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The Edge of Town

Graeme Williams began his photographic career as a photojournalist documenting the struggle to end apartheid. He never intended to become a photojournalist but as the clamour for Nelson Mandela's release grew in the late 1980s and the violence broke out in Soweto and the townships, he felt duty-bound to 'hold the fort' by joining a news agency and reporting on the struggle.

In The Edge of Town Graeme adapts the language of street photography in order to move beyond the documentary approach that he and others had previously used so systematically in the Apartheid era. Over a four-year period, he traveled to more than 100 towns around the country, seeking to capture a feeling or a mood rather than any particular event. He worked only in early morning and evening light to create the long shadows and vibrant colours of his multi-layered images. Each image is skilfully framed, often close up and off-kilter, to create unexpected juxtapositions between its subjects. As Graeme has noted: 'I wanted viewers to be slightly unsure of what was going on in each photograph and this reflects how I felt about change in South Africa at the time.'

In an interview with Tamar Garb in 2010, Graeme explained his modus operandi further: 'My approach was to "hit and run". I chose never to photograph in the same place twice. I would drive to a town in the evening and photograph there and then I would drive to the next town so I could be there in the morning.

I was interested in strong early morning or evening light. Harsh light, long shadows, so I was only able to photograph for about two or three hours a day. The demands were physically difficult but the most demanding thing was that there wasn't a set of parameters for photographing a particular thing each day.'

'I had to find a situation that made visual and emotional sense. Days would go by without getting anything that approximated what I was feeling and that's why I think it took four years. I started the project in black and white but I wasn't able to get the feeling I wanted. Then I moved on to colour and then after another few months I worked out that I could only photograph in extreme light conditions in order to get the right emotion.'

'Then I realised that I wanted to break down the distance and the "objective" feel of documentary photography and I wanted to break the barrier that photographers often set up between themselves and their subjects. This demanded that I get incredibly close to my subjects.So, some of the figures are very close to the lens. I would wander into people's homes and environments and it was so amazing how people just let me in.'

The Edge of Town is showing at London's V&A Museum from 12 April until 17 July 2011 as part of a major group exhibition of South African photography called Figures & Fictions: Contemporary South African Photography

Click HERE to view a video-interview with Graeme Williams.
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