Rethinking documentary photography – A conversation with Giya Makondo-Wills

Giya Makondo-Wills is a young British-South African documentary photographer based in the UK. I had a conversation with her about her latest project They Came From The Water While The World Watched, within which she explores both sides of her heritage through the history of colonization and the clashing of beliefs.

Tell our readers about your journey as a photographer and the approach you have to your work.

I just enjoy working with people. It’s about human interaction and meeting people. I am able to explore and visualize things that I am interested in that I otherwise would not be able to do. Things around history and race. It might be impossible for me to put these into words in the same way that I can describe in pictures. Photography started as hobby. I used to take photos with my brother’s camera. I started studying photography when turned 18.

What kind of themes do you like to work with? Perhaps you would like to talk about this through other projects you have worked on?

I started an ongoing project around Coloursim titled I take these differences and make them bigger. In this project I work from the alleged speech by William Lynch, a speech which was given to slave owners in America. After a slave uprising he was brought from the Caribbean to teach slave owners how to control the slaves. In his speech he said if they put men against women, light skin people against dark skin people, the slave owners would be able to control the slaves. In the project I photographed various tests that have been used throughout history to separate people of colour. These are used in relation to the social media. I was on Instagram and saw a lot of hashtags related to light-skinned vs dark-skinned. I realized that the roots of these was in something that was implemented by Lynch. I find it interesting that that way of talking has continued.

I also started another ongoing project by photographing her two grandmothers. One lives in a township in South Africa and the other in suburbia in England. Both women are incredibly similar. In the work I explore themes around identity and aspiration.

Tell our readers about the title for your project They Came From The Water While The World Watched. Discuss how this relates to the themes you look at (i.e. clashing of beliefs, colonizer vs colonized, etc.)

I don’t really remember how I came up with the title. I think I was in a lecture and someone said something about water and then I started piecing it together. But the title is referencing the first ships that came and landed in SA. ‘While the world watched’ is effectively saying that no one did anything about it because it was deemed normal. I am talking about Europeans here. The work directly carries on with the work on my grandmothers, which is looking at it from two sides. Being brought up in UK and being half British half South African, I think it does give me that dual perspective on themes of Britishness and South Africaness. In the work I am trying to find little pieces of both sides of my heritage in exploring this idea of a clashing of beliefs. The title talks more about beginning of European colonization in South Africa.

sacred site

You deal with contested topics in this work. What made you feel you wanted to explore this in your work? Perhaps you would like to mention the research you conducted for this project as well as your creative process?

I came about it because my family in South Africa are pretty religious, Christian, but also have traditional ancestral beliefs. The combination of the two I have always found really interesting. The more I looked into themes around colonization it started springing up more and more – this kind of clash of beliefs and the attempt to rid a country of indigenous religion, which happened around the world. With regards to the research I conducted, I spent some time at the University of Johannesburg in their archives. But most of my research comes from talking to people. Especially with a subject like this, you have to have conversations with people. You are not always picking up a camera. Sometimes it’s just sitting and listening and observing, and sometimes you learn so much more this way. I get a more human perspective on it, because I don’t have a full understanding of it. I am just trying to understand people’s relationship with faith whilst looking at the historical implications of it.

Tell me about how you think photography helps you capture the themes you are trying to explore?

With this project in particular [They Came From The Water While The World Watched], it has given me the ability to visualize something that is hard enough to talk about. When you have a camera you can piece things together bit by bit, and you can make a story. Having a camera allows you to go into people’s lives and that is great because it becomes a two-way conversation. You make the pictures for your work and you can make pictures for other people. You can give them portraits or you can give them landscapes. And I really like that interaction. I am not just dipping in and out. I come back and I give people things and we continue our relationship. I think photography helps you build a relationship, and through the relationship themes are stronger. And they can also change completely. I can go into a project with one idea and come out of it with something completely different. It’s an amazing tool to be able to talk to people.

© giya makondo-wills 3

Elaborate more on your comment that, “This work looks from a new perspective regarding documentary photography and the western gaze.”.  How do you think your work deals with this?

I think that the Western gaze and documentary photography are two things that have come hand-in-hand. I have been writing about it recently, non-African photographers photographing sub-Saharan Africa. It’s really easy to exoticize, to stereotype. It is easy to have pre-conceived ideas of what a country on the African continent is like. What you learn in school and what you know historically, depending on where you are from. More often than not it is quite an outdated view of countries on the continent, and the continent as a whole. Documentary photographers still pander to these stereotypes today. So I’m just trying to give a different perspective, you know, being from the West. I just want to make sure that my work isn’t feeding these old stereotypes. I want to show real people – how they are, and how I know them to be. I have been going to South Africa on and off since I was born so it is a country that I know. And I want people to see the South Africa I know.

They Came From The Water While The World Watched will be shown on the 2nd of May at Assemblage in Johannesburg.

To keep up with Giya and her work, check her out on Instagram.

© giya makondo-wills 2


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