By late March 2020, we arrived at the culmination of another edition of the Market Photo Workshop’s Photo Incubator Programme amidst an increasingly precarious global moment. We need not name it here. Presumably because we have subsequently somehow braced ourselves for its wide-ranging consequences.

Indeed, what does one hold on to in such an existential and epochal crisis? More importantly, what does one walk away with? What will be tangible in what remains?

As with previous iterations, the Incubator Programme aimed to provide industry related skills and mentorship to a current generation of photographers whose practice may benefit from greater access to a wider professional network in the field.

While the selection criteria for the programme may have shifted – where in previous years there was an open call – the four invited participants for the 2019 five-month programme have shown a sense of resilience in their respective approaches toward a more malleable practice. It is worth contemplating to what extent this flexibility is a push or pull factor.

What we see in the varied outcomes of the incubates’ time in the programme, is a necessary moment of reflection on process rather than an object-based approach. A set of questions are foregrounded in this regard, that begin to interrogate what it means to be able to form a clear sense of voice in one’s overall practice.

If access to the market is a common obstacle, thus in the same breathe, how does a photographer or visual arts practitioner bring not only commercial value but a sustained curiosity for and interest in their own practice?

What follows too are a set of reflexive challenges that perhaps even the most experienced of practitioners continuously grapple with:

  • How does one locate a salient visual language within the broader context of professional practice?
  • How can a practice that is collaboratively produced be mindful of relational power dynamics?
  • What imposition does one’s identity and social positionality have on the ways we choose to work as image-makers?
  • How do image-makers begin to bring about a more generous visual culture and ways of looking through the critical evolution of their own praxis?

In my own experience working with photographers in varying contexts, process is often considered inherent to the technical action of capturing a photograph. However, in this age of online content proliferation and hyper-connectivity, I often wonder to what extent does the discipline of photography illicit a true sense of curiosity in the viewer. The photograph, in its capacity as both as an intellectual and creative exercise, remains a relatively ephemeral engagement, to some degree. That is to say, that now more than ever, the necessity for photographers to confront what their own visual language is in fact doing in the world, has become much more explicit.

We begin to see this as a challenge in some of the incubates’ projects…

Janine Brown’s work explores the subversion of the black male gaze. In a short documentary film titled: Made You Look, she employs an editing technique that emphasises various parts of the male body as a way to conceptually and quite directly instrumentalise her own female lens. Informed by feminist and queer visualisations, Janine’s process is in dialogue with well theorised discourses around the politics of looking.

Mpho Khwezi’s body of work, ‘A piece of paper’ may seem to speak to obvious themes of topical and contested social issues such as land, home and displacement. However, to highlight and merely contextualise these themes would be an oversimplification of the material gesture and criticality of Mpho’s work. Materiality is central to the reading this body of work. Mpho intentionally and literally superimposed his own generational purview onto the expired photo film he inherited from a figure whose very identity is representative of the socio- economic inequalities and racial privilege that is a direct consequence of this country’s difficult history.

Tiisetso Lesotho’s work and overall practice relies poetically on the idea of relational encounters with what she considers not only her client base (who commission portraits) but also her beloved community of Jabavu – a historically significant part of the origin story of South Africa’s largest and most recognisable township, Soweto. Often employing a humanising gaze that extends her process of working beyond that of a commercial photographer, Tiisetso’s portraiture is warmly naturalistic. Read in juxtaposition to the proliferation of hyper-stylised selfies in today’s performative visual cultures; it is worth emphasising the intimacy she is able to illicit in her subjects.

Phumzile Nkosi’s ongoing project Indwangu is a series of self-portraiture studies. As a mode of working it is a bold assertion of self that has allowed Phumzile to confront questions around gender as a supposedly visible and conservative construct through the use of signifying attire or ‘a dress code.’ Somewhere between a spectrum of the non-binary and the androgynous, Phumzile is developing a visual vocabulary that is recognisable in its conversation with the works of artists like Zanele Muholi. Phumzile’s ongoing project is an important gesture of self-representation and insertion into a crucial and broader archive of queer South African visualities.

The 5th edition of the Photo Incubator Programme thus offered an opportunity for the participants, mentors and facilitators to reflect on how urgent societal factors can force us to evolve our ideas around what constitutes professional practice? As important as the outcome of a consumable product or project may be – how do we find personal and layered growth in what we do? In this regard process, when engaged in relation to professional practice, becomes a useful point of departure, particularly as it brings us (image-makers, contributors to a global visual culture) closer to an understanding of the potential impact that our work can bring to a broader sense of both self and community.

© Thato Mogotsi