In 2004, an historic constitutional court hearing extended the right to vote to South African prisoners. Motivated by the ruling, photographer Mikhael Subotzky began taking simple portraits of inmates at Cape Town’s Pollsmoor prison. It was his first time inside such a facility, and the experience triggered something within the young South African.
“Incarceration is so much a part of our history,” he explains. “I became interested in how that really does shape our society.” Fascinated by apartheid’s enduring social barriers and the very particular experience of growing up in the suburbs of Cape Town, Mikhael sought permission to do an extended photography project with the inmates. It was granted.
It culminated in what has arguably become Mikhael’s most widely seen body of work to date. Titled Die Vier Hoeke, the acclaimed photo series examines the unseen lives of those living within the infamous, maximum-security prison. “Pollsmoor is just the most insanely located prison,” he says, shaking his head. “It’s such a picture of my experience of Cape Town. Collapsing those boundaries – in a very small way – felt like an important gesture to me.”
Cape Town is littered with similar physical souvenirs of the country’s complicated history. Above the University of Cape Town’s main campus – just below Rhodes Memorial – lies an abandoned zoo. It once housed lions, crocodiles, and more, it was owned by Cecil John Rhodes. Today, it lies derelict and forgotten, a relic of South Africa’s colonial past. Filled with prison-like steel bars and the ghosts of transgressions past, it’s here that Mikhael arrives for his portrait shoot.
A graduate of the institution below, he trudges languidly up the pathway. Tall and assured, his hands stray frequently to his shoulder-length hair frequently – the only indication of any kind of nerves. His demeanour is restrained, but when engaged, his single-mindedness is intense. “I’m quite a shy, reticent person,” Mikhael concedes. “So the camera becomes an excuse to engage in a different kind of way.”
As a photographer, genuine engagement is paramount to his work. Forming relationships with his subjects is his way of understanding the world around him. There’s stoicism to him that all but vanishes when he discusses this, replaced by a palpable sincerity. Mikhael is committed to truthful representation, a duty that can be draining. “The process of turning relationships into representational work is exhausting,” he admits. “But it’s so important that I consider the relationship between my own world and the world I am trying to represent.”
It’s a commitment that has served him well. Since Die Vier Hoeke he has gone on to become one of South Africa’s most prolific photographers, joining the prestigious Magnum Photos, an internationally lauded photographic society. He continues to deliver work that shocks, inspires and challenges. Mikhael’s images are bold; an unflinching examination of a version of South Africa that diverges from the rainbow nation metaphor.
It’s a difficult country to live in, a difficulty he believes is appropriate, and despite the lure of opportunity from all over the world, he remains here, in South Africa, engaging – taking photos, making art. “We are shedding our history,” Mikhael acknowledges. “We get to define what kind of society we want to live in. The possibilities are there – and I’d rather be here, engaging with it, than somewhere else.”