Poor Whites

Susanne Schleyer & Michael J.Stephan

Berlin, 2016.

Around 20 percent of South Africa’s white population are currently too poor to feed themselves. Despite the fact that the most affluent remain a white minority, and a black majority live in abject poverty, the deprived white / poor whites / white trash are society’s biggest losers. This group falls between two stools. They are located outside of the cities, hidden away in backyards, in deprived wilderness areas, or in camps with scarcely available drinking water and electricity.

Shame and pride. For weeks, Susanne Schleyer and Michael J. Stephan travelled to South Africa’s desolate areas and set up makeshift photographic studios along the way. This resulted in personal texts and 30 monochrome half-total frame photographs. The subjects were told to dress how they wanted. Some show up in their Sunday best. Others come as they are, and you sense the nightly contours, of many nights, and a life lived.

It is good to see the subjects away from their own environment, stripped of their props, all in similar imagery, backs against a stark white canvas. This type of limitation help us see the human. The years have not been kind to them. We see young lives looking as if they exist on overtime. Not only physically; something in their gaze seems to have collapsed. It is as if a light has been extinguished – if it ever was lit in the first place. Their eyes, although gazing into the lens, have a look of avoidance, of wanting to slip back into the backyard, nature, family, intoxication, church, sleep. Part of the confrontation is in this avoidance: we exist, but as an obstruction. We should not be there. This is a recurring attitude of the photographs: the gestures emphasise the feeling of redundancy. Arms hiding behind their backs, the crooked necks, the vaguely apologetic smiles, the direct yet inward gaze, the shame revealed by these attitudes and looks. But herein lies also anger and defiance and pride, luckily – perhaps, because shame and pride coexist side by side, of course; these subjects are not «only» poor whites – they are also humans.

To make up your life. «I was born 7. September 1986. My full name is Anna Cornelia D. Ok, I was really born on a ‘plot’ as you say in Afrikaans. It was in Pretoria, and the place is called….I can’t remember the name right now. I attended school at Pretoria Vootrekker-Euufees, from year one to seventh grade. Then, two months before college, I changed schools….I didn’t stay at the new school for long – it was Gerhard Maritz High School. I was only there for a couple of months before I left….It’s actually a private matter, but I will tell you anyway: I became pregnant. »

These are young lives that already seem to exist on overtime.

What stories do we want to tell about ourselves? A pillar at the exhibition venue displays the subjects’ stories about the big questions – perhaps some of the most important. Stories about childhood, family life, future prospects, hopes and dreams about a happy life. Several themes recur: large families, gymslip mothers, broken education, drugs, violence, frequent relocations; there is talk of God, lack of water, electricity and food, of growing up on farms where parents had to sell themselves to afford barracks on the farm fringes, and there is talk of a hope of being able to see their children grow up.

"Poor Whites" ©Susanne Schleyer & Michael J.Stephan, 2010, Auswahl aus der Ausstellung
“Poor Whites” ©Susanne Schleyer & Michael J.Stephan, 2010, Auswahl aus der Ausstellung

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