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photography by Imraan Christian

Imraan Christian: The Decolonizing Gaze

Imraan Christian is a young photographer and filmmaker from the Cape Flats whose work is  capturing international attention.  After graduating from the University of Cape Town in 2014, he was on hand to document the explosive events of Fees Must Fall in October 2015. His  photographs are a powerful record of the wild days of student protest erupting across the country, with his keen eye capturing both the passion of the young protesters and the violence of the state response.  While much of the media tried to infantilise and criminalise the student’s demands, Christian lets the slogans on placards wielded by demonstrators speak for themselves.  An image captured on a march from UCT reads- ‘post-apartheid racist society says: you are poor because you are uneducated. Go get a degree! Colonial elitist universities say you are too poor to take yourself out of poverty.  # we are fucked’.  Such eloquence contrasts with the brutal images of police meeting students with tear gas, stun grenades and assault.  The establishment’s inability to understand young people is captured in a darkly humorous image of higher education minister Blade Nzimande standing behind a gate with a look of total incomprehension while a protest storms around him.

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Christian’s powerful photographs quickly went viral on social media, and were syndicated in international publications. But these photographs are just one aspect of his artistic project. His diverse portfolio ranges from the South African Film and Television Awards nominated documentary Jas Boude (co-directed with Georgina Warner) to numerous photography projects .  This work is united by the desire to confront structural racism and inequality, and its corrosive effects on the lives of young people.  In the series Rise From The Roots, he used the fashion editorial format to ‘subvert and transcend the accepted colonial narrative of a group of black men being dangerous and/or criminals’, by showing the elegant clothes of the ToneSociety collective on the streets of Cape Town. A similar subversion occurs in Jas Boude, which follows a group of skateboarders from the dangerous Valhalla Park into the city centre.  Through the film’s intimate focus on character the spatial inequalities of Cape Town, and South Africa more generally, become glaringly apparent.  Behind the image of a gilded tourist trap, the city is characterised by catastrophic violence, poverty and trauma. The State is all too happy to have these problems contained in ‘peripheral’ spaces on the Cape Flats.  Black and coloured youth are trapped between a lack of formal opportunities, criminal stereotypes and a system eager to send them to the prison or the cemetery.  Christian is challenging this bleak picture, through both his work and career.  At a young age, he has challenged hateful typecasting of young coloured people by winning international acclaim through his sheer mastery of visual mediums.

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His more recent projects blend political documentary and protest art. Death of a Dream is a stunning and disturbing response to state repression, in South Africa and beyond. In it, student activists are decked in funeral black. One stares at the camera with simulated bullet wound, fired by a sinister masked gunmen behind her.  The point is clear- both the physical death of young bodies, and the symbolic destruction of their hope for a better future.  The photos are staged so perfectly that the activists almost seem like mythological figures of death, their gazes drilling into the viewer’s skull.  Along with documenting contemporary South Africa, Christian’s imagery resonates with global issues of power, control and oppression.

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