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.
There is talk of protection. Of feeling loyal to one’s family and past. There are contradictions – as with 64-year old Myra with a cross on her chest, who explains about her childhood: «I have lived a very happy life. I was one of ten children – we were five brothers and five sisters. I grew up on a farm….I would never have swapped that life for a city life, not at all…. Even if you are not surrounded by gold and glitter, you don’t really miss anything….We did not have a lot, but we never had to sleep on the floor. That was enough for us.»
Or like Netta who is 19, who had to leave her daughters with her parents because she is unemployed, without any prospects. She tells about the place where she grew up – practically without water: «I am fine here, it’s very quiet, no major trouble, plenty of space for my caravan, no drugs, no alcohol.»
Or Corne (23), who is unemployed due to a lack of education: «But do you know what, I have learnt loads through getting pregnant at fifteen, becoming a mother, and I have found a man who is looking after me and my baby. »
We tell our stories and shape them with regard to ourselves and the people who have been, and are, part of us. This way, the story of a life will always be subjective, made up, adjusted and narrated with care and loyalty to those we want to protect. I feel unable to continue.
Slow and claustrophobic. The exhibition is saturated. The many and wordy texts are at times dishearteningly depressing about hopelessness. It feels slow, uncomfortable, bordering on claustrophobic due to the sheer minutiae surrounding these unhappy lives. This slow pace may be the reason for another confrontation: I feel that I cannot take any more. I am unable to go on. I want to avert my eyes, look out, another direction. For a fleeting moment, I want the same as the subjects in these photos – I want to escape. And as I want to get away, I realise this is exactly the aim of the exhibition. The unease of the photos have grabbed hold of me now.
So – although the Poor Whites exhibition is about a particular group of people at a certain geographical place at a specific point in time, one of its strengths is being able to cast shades beyond the local confines. Specifically through the way the texts describe belonging, the narratives we create about ourselves, the loyalty to our families and the places we grew up. The way in which a person is driven between shame and pride – whether in South Africa or elsewhere. Simultaneously, there is the acknowledgement that the lives of these subjects are static, and the difficulty they face trying to evolve. This further amplifies the desperation.
Poor Whites is an exhibition showing in Berlin, but it could also have been shown in Oslo, or in any other city. Not only because it is an exhibition about a stigmatised group of individuals which may be good to know about – but because it is first and foremost about being a human, and about survival.
© Se Norwegian original version of the text in Ny Tid