Unlocking the Mysteries of a Photographic Archive ☆

Dr. Steven Dubin’s interest in South Africa began in 2000 when he visited the country on the way to delivering a paper at a conference in Namibia and discovered that everything he was studying in America was happening in South Africa as well, with incredible urgency. On his latest annual research trip to South Africa, he came across an exciting project, an archive of 700 photographic negatives of portraits dating back to the ‘70s and ‘80s, taken at a studio outside of the city of Pietermartizburg, in what is now KwaZulu-Natal Province. The photos came to him almost by accident—they had been stored for decades in a friend’s garage—and from the moment he saw them, Dubin knew he had found something special.

The portraits capture a variety of subjects, from young children to groups of friends, large families to young couples. Often the subject is wearing traditional Zulu beadwork or poses near a vase of artificial flowers. Some of the subjects appear relaxed while others are uncomfortable before the camera’s gaze. For Dubin, the photographs are both visually stunning and wonderfully mysterious, and he sees this project, tentatively entitled, “Not Everything Is Black or White: Invisible Presences and Visible Absences,” as an opportunity to apply everything he has learned over the years.  “From what it looks like—there’s much more of a story here. What I really want to do is try to decode these photographs and see what’s in them,” he says.

Through his research, Dubin has learned that in most African photography, the studio was a place that people came to dream, to imagine themselves in a different, future life. With this photo archive from South Africa he has found something different. These were taken at the peak of the resistance to apartheid in one of the most violent provinces in the country at the time. But rather than looking to the future, many of the subjects in this archive are looking toward the past. While the outside world was in disarray, people were coming to the photography studio and looking backwards, trying to recover a native tradition. “Why were they making these pictures, who were they going to send them to?” he wonders, “It’s a wonderful mystery to try to track down, and my sense is I’m going to be able to do it.” Dubin hopes, by embarking on an anthropological investigation, to unlock the mysteries behind these remarkable images and share them with the world.

In addition to his role as Program Coordinator and Professor of Arts Administration, Dr. Dubin is a Research Scholar at the Institute of African Studies at Columbia University, and an affiliate of the Research Centre for Visual Identities in Art and Design at the University of Johannesburg; his research focuses on South African politics and culture.