the lives of over 1 000 young South Africans.

Market Photo Workshop photography South Africa
Foundation student preparing for the darkroom PHOTO ©Sipho Gongxeka

In the introduction to the book Sharp: The Market Photography Workshop (2002, edited by Brenton Maart and TJ Lemon), the late world-renowned photographer David Goldblatt explains his reasons for founding the Market Photo Workshop thusly: In the 1980s, ‘for young black people, there was a dearth of facilities in which they might learn visual literacy and photography. There was a need for something that would be easy to access, that would impart visual literacy and basic photographic skills…
     ‘The Photography Workshop wasn’t a sudden idea. It was a gradual process that took several years to take shape. A number of black people who came to exhibitions at the Market Photography Gallery had asked where they might learn photography. That was the spark to a vague idea that had been germinating for some time. I started working on it and looking for funds in 1986…
     ‘In the course of my work I had met Jeremy Ractliffe, the director of Murray & Roberts in charge of the company’s “social responsibility” efforts. Jeremy was very sympathetic to the idea of a Workshop and suggested an approach to the Douglas Murray Trust… Joyce Ozynski, a leading art critic with a particular interest in photography, and I drew up a funding proposal which, I suspect, Jeremy steered through the appropriate committee…
     ‘With funding, I was able to make a firm commitment of a small salary to Gillian Cargill, a photographer for whose work and ideals I had a high regard… Gill was our first teacher and director and everything rolled into one…
     ‘Of course, each of the people who have run the Workshop and taught there has had their own ideas and values. But there has been a concern from the beginning that the Workshop should not simply be a minor technical college where all that we do is teach technique. There are moral or ethical questions that arise in the making and using of photographs, and I think we would be failing if we did not give students an awareness of them and so lead them to question the values that they bring to their photography.’

Market Photo Workshop photography South Africa
Market Photo Workshop PHOTO ©Bonga Ndlovu

     In the same publication, Ozynski says: ‘The emphasis was on good photography and documentary photography. That was what the vision was about. It was for people who cared about photography, [who] wanted to learn how to take good photographs and who didn’t have access to any other form of tuition…
     ‘David carried on the work that he had been doing very informally from home, and that was mentoring young photographers. So he had a very great determination to get this Photo Workshop going.’
     In an interview with Creative Feel, John Fleetwood shares some of his memories from his 20-plus years being associated with the Market Photo Workshop. After doing a short course at the Market Photo Workshop in 1992 (taught by famed photojournalist TJ Lemon), Fleetwood fell in love with photography and went on to complete his honours in photography and pursued a career in the advertising world. In 1997, he rejoined the Market Photo Workshop as a trainer. ‘The manager at that stage was Candace Blase and Cedric Nunn was the head – he was quite important for me in terms of the development. After they left, Germaine Horowitz took over and I think it was Germaine who conned me into thinking about accepting the position as head of the Photo Workshop. When she left, she introduced me to David and apparently that was an interview. They then offered me the position.’
     Fleetwood spent 14 years as the head, from 2002 to December 2015, ‘but I’m still engaged in so many ways. I think the most memorable moments for me were working with people that were just fantastic. I think there was that very first moment that I felt things came together and that was with my colleagues Ingrid Masondo, Kirsten Doermann and Wilson Johwa. That was the moment where things started to already shift. There was a fast-tracking of what we were doing and it felt to me as if, with that group of people, there was a real purpose in sharing and thinking around where we wanted to go. I think the other very important group of people that were critical for the development of the Photo Workshop was the advisory board that was there with me from the beginning. David Goldblatt, Jo Ractliffe, Cedric Nunn, Les Phillips, Rory Bester, Peter McKenzie, Dennis Da Silva and Andrew Tshabangu. What made that special was that there was a sense of real energy because these people were practicing photographers and individuals in the field.

Market Photo Workshop photography South Africa
Participatory Photo Project in Musina. © Madoda Mkhobeni

     ‘I also worked very closely with David because his interest had extended long after he founded it. I think what was very important was that he never saw it purely as a space for learning photography only but as a school for learning photography and visual literacy. The distinction is understanding that images have got power and that we read those images in a society in different ways and that this is what we need to learn as photographers. It’s not just teaching how to use a camera or finding good lighting, but very much looking at society, at the community.
     ‘It always had to do with people, it always had to do with young photographers being successful. When people like Nontsikelelo Veleko and Zanele Muholi started to achieve success internationally, it was also very special for us because it meant that our community was successful.
     ‘One of the most amazing moments was one of our students who came from a really deep, deep rural area and joined the Photojournalism and Documentary Photography Programme (PDP) class and really struggled in the beginning. He struggled with English, with Johannesburg, with money, and then when the PDP class finished that year, he was the first to get a full-time job. That was a really special moment.
     ‘Another amazing part of my job was being involved in the crit sessions and seeing how students were progressing. It’s kind of like reading a newspaper. Reading the photographs of students is like understanding what is happening around you, but you don’t get just the headlines, you get the very intimate, day-to-day stories of photographers who are dealing with very personal issues, self-expression and finding themselves.
     ‘When I started as head, the courses were part-time courses. Students had eight or ten sessions of four hours each, so it didn’t really prepare people to understand all the nitty gritties of the technical part, nevermind the much-more involved discussions around visual literacy and visual culture. In 2005, we started introducing a new curriculum that was more long-term and a more time-intensive programme. The beginners course was changed into the foundation course and became eight full weeks instead of eight sessions, and that really shifted what people could learn.
     ‘The strong transition in our courses was between 2005 and 2007 and we then had a template that we refined annually. Photography is a living language that keeps on changing, so I don’t think photography can ever say “now the course is done.” It’s now a complete course, but it will always be a course that will have to change.

Market Photo Workshop photography South Africa
Lebohang Kganye, Market Photo Workshop, Market Square PHOTO ©Siphosihle Mkhwanazi

     ‘For the next 30 years, the wish for me is that they would stay true to the function of giving the opportunity to young photographers to learn photography so that we can all become richer, so that we can see what’s happening in the world around us, but also to think of photographers as people who bring social consciousness to us. It’s really turned around a lot of people’s lives and given them ways to express themselves and change their lives. I certainly hope that the Photo Workshop has a long life, there’s been a lot of passion and energy and it continues so I think that hopefully, that energy makes something.’
     Ismail Mahomed, CEO of the Market Theatre Foundation, says: ‘The pioneering spirit and the determination to remain relevant to South Africa’s sociopolitical context has earned the Market Photo Workshop a reputation that is globally acknowledged. As a leading institution that has unearthed talent and produced alumni who are able to take their places in the global arena, the Market Photo Workshop is one of South Africa’s leading champions in photography. Thirty years after its founding, the Market Photo Workshop is a tribute to those who founded it, served it and who continue to take the school into newer territories.’
     The Market Photo Workshop was recently awarded the prestigious 2018 Principal Prince Claus Award and a number of its graduates have been awarded coveted awards. In addition to its annually reviewed curriculum, the Market Photo Workshop also has numerous public engagement programmes, which include mentorships, exhibitions, public photography workshops, seminars and internships.
     Through its public programming, photography has been utilised for purposes of promoting social cohesion through engaging with issues of migration, identities, gender and sexuality, politics and democracy in post-apartheid South Africa. Some of the programmes hosted were the Sex Work and Migration public project in partnership with the African Centre for Sex Work and Migration; the Women in Mentorship programme; the Johannesburg Photo Umbrella, a collaboration with the Brighton Photo Biennale; Transitions: South Africa, an exhibition comprised of work produced by students, mentorship and fellowship recipients at the Market Photo Workshop from 2008 to 2018 that was recently on show at The Bronx Documentary Centre, New York City; and the Joburg Harare Photography project, just to name a few.

     The Market Photo Workshop has produced some of the most influential photographers on the continent, including Themba Hadebe, Jodi Bieber, Zanele Muholi, Lebohang Kganye, Sabelo Mlangeni, Nontsikelelo Veleko, Alon Skuy and Nokuthula Mbatha.
     Today, the Market Photo Workshop continues to thrive under the leadership of Lekgetho Makola. Looking forward to the next 30 years, Makola says, ‘The Market Photo Workshop has now fully established itself as a leading culture and development photographic space in South Africa, with measurable global influence. This significant achievement propels the space to begin to look into establishing an impactful photographic infrastructure, both physical and intellectual, as an interactive public resource to support the conservation and use of continental contemporary photography. This space will host and enhance production of new knowledges through photographic research attached to the Photo Workshop resource centre. Critical photographic content will be created to support development of arts and culture curriculum for schools and institutions of higher learning. A curriculum that would eventually be accessible beyond the Market Photo Workshop, throughout Africa and the world. We would like to eventually offer our courses qualification or course modules in partnership with relevant established institution of higher learning both locally and globally.  Finally, there is this vision of establishing a Pan-African inspired Photographic Museum, both in physical and virtual form, which would serve both contemporary practice and historic photo archives relating to the ethos of Market Photo Workshop in South Africa and the Region.’

To keep up-to-date with the latest arts and culture news in South Africa, purchase the June 2019 issue of Creative Feel or subscribe to our monthly magazine from only R180.00 to R365.00 per year! SUBSCRIBE HERE!

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