With a Prison at its Heart
Book Review by Pavel Büchler
Beaufort West by Mikhael Subotzky
Published by: Chris Boot
Mikhael Subotzky’s Beaufort West details the unknowing eccentricities and degradations of a town that sits astride the main highway from Johannesburg to the northern provinces of South Africa. Subotzky’s work previous to Beaufort West has concentrated on documenting, close up and with a sense of disruptive estrangement, the prison system in South Africa. His photographs (particularly in the two Die Vier Hoeke series) combine muted colours, into which the lurid erupts, with a tableaux-like facility for framing people in the everyday. And yet his images, partly because of the frequent proximity of the lens to his subjects, still feel intimate and shocking, able to catch the claustrophobia of the inhumanely overcrowded prison system in South Africa.
Given this fusion of a painterly palette with a strong and committed documentary ethos, it is not surprising that Subotzky is a recent Magnum nominee as well as having his work shown jointly with Josephine Meckseper at MOMA in New York. His oeuvre fits comfortably into these two overlapping ambits, and Beaufort West sees him move out from the confines of the prison into the town surrounding a prison. The tone is set from the first image in the book, an aerial shot of the Beaufort West’s prison from almost overhead. The prison’s specific strangeness and its centrality to both the town and Subotzky’s project, are signaled by this image, not just because it is the first in the series but because the town prison is situated in the middle of a roundabout which interrupts the main highway. As if this were not disingeuous enough the prison seems to have been built with a tasteless sense of irony in direct disproportion to its function. In contrast to the surrounding buildings, which are drab, the prison has a bright red roof and the interior walls of the exercise yard, from a distance at least, look at first glance like swimming pools since their dominant colour is aqua-marine. The prison, initially, appears to be an oasis of luxury, surrounded by tended gardens and palms. Later photographs show it to be cruelly the opposite. The irony is extended in an image of the township of Toekomsnus (another aerial shot) because its repeated, white-roofed mobile homes are laid out on the desert dirt with a regularity and in a series of grids which is more properly reminiscent of a prison. The seepage of prison-imagery into everyday life, so that the prison is metaphorically and literally central to the society, is evidenced everywhere in Beaufort West – entrapment and confinement of all kinds, violence and retribution, are found and seen in domestic and social life. The book itself intelligently orders the images so that they move through the elements of Beaufort society, coming closer and closer to the prison as the town’s centre. Towards the end of the book there are images of a prostitute at work, of patients in a hospital (all, we assume, victims and/or perpetrators of violent crime), then the interior of the police station, where violence is only barely contained, and finally the prison itself.
This apparent move from the margins towards the incarcerating centre begins with the township and then moves to waste ground and rubbish dumps, and here there is one of the most striking of a series of extraordinary photographs. A youth, ‘Samuel’, stands facing the camera in the midst of a deracinated landscape. Surrounding him are walls of rubbish, blown by the wind and held back by a wire fence. He wears a Spiderman mask and carries a piece of metal bent at the end to form a hook. Obviously a scavenger among the garbage (the following image shows a circle of others working the dump), this is one of the few of Subotzky’s images in which there seems to be something like pure defiance in the town’s degraded inhabitants.
Subotzky’s circles then close in on the white population. At the Beaufort agricultural show the equine fancy dress competitors include a princess on horseback alongside another competitor, also on horseback, dressed as the murderer in Scream. This sets the tone for uncanny, near horrific images of ‘ordinary’ life in white Beaufort: the jackal hunter who cleans his rifle beside the jackals and big cats which are strung up, pierced through the flesh on their legs, on the side of his jeep, or the gruesome dummies replicating the pioneering heart transplants carried out in the Chris Barnard Museum. The future for the pouting runner-up in the Miss Teen Beaufort West competition looks unpleasant.
Subotzky’s people, black and white, are always visceral, and often vulnerable and fragile. The dismembered goat on the carpet, beside a bed, at the butcher’s, stares at the camera with a look which is replicated in many of his human subjects, implying a nightmarish knowledge of what the photograph will reveal. The final images of prisoners in orange jackets and trousers are almost a relief from the dramas outside the prison.
Subotzky’s work is that of a major photographic talent, one which weaves an affective aesthetic with a deeply felt and intelligent ethical stance. The book’s final photograph is of a prisoner asleep on a bench in the prison’s exercise yard. The wall behind him, lit by sunlight, is fully painted with a landscape from the desert beyond the town and is framed along the top by rolls of barbed wire. The image is deadpan on its surface, but in the context of the book it reminds us of the intertwining of world outside with that ‘inside’. And like all of Subotzky’s images, its colours signify their own failed promises, heightened here by reminding us of the loss of the freedom they proclaim.