The Edge of Town by Graeme Williams
Societies that have undergone extended periods of trauma are faced with huge challenges as they attempt to create a new order. Post-Apartheid South Africa is not only coming to terms with its new democracy, it is also attempting to break down racial divides and create a country without extreme economic disparities. As such it is a rich cameo of social transformation, the reconciling of differences and the possibilities and impossibilities of true metamorphosis.
This essay emerged out of an interest in the progress and process of integrating the economic and socially marginalized communities – those existing on the literal and figurative edges of town. Under Apartheid, people were not only economically disadvantaged, but also discriminated against racially. Since the 1994 transition to democratic rule much has changed, but in the lives of individuals struggling to survive, many hardships remain.
I have been continually struck by the paradoxical and fragmented nature of the process and I wanted to develop a visual language to communicate the imperfect, but human process of change.
As I moved through the spaces occupied by marginalized communities I collected fragments from people’s lives to build a mosaic. This mosaic forms a picture of the challenges, changes, frustrations and joys experienced by people who are attempting to move from the shadows into the centre stage of life.
In 2009, for the first time, youth born in a post-Apartheid South Africa became eligible to vote. The initial excitement of transition is over and a new society is taking form. It is an opportunity to look for the signs of change and lack of change and build a new picture of what the country has become.
On a broader level it is a reflection of the ‘push’ towards integration but the often equal and opposite ‘pull’ towards disintegration, and that whilst change is often longed for, it is also resisted.
In order to accentuate the fragmented nature of the process of change, I chose to avoid a narrative approach to the subject and aimed rather to build a mosaic of images that can be better described as a stream of consciousness.
I also wanted to avoid my habitual position of observing and photographing a subject from a strongly objective standpoint. The way I went about this was to make use of layers of visual information and also to photograph from a position that would communicate something more intimate.
To produce a layering effect, I included at least two or three points of visual focus within each image. Rather than creating a decisive moment for the viewer to focus on, I wanted the viewer’s eye to be drawn to various points within the frame creating a tension, and at the same, a sense of space. By avoiding an obvious explanation to the image, the opportunity is created to explore a wider view of the subjects’ lives and perhaps allow for a feeling or mood to permeate. At the outset of the project I photographed in B/W, but then realized that colour added another element that expanded the options of focus within the frame.
In order to break the observer position, I resisted forming an image in my mind or through the camera until I was physically close to my subjects. The photographs are made in the space that one would normally consider as ‘personal space’.
By photographing from a position physically close to my subjects, I allowed elements of chance and spontaneity to enter the frame. Unexpected juxtapositions, incomplete bodies and unconventional perspectives add further tensions to the compositions.
During the four-year project I traveled to over 100 towns within South Africa.