Wits City Institute Student Exhibition

iHostela Ngeliny’iKhaya Regarding Photography as a Just Image

Wits City Institute Mellon Architecture, Urbanism and the Humanities Master’s Fellow Nocebo Bucibo’s exhibition iHostela Ngeliny’iKhaya, Regarding Photography as a Just Image opened at the Workers Museum in Newtown, Johannesburg, as part of the fulfillment of her Master of Arts in Fine Arts in the Wits School of Arts.

3-12 March 2018 / Workers Museum, Johannesburg

Words and images: Nocebo Bucibo

Image 1: iziNgane, Madala hostel Alexandra, 2012 – 2017

Image 2: amaWele, Mai Mai hostel Johannesburg, 2012 – 2017

Image 3: uHambo, Madala hostel Alexandra, 2012 – 2017

This photographic exhibition, iHostela Ngeliny’iKhaya: Regarding Photography as a Just Image (2012-2017), forms the practical research for my Master’s dissertation A Just Image: South African Hostels and Contemporary South African Photography (2018). In my written research, I explore Roland Barthes’s concept of a ‘just image’ and its potential function in understanding the notion of memory and personal identity that may be conveyed through photography. Further, my interest is in how the concept of a ‘just image’ may help to signify the complex act of photographing the social life of the South African migrant hostels. I contend that in photography, the term a ‘just image’ conceptualises an image which evokes the physical, psychological, and cultural space of the South African migrant labour hostels.

My photography in Johannesburg’s migrant labour hostels began in 2010, with a  recollection of my memories of living close to the hostels in the early 1990s in Thokoza, during the violent conflict between the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) and African National Congress (ANC). These memories drove me to begin visiting certain Johannesburg hostels, where I developed personal relationships with the people who live there. The work contained in this exhibition is part of my final project towards my MAFA, and documents my process of reconnection to, and new understandings of the hostels.

There is so much more that goes on beyond the brick walls and the beds of these spaces than I initially expected. By being exposed to the sounds, smells, atmosphere and ‘aura’ of the hostel, the photographs are not only aimed at capturing the physical conditions of the Johannesburg hostels, but also what I see as their ‘spiritual’ attributes: intimate aspects which may trigger the viewer’s recognition of my experience in these spaces.  

I have used the theoretical knowledge gained by my research to articulate my new experiences of the physical structure and spiritual attributes of the hostels, both in writing and in my practice of photography.  Where social documentary photography has traditionally been concerned with touching on social issues that people face on a day-to-day basis and strives to create awareness in the greater public of these issues, in this body of work I attempt to situate my own role in creating conditions specific to the moment of capture, and the question of my desire in capturing certain images. Martha Rosler writes that there is a ‘new’ type of social documentary photography, which now involves the personal and self-reflection: ‘a new generation of photographers has directed the documentary approach toward more personal ends’ (1993:321). By adopting this new approach to social documentary photography, I was able to create personal and intimate images of gogo ‘Thembi and other hostel dwellers. The relationships I built with hostel-dwellers has been a great source of knowledge about life and changes in the hostels, and the space I offer is to preserve their memories, and evoke the shared experiences of other viewers.

The hostels that are depicted here are in Johannesburg, Gauteng. These are Mshaya’zafe hostel in Thokoza (south of Johannesburg), Merafe hostel and Diepkloof hostel, both situated in Soweto (south of the Johannesburg city centre), and Madala hostel in Alexandra (northern Johannesburg). I have also been to the Mai Mai Hostel, located in Johannesburg’s centre.

The hostels are spaces that historically accommodated migrant workers who came to the city of Johannesburg to improve their financial status and to contribute to the country’s economy. Choosing to have the exhibition in March and at the Workers Museum is in celebration of Human Rights Day, 21 March 2018.

Bucibo’s thesis supervisors were Jo Ractliffe and Jessica Webster in the Wits School of the Arts.

Media coverage: The story of Joburg hostels in pictures.