Mikhael Subotzky

To examine life in confinement poses a serious challenge to photographers; attempts to see inside any closed and secretive prison system seem doomed to produce limited results. Still, South Africa’s jails exert an unusual fascination, for until recently many viewed the country itself as a gigantic prison for its black majority; furthermore, the country continues to have one of the highest rates of incarceration in the world. On his website, the photographer Mikhael Subotzky quotes the most famous of South Africa’s former prisoners, Nelson Mandela: “It is said that no one truly knows a nation until one has been inside its jails. A nation should not be judged by how it treats its highest citizens, but its lowest ones.”

Subotzky has been attracted to the subject of life in South Africa’s overcrowded prisons since his student years. His 2004 final-year project at the University of Cape Town included a series of photographs of prisoners, which was entitled “Die Vier Hoeke” (The Four Corners), prison slang for being inside; Subotzky presented life behind bars as a microcosm in which human dramas are sharply revealed on both collective and individual levels. In “Umjiegwana” (The Outside), 2005, his visual inquiry extended to the difficult, often tragic existence of prisoners after their release.

This exhibition, the first ever to gather a significant number of Subotzky’s photographs in a gallery outside of South Africa, consisted of sixteen large Lightjet C prints from the series “Beaufort West,” 2006–2007, named after a provincial town located along the N1 freeway between Cape Town and Johannesburg. (The show celebrated Subotzky’s winning of the 2007 KLM Paul Huf Award, given annually to emerging photographers since 1999.) The Beaufort West prison, established in 1873, stands right in the middle of a traffic circle in the town’s center, “a grim sentinel of order,” as the South African writer Jonny Steinberg calls it in the brochure accompanying the exhibition, undisturbed despite the heavy traffic around it. Subotzky’s images capture life outside as well as inside the prison, revealing a cycle of violence that reaches far beyond its walls and into the surrounding townships, where unemployment is extremely high. Criminal acts, from theft to prostitution, are daily occurrences—and a means of survival.

What makes Subotzky’s photographs truly engaging and consequential is their documentary yet highly introspective aspect, which derives from their structured but not artificially staged or manipulated nature. Subotzky sensitively reveals daily existence, observing it on an individual level. Each work is descriptively titled and tells its own story in a controlled yet emphatic manner. This drab and hopeless world projects its own need for poetic license, echoed in a mural landscape painting behind a resting prisoner in Jaco, Beaufort West Prison, 2006, or in a bright cartoon of animals and people painted on the wall of a hospital room in Joseph Waits for X-Ray, Beaufort West Hospital, 2006.

On the photographer’s most recent visit to Beaufort West, in March 2007, he visited the city’s more affluent neighborhoods, where life’s complexities continued to reveal themselves. A picture taken during a parade of the fancy dress competition—a young woman in an elegant dress and a crown and a man in black wearing a Scream mask, both on horseback—offers yet another surprisingly sharp glance at local reality, and suggests the oddity that permeates many aspects of life in Beaufort West.

Marek Bartelik