Shalom Mushwana’s photographs speak about belonging

“I’ve had this fascination with the iconic nature of the black and white image and its heritage and history in Africa. Though struggle documentary photography and early colonial photography is something I love to superimpose on contemporary settings, I like the conceptual baggage attached to some of these formal image qualities. I feel like it speaks to a history of struggle and colonialism that is inherent in my experience of the world thus far.”

Shalom Mushwana is a documentary photographer from Makhanda who moved to Johannesburg in 2016 to embark on studies at the Market Photo Workshop with the hopes of building on his career as a freelance photographer. However, the first part of his stay in the region was rather uneventful and he spent a lot of time by himself developing the conceptual axis of his work that unfolded such as multi-culturalism, national identity, globalisation and their intersection within contemporary South African identity.

Making use of his lens, Shalom navigates issues of belonging as an English speaking Black South African and explains that this method aids in his understanding of himself as someone that does not fit preconceived notions of Blackness and masculinity.

“I’m essentially interested in the relationships people have to spaces, and the often odd juxtaposition between people within disparate cultural spaces. I think the message that I’d like read through my work is indeed a sombre one, a longing to be placed, to belong whilst simultaneously dealing with the fluidity of the development of social and cultural identities in contemporary South Africa. I try to draw parallels between my personal lived experience, family life, friendships, buildings and spaces.”

Shalom relates memory to photographic style arguing that the way a person photographs, or in his case at least, is relative to the way in which he chooses to remember making use of his ability to record facts as a way of solidifying history and remembrance for himself.

“There’s a melancholy to my images that draws upon my viewpoint and position in life.”

What haunts about Shalom’s depictions is the traditionally composed vs oftentimes morose, Frankensteinesque or even banal subject matter interspersed with portraiture. His topics range from architectural shots, almost survey-like imagery including images of traffic or simply a pick-up truck standing outside a lonesome house. This is chased by a funeral procession that seems as though the image was constructed via traditional montage practice and we are confronted by a near unhuman like depiction of a woman with a large uncooked fowl mounted on her head. Finally, we meet a sitter who unlike in most of Shalom’s images, confronts the viewer with his soft yet stern expression fashioned in nothing but a skirt that covers the lower half of his body. He proudly shows his naked torso and we get a sense that this image reflects directly to its author.

As an amateur just starting out with his black and white photographic depictions, Shalom intently studied classical and traditionally lensed projects such as Foto Press’97 a collation of documentary and press images which made a clear impression on his approach today. What is interesting about Shalom’s work is that it most definitely does not fall under what the first understandings of documentary or reportage imagery was. This initial understanding was factual imagery created for the purpose of accompanying a story in a publication and did not include confusing imagery, and secondly were images that had a clear story and could be esteemed without the accompaniment of text.

Though Shalom’s images contain a naturalistic approach there is something odd about it, pain and loss are oftentimes subject matter but somehow it reminds of the work of Nicholas Nixon created in the late 80’s. Similar to Nixon, Shalom’s work looks at human pain and loss, suffering but shows people, events, places for what they really are; people are not made more grotesque and neither are they flattered; all is presented in a neutral tone and it is this almost unemotional traditional approach that makes Shalom’s work so riveting and unsettling. As with new documentary, Shalom’s work has the ability to focus on a specific individual, an individual story, something that the traditional understandings of this practice did not condone.

With 2019 on our doorstep Shalom has great aspirations for the year and shares that he is developing his eye as a cinematographer. Besides that, he will be studying Fine Art. With a photographic practice that has quite a level of sophistication about it as well as an extremely developed sense of self it is enamouring to think about the bright future of this creative multi talent.

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