THE ROOM IS deeply silent, but robustly populated. All eyes are focused on the speaker, who is out of your line of sight. In this 1989 photograph of a trade union meeting at the University of Cape Town, photographer Omar Badsha (b. 1945) peers with a clean mix of empathy, objectivity and acuity into the hearts and faces of every person in this meeting that his lens embraces. The effect is overwhelming and utterly magnetic. This balance of wisdom, journalistic reflection, aesthetic brilliance and love of a community is what you find on every page of Badsha’s monumental publication, Seed Times.
In another photograph, a woman stands in thought, her elbows extended so that her face rests upon her fingers, her eyes cast off in meanders that have little to do with being in a factory warehouse, a doek on her head. She rests. She dreams. Maybe she prays. Or weeps. But the manner in which Badsha has caught this humble woman renders her a religious icon, an entity of deep value that is as much about being oneself as it is about being oppressed by the system. Entitled Garment Worker, Queen Street, Durban (1986), the work is cast in harsh, stage-light like, but the focus is not obvious and the connection between you, as you gaze at this stark image, and this anonymous worker is deeply human.
And while on a superficial level you may know of Badsha as one of the co-founders of Afrapix — a collective agency of anti-apartheid photographers, both professional and amateur — in the 1980s, a liberation struggle veteran and the man behind South African History Online, Seed Times does much more. It reaches through the trajectory of Badsha’s career from the late 1970s until 2010 and informs you about the rich underbelly of the value system of this photographer, described by Ari Sitas as being black, and red, his bravery and his sense of humour in a time fraught with ugliness. You need to spend many hours drinking in each of his images. It’s about imbibing the complex beauty that is South Africa, even when the photographs were taken in Ethiopia, India or Denmark.
And those hours you will spend with this magnificent book are not ones embroiled in explanatory words. There are two essays at the back of the book – by Sitas and Imraan Coovadia respectively. Sitas guides you carefully along a philosophical path to understand who Badsha is and why this trajectory of his work matters. Coovadia looks, with you, at selected works from this collection, guiding you, through his eyes and opinions to watch a spark of flame, a gesture of wildness, an unravelling of beauty, a girl with a crown of mud. The position of these essays is strategic: this is not a book of instruction. Your main task as the audience for it, is to look.
At the point where the word ‘documentary’ segues with the word ‘photography’, art becomes an emotionally smudged thing. And the task of looking at works that have been defined by the news media over the years, is a rich one, that is as much about being cognisant of what you’re looking at, as reflecting on the social context in which the photograph exists. But here, in this book, you see the photographs as photographs and not as news stories.
Is this really possible? You look at the photograph of a school teacher and the eighty children in her charge, sitting on a dank floor in a cramped windowless room, and the story seeps out through the shadows. Or rather, hundreds of stories do. Badsha uses his lens to construct narrative entities that don’t need words to explain them. They need you to gaze at each of their interstices, and to hear the voices, feel the energy they exude.
Featuring thoughtful design and images honed so beautifully, they feel sacred, even if the subject matter seems base, the work, which has political and historical presence, takes you through different stages of Badsha’s complex career. For Badsha, this has been a journey deeply interfaced with the terrible contradictions in apartheid legislature as it has taken him further afield to Gujarat in India, Ethiopia and Denmark on missions both personal and commissioned.
Above all, the largeness of this project flies in the face of digital tricks, quick celebrations of self and short cuts. It’s a monograph of the ilk of publications from a bygone era. But it is worth every cent and every hour you spend on it.