“Belonging” by Phillip Prodger

The Photographs of Katharine Cooper

On the face of it, Katharine Cooper’s photographs tell part of the story of two of the biggest political events of modern Africa: the collapse of Apartheid in South Africa in 1994, and the expulsion of white farmers from their homes in Zimbabwe by Robert Mugabe and his ZANU–PF party in 2000. These separate episodes, with deep roots in Africa’s colonial past, reversed centuries of government-sanctioned racial privilege. While many white Africans continued to prosper after these changes, others have seen profound reversals of fortune. It has been estimated that as many as 10%, or 450,000 whites in South Africa now live below the poverty line. In Zimbabwe, many have simply left. Although official records are not kept, it is currently believed no more than 50,000 white Zimbabweans live in the country, down from a peak of nearly 300,000 in the 1970s.

Cooper took the pictures in this book as part of a single extended trip through South Africa and Zimbabwe in 2013. Since she had the experience of living in both of these countries before emigrating to France in 2005, where she currently resides, the trip was both an exploration and a homecoming.

In her subjects Cooper reveals anxiety, insecurity, and an unrequited love for the continent her subjects have come to call home. As tense as a coiled spring and fragile as glass, her pictures seldom resolve easily, instead revealing themselves by degrees through partially resolved narratives and ambiguous expressions. Where joy may be found in her photographs, it is tempered by vulnerability. Where there are smiles, they are typically uncertain.

It was perhaps inevitable that Cooper would begin her journey in the famous white squatter camp known as Coronation Park, in Krugersdorp west of Johannesburg. Although her pictures preference neither poverty nor wealth, here Cooper photographed one extreme of the current socioeconomic situation, where white Africans struggle to subsist. Her pictures of the Coronation Park settlement are distributed throughout the book.

Children, with their uncanny ability to live in the present, are the primary focus of Cooper’s photography. They are particularly poignant subjects, since it is during childhood that notions of identity and self are formed. Swept along by political and economic forces they can barely understand, let alone control, they are emblematic of the families to which they belong.

The square format of Cooper’s Hasselblad camera results in box-like compositions, visually reinforcing the theme of containment. The presence of animals adds deeper meaning—in Trafford and Bubba Kush, the Hare (p.8), for example, the rabbit becomes an analogue of the boy himself, small and defenseless, the boy gently cradling the animal around its neck. In Beth and the Giant Snail (p.13) a girl holds her one hand to her chin in contemplation, as if weighing what to do with the helpless snail held by the other hand.  Simoné Vlooh and Oogies the Kitten (p.31) embrace, but awkwardly—seldom has the company of a soft warm animal proved so discomfiting.

Cooper’s photographs eloquently remind us that a portrait is as much a representation of the maker as it is of the ostensible subject. Her pictures are both seen and felt. Even as we sense the equivocal positions of the white Africans she photographs, we also grasp the affection, dislocation and pride that Cooper herself feels as a lifelong expatriate.

Cooper is a social documentary photographer in its purest sense. In recent years, the term social documentary has been challenged, as the word ‘document’ would seem to imply rapportage without affect. Yet Cooper flourishes in the space between representation and expression, precisely the same territory successfully negotiated by predecessors such as Lewis Hine, Dorothea Lange, and more recently Mary Ellen Mark and Susan Meiselas, to name just a few. Her work also resonates with a distinguished tradition of South African photography, particularly David Goldblatt, whose 1975 book Some Afrikaners remains one of the pivotal works of South African photography.

Few black people appear in this book. The decision to focus on one of southern Africa’s numerous minorities is a conscious one, but should not be mistaken as triumphalism, or an apology for the colonial enterprise. To the contrary, the story of white Africans, while unique, is in an important sense the story of all diaspora. The question of belonging is universal. Home is a complex term, felt in our very sinew, but difficult to define. We understand when we have lost it, but rarely do we know its true borders.

Phillip Prodger
Head of Photographs
National Portrait Gallery, London