Things are not going well in the global street these days. The migrations created by wars, civil wars, failed states, famines, and the sheer anarchy loosed on too much of the world is driving people to the brink–and beyond. Every day the slide shows at the major papers catalog new scenes of deprivation, along with the familiar demonstrations that soon follow. Hands in the air, pushing against the police line, nameless masses call out for justice and for bread. And then the news moves on to the typhoon or the earthquake or the election or the game. What else can it do?
It was against this background of constant yet distant disruption that the photograph below stood out.
The New York Times caption read, “In settlements around Johannesburg, the belongings of fleeing immigrants have been looted, and their dwellings torn apart by mobs. Left, a resident of Ramaphosa used a golf club to demolish a shack.” That’s right, a golf club.
Like Barthes‘ punctum, that club is the detail stabbing through the screen of cautious buffering that I bring to the news. Whereas the other photos became merely instances of familiar categories–the riot, the police response, the official Statement of Concern–this one disrupts deeper assumptions. What is going on? Does he actually golf? His form is pretty good: left foot planted, head down, letting the club follow the strong torque through the hips–this should be a a good rip.
OK, some will say that he probably stole the club. But not to sell it, apparently. Everything else in the scene fits the conventional story of poverty and the breakdown of social order. In that story, people throw rocks and set tires and cars and shanties on fire because, really, what else can they do? And in that story, the world is partitioned into safe zones and “trouble spots” sure to be somewhere else. We can play by the rules, keep score, be civil–“would you like to play through?” They can be left to their spasms of self-destruction.
Except for that damned club, which suggests that the two worlds overlap after all. If there can be golf in shantytown, then there could be riot at the country club. From that perspective, there is reason to pay attention to those behind you.
Photograph by Joao Silva/New York Times.
I knew a guy in South Africa who was a caddy at a golf club, and a keen player. Handicap in single digits. He lived in a well-looked after house in the shanty on one side of a town on the garden route. Some of the houses there were more established and built with better materials than others, but I was struck by how carefully looked after almost all the houses were. Poverty certainly limited the opportunities of many, but it didn’t limit their dignity. Which is exactly why this breakdown in social order in South Africa is so starting and so troubling.
Turning back to the photo – the golf club is a punctum that perhaps says more about the the viewer than the subject. It seems curious that the idea that the poor should enjoy sports should be somehow startling. Should it not be seen as an emblem of the fact that this man, even though he may live in an informal dwelling, does his best to enjoy life and take exercise? That despite his poverty, he is not unlike you or I?
And, given the context, could it not also be seen as an attempt to protect those things? It is unclear from the photo whether he is destroying the dwelling of an immigrant for malicious purposes, or whether he is attempting to create a firebreak to prevent the conflagration’s spread.
As ever, framing is everything. But as both the caption and the image are ambiguous, the framing is largely happening in the viewer’s mind.
Yes, framing happens in the viewer’s mind but not only in the viewer’s mind. I’ve been to South Africa and considered many of the same suppositions about why he would have that club. The poor do enjoy sports and golf is not played only by the rich. But the question remains of why the photo editor selected that image out of thousands that will have been available–probably not to make the point that the poor might golf. And even if the man with the club does golf, he was enraged enough to wreck his club by using it to smash a building. My point was precisely that the worlds do and should overlap more than we assume–the poor golf, for example–but that terrible inequities remain and need to be addressed.
There was a correction published in the Times about this image which changes the reading slightly but significantly. It said that the caption had been improperly published and should have made clear that this man was not a looter but was in fact demolishing the shack to prevent further spreading of the fire. I think Joao’s photographs from South Africa have been excellent. Some of the most evocative of the problems happening there that I have seen.