Soothsayers & Masters of Perfect Timing

It is not uncommon in Johannesburg to see people slinging cameras in this or that street, at any given time. And out of all of us in the intricate rhythmed Johannesburg, these camera-slingers have the most perfect sense of time. They sling, cock and shoot just on time (on beat), and sometimes ahead but never caught off-guard, it seems. And before we take notice of our surrounding and its novelties, they will have already mirrored it to us. Because of this mastery of time - the ability to seize moments and realities into an indissoluble now – surely the medium has to belong to the world of the supernatural. Africans, it is now clear, have been aware of this supernatural effect of photography from the very first moment they encountered cameras, hence in the Zulu language, taking a photograph is called ‘ukuthwebula’ (to snatch a soul). There is in fact a growing literature to confirm this view, and as testimony to it, Lekgetho Makola, the head of Newtown based school of photography, Market Photo Workshop (“MPW”), posits that, “photographers are our diviners. Ke ma dlozi-nyana. They are our soothsayers. They sometimes predict but also, at the same time, they store and archive our memory.”

For thirty years the Market Photo Workshop has been committed to the initiation of these soothsayers and future masters of perfect timing.

“All moments have to be considered. You can’t take a photo if you have not sufficiently considered your subject matter, but at the same time the photo must be taken then and there because the moment might elude you” says Market Photo Workshop Advanced Programme in Photography student, Thlalefi Maditsi explaining the sense of time required to make one a good photographer.

And so the message is, one must know when to shoot even when presented with imperfect conditions. Ever since enrolling at MPW as a foundation student in 2019, Maditsi has become fascinated by the medium of analogue photography, which as she points out, is a fitting example of how one masters perfect timing.

Before she takes a photograph, Maditsi further adds, “I have to think about it, because it might not look like how I want it to be. Anything can happen, and therefore the pressing of the shutter has to be perfectly timed because once it is pressed, you no longer have control… All I have left after that is a negative strip, and then there is the anxiety and excitement to see what the final product will be. It’s really interesting.”

In the course of our 40-minute telephonic discussion on these interesting and difficult concepts, Maditsi asserts of photography and the MPW, “one thing I have learnt in the past two years of studying photography at MPW, is that relationships occur in a process that is not necessarily logical. There are always these invisible ties that bind things together…And not only has my potential been unearthed, but the medium of photography has also revealed the potentialities of spaces and landscapes that one lives around and occupies. For example, in photographing the city-scapes, I’ve developed an interest in the growing agriculture and permaculture in so-called barren lands like Soweto and the city, which culminated in a photographic series titled “Green Fingers” which I have been working on for the past year… It is quite fascinating how resilient the human spirit is. The fact that people are finding ways to grow their plants in barren land – the willingness to live by any means.”

Perfect timing and soothsaying can never really be taught; a part of it comes naturally and most of it requires a willing and an engaged initiate. The Market Photo Workshop gets this very well; hence its pedagogic method is framed as ‘workshoping’ rather than training. And so an interactive environment is created between student (initiate) and teacher (initiator). Maditsi attests to this: “At MPW, no one is superior. Everyone is respected for the artist that they are.”