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Culture, Reality

Fishing for Eels

by Sean O’Toole, image by Marc Shoul / 09.04.2010

The word “subtle” does not appear in the Ambrose Bierce’s Devil’s Dictionary, a satirical book of alphabetised entries conceived and ordered by a gun-totting journalist working out of San Francisco in the latter half of the 1800s. This is only fitting.

Subtlety, the art of pillow fighting in front of an audience of boxing fans, has no place in the world of politics. And politics, as Bierce writes in his self-styled “comic dictionary”, is both “a means of livelihood affected by the more degraded portion of our criminal classes” and “a strife of interests masquerading as a contest of principles”.

Photography, which in Bierce’s time was an infant medium practiced by quixotic men who lumbered across the landscape with cumbersome equipment and hid under black clothes, fares little better in his estimation. He describes it as a “picture painted by the sun without instruction in art”.

Politics and photography: it is a love affair that entertains no third parties.

In a week of abrupt burps (Julius Malema) and fatal sighs (Eugene Terreblanche), photo editors around the country have all been faced with a simple predicament: finding a decent picture of these eels. (Bierce on politicians: “an eel in the fundamental mud upon which the superstructure of organised society is reared.”) It is, of course, a perpetual dilemma: the more degraded portion of our criminal classes is always at work. The feedback loop this creates is endless. Photographers will always be asked to go fishing.

David Goldblatt. Robert Mugabe. Harare, 1986. Courtesy: Michael Stevenson. Collection: Michael Graham-Stewart.

It’s time to reflect. In January 2005, I asked David Goldblatt a simple question in response to a 1986 photograph he took of Robert Mugabe for the magazine Leadership, of which he was photo editor at the time. What was it like photographing men of stature? I quote his response in full.

“I was quite ruthless, ruthless in the sense that my brief was to get a strong portrait of the subject, possibly for the cover and certainly for the inside pages of the magazine. In order to do this knew I had to have certain prerequisites met. I could, for example, not allow them to bully me into accepting the furniture that they regarded as their best from a public relations point of view – Gomma Gomma deep armchairs – unless I wanted to do a hatchet job. If I wanted to do a hatchet job that was the best thing they could offer me because you put someone into a deep armchair and they sink down. When you see them from the front you see their knees and a bit of their face.

“I would insist… sometimes it became quite tense because they had their public relations press people and their G-men and security people. All of them were absolutely outraged that I would want to photograph Kenneth Kaunda, for example, on a chair I found in the recesses of the kitchen. And the same with Mandela. Karl Niehaus was his press secretary at the time. We came there at five o’clock in the morning and I immediately rejected all the deep armchairs and couches and said I want to look around in the kitchen. I found one in the kitchen.

David Goldblatt. Joachim Chissano, president of Mozambique, in his office in Maputo. 1987. Courtesy Michael Stevenson. Collection Michael Graham-Stewart.

“I said, ‘This one will do very nicely thank you.’ Karl Niehaus was outraged. He said, ‘You can’t photograph Mr. Mandela in that.’ I replied, ‘But yes I can. I have to photograph him and not the furniture.’ This used to lead to quite strong confrontations. He eventually conceded to my wish and eventually apologised to me. But it took some convincing. I had the same trouble with Joaquin Chisano in Mozambique.

“I also had trouble with lighting because I never as a matter of principle but really to throw myself into the deep, I never took lights with me. At the most I would have a reflector or space blanket. And so I would come into, for example, Mugabe’s office or PW Botha, the same thing, and it was heavily curtained right round for security. I would tell the incumbents that I wanted to open some curtains and they would say, ‘No you can’t.’ I would say, ‘I am sorry but I am going to have to.’ [Laughs] Very reluctantly they would allow me to open one or two curtains, but that was all I needed.”

Image by Marc Shoul

That was 1986. What about now? I emailed Marc Shoul. He is routinely asked to go fishing for eels. In the last year he has photographed Jacob Zuma for the Financial Times, Eugene Terreblanche and Julius Malema for Time, and so on. Given the news value of such portraits, timing is always crucial. The Terreblanche portrait, he says, was made “after he did his fire and brimstone thing to a crowd”. The photographer requested permission to shoot one picture. After the third click of his camera’s shutter, Terreblanche stated: “You said one photo, you bastard.”

“Zuma was cool,” he says “I was supposed to shoot him the next day and got a call from his PA on a Sunday afternoon, asking me to do it in an hours time. I was in Brackpan at the time so moved out of there quickly. It was the day before he was let off for one of the crimes he allegedly did. He was cool and calm; he gave me about 20 minutes. I tried to get him to go outside and he tuned me something to the extent that he can’t have a white guy take him outside and photograph him in front of his guards. He also didn’t want to put on formal shoes so I had to shoot him without his feet in the frame.”

What is the hardest part of photographing especially politicians?

“Time is short, you can’t chew the fat with them and get to know what makes them tick. There is no time to mess around or for your camera mess with you. It’s a rush in and out, and always a little disappointing because you don’t have the time to craft the image much. And you can’t really go to a location that may be better. Some of them are better in front of a crowd. When its one on one, they are just people who don’t really have a clue on how important it is to work with the photographer.”

Opening image by Marc Shoul.

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