Can you ever be at home in this world?


HIDDEN: A foreigner peers through a gap in the fence while angry South Africans protest outside the premises in Johannesburg. Photograph by Alon Skuy. 24 February 2017.

A MAN CRADLES a baby’s head with searing gentleness as he squeezes himself and the child under a barbed wired fence. You don’t know if the child is alive or dead, but can see the wedding ring on his finger and the fear and excruciating pain on his face. And even before you know the context, if you are a human being in this world, you empathise. This could be you, running away with the life of your child in your hand. This exhibition of work by veteran photographers Alon Skuy and James Oatway will burn itself into your mind’s eye as it must: it’s a testimony to the madness of our society in an attempt to breach that ‘never again’ moment.

More than that, this body of over 60 photographs, drawing from the scene of xenophobic catastrophe from 2008 and onwards in various pockets of violent South Africa, is so potent, you can feel the heat of the images as you stand in front of them. You can hear the anger of the approaching mob, and feel the rumble of the context: there’s no place to hide. The collection of photographs on show here is  a profound tribute to the strength of gut, soul and eye of these two men, and all the other intrepid photographers before them and after them who witness horrors happening from behind their lenses and capture them for perpetuity.

And yes, indeed: a whole range of moral fingers get pointed at work of this nature, about the presence of the photographer in the scene. You look at Oatway’s  sequential images which saw Mozambican migrant Emmanuel Sithole being stabbed to death in 2015 and understand the 28 second time lapse between the first and the last. And that all the photographer could do was his job. But it also makes you think about how exposed these photographers are in a context which is not immediately theirs and a sense of violence which can spill without vision or reason into their lives at any moment.

Killing the Other is an essay about xenophobia. It’s a true account of what happened and continues to happen in contexts where people from elsewhere are perceived as a threat to people from here. It’s about how history repeats itself, but it’s also a tiny slice of what makes PTSD happen in the life and sensibility of a media professional. You look at these works and think of what Dean Hutton or the photographers associated with the notorious Bang Bang club in the 1980s – or people in the cut and thrust of any war – weathered by being in the important and terrible thick of things.

The images are not all explicitly violent. Some of them are about people making a life in a new place. They’re about a terror of the unanticipated. And the vulnerability of a person in the eye of a mob maddened by bloodlust. Curated with empathy and wisdom, the experience of the exhibition is focused and direct.

You need to take the time to look at each of these works individually and allow it to reverberate through your sense of self, in this exhibition. It’s not a show that you can glance through flippantly: it’s something that will touch you in your sense of community.

  • Killing the Other by James Oatway and Alon Skuy is at the Johannesburg Holocaust and Genocide Centre in Forest Town, until July 1. Call 011 640 3100.
  • The centre boasts a comfortable, well-designed and immensely pleasant coffee shop called Issy’s, which you can read about here.

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