I first encountered the work of photographer Jo Ractliffe in 2008, around the time her book Terreno Ocupado was published. For many outside her native South Africa, Terreno Ocupado – and the two books that followed, As Terras do Fim do Mundo (2010) and Borderlands (2015) – marked an entry point into the remarkable work of a photographer whose practice stretched back to the 1980s, but who had, inexplicably, remained little known amongst European and North American audiences. I recall being struck by the mixture of austerity and eloquence in her photographs: terse, minimal, and devoid, for the most part, of human presence, they managed nonetheless to speak volumes about the effect of prolonged struggle on the human spirit.
These three publications, which function as a loose trilogy, were the result of nearly a decade spent photographing the legacies of the South African Border War. First erupting in the 1960s, the Border War was fought primarily in Angola and Namibia as both countries struggled to free themselves from South African rule. As the conflict went on, it swept back and forth across Angola; each time towns and strategic positions changed hands, different groups of combatants left buried ordnance in their wake. When the war finally ended, it left scattered populations and an emptied, shattered landscape.
Ractliffe first visited Angola in 2007, with the intention of searching for the packs of semi-feral dogs that roamed the war-torn capital city of Luanda. What she found there – by her own description, a world that was ‘simultaneously post-apocalyptic and medieval’ – is described in Terreno Ocupado. Published two years later, As Terras do Fim do Mundo explored the landscape around Luanda, which had been rendered largely uninhabitable by land mines (as many as two million by some estimates) that still lie concealed beneath the ground. Borderlands looked within South Africa’s borders, at civilian sites that had been appropriated by the military during and after the war, and that are now undergoing processes of restitution and resettlement. In the latter publication, Ractliffe also confronted her longstanding reluctance to photograph human subjects.
Ractliffe’s photographs of Angola – particularly those in the first two volumes – are marked by a powerful, palpable sense of unhomeliness and dread. Nearly all of her landscapes are shot from an eye-level perspective, or slightly below. Many consist of little more than endless, empty foregrounds scattered with nameless debris: earth, horizon and sky presented in thick intractable slabs. In others, the view is hemmed in by dense undergrowth. Occasionally we glimpse half-built shelters, abandoned interiors or decaying concrete structures with black voids in place of doors.
There are few markers to indicate where any of these photographs were taken, or what, precisely, we’re looking at. Though it deals with the legacies of past conflict, Ractliffe’s Angola work isn’t really ‘aftermath photography’, at least not the way the term is usually used to describe the representation of catastrophe after the fact. In his 2002 book Spectral Evidence, Ulrich Baer remarks on the tension that is created when the documentary landscape idiom is put to work on a reality that can’t be seen. Such photographs, he writes, don’t offer proof, but instead present ‘a staged and self-conscious refusal of information – a framed emptiness – as evidence of the crime’s enormity.’ The bloodshed in Ractliffe’s Angola photographs is in the past, and in the future too, invisible and immanent. And if her images offer little in the way of political explanation, this is because there is no simple way of accounting for the scale of the suffering that they represent. Instead, they embody the ongoing trauma of an environment haunted by the possibility of violence, in which the spectre of war remains long after the conflict has ended.
If Ractliffe’s images offer little in the way of political explanation, this is because there is no simple way of accounting for the scale of the suffering that they represent. Instead, they embody the ongoing trauma of an environment haunted by the possibility of violence, in which the spectre of war remains long after the conflict has ended.
The register in which these photographs operate, in other words, is less factual than it is affective. And although not all of her work shares the singular look of the photographs she made in Angola, its motivations – a dissatisfaction with the documentary idiom, and a desire to challenge the physical and political limits of photography by tapping into the immediacy of her own experience rather than observing events from a distance – have been part of her practice since the very beginning. Co-published in late 2020 by Steidl and the Walther Collection, Jo Ractliffe: Photographs 1980 – Now is the first volume to gather together a comprehensive selection of the photographer’s work. The range and breadth of her practice is staggering.
The kind of landscapes that preoccupied Ractliffe in Angola also mark her first forays into documentary photography in the 1980s, and her early images share the same terse, understated style. There’s little obvious evidence, in these photographs, of the escalating political and social unrest that accompanied growing resistance to the apartheid regime. Instead, there is emptiness and a profound sense of futility. Against a backdrop of expansive grassland, Ractliffe singles out rubbish dumps and upheaved earth; temporary encampments and half-demolished shanty towns; tiny, courageous attempts at settlement, farmsteads cobbled together out of scraps. The human inhabitants of these places are nearly always photographed from a distance or with their backs to the lens. It’s the thin, scruffy farm animals and semi-feral dogs in Ractliffe’s early photographs that carry the burden of despair – a sense of mute, inexpressible trauma that animals seem to demonstrate so much more vividly than human subjects.
If these photographs deliberately avoid the direct political address of social documentary photography – its ‘social exhibitionism’, to borrow a term coined by South African writer and critic Njabulo Ndelbele – the feeling of unease that runs through them is clear. Nearly all of Ractliffe’s work is charged with a profound sense of ambivalence towards a beautiful country marred by strife and neglect; a home that is both fiercely loved and badly damaged. It’s also shot through with a persistent sense of bafflement. For Ractliffe, human behaviour seems as mysterious as it is violent and destructive. Perhaps this is why she turned her focus, for many years, on animals as metaphors for human suffering.
Many of her early projects used animals to reach beyond the specifics of time and place, towards something more poetic. Nadir, a body of work that Ractliffe completed between 1986 and 1988, was inspired by Russel Hoban’s dystopian novel Riddley Walker, which tells of a rapprochement between the last remaining humans scraping out an existence on a ravaged earth, and the packs of feral dogs that prey on them. Working with photomontage, Ractliffe created nightmare landscapes: mountains of garbage and tent cities on the sand, stretching away endlessly beneath oily, looming clouds. Dogs course through these ruined landscapes, possessed by joy or rage, we don’t know. Nadir is a powerful expression of the sense of unreality that Ractliffe admits feeling at the time.
In later work, shot on cheap plastic cameras, this use of allegory extends to the landscape itself. Vlakplaas: 2 June 1999 (drive-by shooting) documents a farm that was used as the headquarters of one of the apartheid government’s most vicious ‘counterinsurgency’ units. Shot on a continuous strip of black-and-white film that evokes the flickering view seen through a car window, the landscape is utterly unremarkable; nothing in its outward appearance hints at the events that took place there. Made in the city of Durban, Port of Entry (2000-2001) uses the same strategy to knit together an urban environment that Ractliffe found fragmented and contradictory. In this work, she writes, meaning is not contained within individual images, but emerges ‘through a collision of fragments.’
For Ractliffe, human behaviour seems as mysterious as it is violent and destructive. Perhaps this is why she turned her focus, for many years, on animals as metaphors for human suffering.
Animals feature so regularly in Ractliffe’s work that the appearance of humans in her photographs, around 2017, feels almost jarring. Everything is Everything was made while Ractliffe recovered from a serious spinal injury. Going through her negatives, she was surprised at the unexpected domesticity she found there. Amidst the landscapes and animals were numerous images of people – of family and friends, as well as strangers she had met briefly. ‘I have often spoken of the complexities of photographing people and my avoidance of such encounters,’ she writes. ‘It was illuminating to rediscover these images and the relationships behind them. And to realise how peopled my work actually is.’ Still, one of the most poignant of these photographs is of an animal – a sting ray impaled on a harpoon, the doomed creature’s underside looking like a grimacing human face.
It’s a startling shift of focus in a practice that for so many years has turned on the photograph’s tendency to conceal – to show without telling, to evoke, powerfully, without explaining. The equivocacy at the heart of her practice is eloquently expressed by Ractliffe herself, in the short texts that accompany each project in the book. Here, she writes about her doubts and motivations, her frustration and confusion with the medium, and with the country itself. For me, at least, the directness of her more recent work comes uncomfortably close to resolving the paradox that has sustained her practice for so long: that a photographer with such a profound distrust of the humanist documentary mode should nonetheless communicate so much about the places and the people she photographs. Or perhaps they represent another chapter in a career spent perpetually reinventing her own process. Jo Ractliffe: Photographs 1980 – Now is a long-overdue account of a photographer for whom questions about the medium itself are inseparable from the politics of the places they represent.