Sidetracks: Working with two photographic collections

Sidetracks is an exhibition that presents two very different family-owned photographic collections. The first is a collection of family photographs, covering 150 years, and belonging to a white English-speaking family from Estcourt, KwaZulu-Natal. The second collection is made up of the work of Ronald Ngilima and his son Torrance, ambulant photographers who recorded the black, coloured and Indian communities living around Benoni in the 1950s, before the forced removals of the 1960s.

The two collections have been brought together by South African Tamsyn Adams and Luxemburger Sophie Feyder, in the context of a joint PhD research project at Leiden University in the Netherlands. Despite differences in subject matter and location, surprising similarities and connections emerge as Adams and Feyder pull images from each collection and lay them side by side. The result is an evocative and educational exhibition that explores the different ways one can look at, and work with, archival photography. Sidetracks also invites the public to participate in this process of looking closely at private images in the search for clues about the past.

The exhibition accompanies an academic workshop that will be hosted at Wits University entitled Beyond the Iconic Image: Tracing South African Microhistories. It will travel to other parts of the country, including Benoni and Estcourt, before eventually travelling to the Netherlands.


About the photographic collections
About the Drummond/Fyvie collection:
The Drummond/Fyvie collection covers an extended time-span, but can be divided loosely into three parts. The first, from the mid 1800s until the start of the 1900s, is dominated by portraiture, and represents a relatively broad geographical area. The subsequent period, corresponding to the Union of South Africa, shows the convergence of two families, through relocation and marriage, in Estcourt. During this time, a large number of photographs were taken on Fyvie Farm, just outside of the town, giving a detailed insight into a particular social microcosm. From the 1940s onwards, the people pictured in these images begin again to disperse, and the remaining photographs zoom in on the branch of the family remaining on, or near, the farm. The photographs’ survival owes much to this extended period of settlement. Stored, and then forgotten, in old leather suitcases, they escaped the periodic purges that might otherwise have sent them to the rubbish pile. This is not to say they remain unscathed – insects, rats and spilled creosote have all made their mark. In its current condition, the collection is characterised by considerable variation in subject matter, medium, and state of preservation.

About the Ngilima collection:
Ronald Ngilima was born in 1914 in the Eastern Cape and moved to Gauteng in the early 1930s, where he became initiated into photography. Employed at Dinglers Tobacco Company, he dedicated his free hours to his trade as an ambulant photographer, cycling to various parts of Benoni. The present collection only starts in the 1950’s, when he moved to a house in Wattville big enough to set up his own dark room. After his sudden death in 1960, his eldest son Torrance took over the photography trade for another five years, before he committed himself to his political involvement with the ANC. In subsequent years, Ronald’s wife Sarah Ngilima carefully kept the 25 boxes of negatives locked up in a cupboard. They re-emerged some thirty years later, in 1999, when grandson Farrell Ngilima re-discovered them by chance. Realising the historical value of the collection, Farrell played a pivotal role in the establishment of the collection as a public archive. The original negatives are presently stored at Historical Papers, an independent archive based at Wits University.

Biographies of the researchers
Tamsyn Adams was born in Zimbabwe and moved to South Africa when she was four. She completed a Fine Art degree at Durban University of Technology in 1997 before moving to London for what was originally meant to be a two year stay. Ten years on, she did an MA in Cultural Studies at Goldsmiths College, University of London, before beginning her PhD at the University of Leiden. Her family’s collection of photographs has been an ongoing influence in all of these endeavours.

Of Peruvian descent, Sophie Feyder was born in Brussels and grew up in New York and in Luxemburg. After a first degree in Political Science at Sciences Po (Paris), she spent a year studying photography in Berlin, before returning to academia in the form of an Mphil, then a PhD in African History at the University of Leiden. She met Farrell Ngilima during her first fieldwork trip to Johannesburg in 2008. They’ve been collaborating closely ever since.

More about the exhibition
Certain iconic images have come to stand in for major events in South African history. But what about family pictures? What kind of stories and histories do they convey? If one were to compile a history of South Africa using essentially private photographic material – family albums, studio photographs, hand-coloured portraits, framed wedding photographs etc – what would it look like?

Although they represent intimate moments, many of the pictures selected for the Sidetracks exhibition reverberate with the larger socio-economic forces at play in the country. Familiar histories are hinted at, most tellingly the history of South Africa’s racial divide, and the experience of living under apartheid. Black figures hover at the margins of the Drummond/Fyvie photographs, escaping the photographer’s attention. Beaming white pin-up women can be seen in calendars and advertising posters in the background of the Ngilima portraits. Yet beyond this, private photographs invite us acknowledge the quiet, non-sensational stories taking place at the margins of the ‘struggle narrative’.

Our hope is that this exhibition will highlight two related but different aspects of photography. The first aims at honouring the ‘popular’ in popular photography. If photography is still so dominant in our lives today, it’s because at one stage, the medium departed from elitism and embraced the more light, fun, spontaneous, or day-to-day aspects of our lives. Beyond the socio-economic disparities between the two societies represented in these two collections, people facing the camera seem in many ways to have been motivated by surprisingly similar fantasies and aspirations.

The second concerns the processes of selection and connection-making, of working – and playing- with photographic archives, of making meaning. It refers not only to our own interpretations, but the many layers of interpretation given these photographs by photographers and other people in the past. We also hoped to open this exchange to a broader audience, persuaded that people could find many other connections between these images by calling on memories of their own images.

for more information contact Molemo Moiloa

Members of the community of Wattville viewing the archival photographs on Sidetracks.photograph: Siphosihle Mkhwanazi
Curator Sophie Feyder and internationally renowned musician Pops Mohammed, who is also from the historical Benoni neighbourhood, at the opening of Sidetracks.photograph: Siphosihle Mkhwanazi
Sidetracks exhibition opening. photograph: Siphosihle Mkhwanazi