“We've been taught to see photographs as real.” | Photographer Mikhael Subotzky | Louisiana Channel



“I never believed it was possible to be a fly on the wall. As a documentary photographer, one’s presence always changes the situation.”

We met South African photographer Mikhael Subotzky who, through several fascinating photo series, has shaped not only a contemporary portrait of his home country but also the world we are living in.

“When I first started working as a photographer, I think I believed that images had a certain power in representational terms. And I think a lot of my work has also been about coming to terms with the limitation of that power. And not just the limitations, but also a real mistrust of images as I got better to understand how they work.”

Subotzky, who grew up in the times of apartheid, had an early interest in the world around him – a world that to him seemed “perplexing and hard to understand.”

“Primarily, I enjoyed the excuse that photography provided to go out into the world. I often thought that the photographs are often just a by-product and that the medium I was actually using was engagement – an engagement with people.”

Mikhael Subotzky’s works are the results of his fractured attempts to place himself in relation to the social, historical, and political narratives that surround him. As an artist working in film, video installation and photography, as well as more recently in collage and painting, Subotzky engages critically with contemporary politics of representation.

“At the heart of my work is a fixation with revealing the gap between what is presented (and idealised) and what is hidden, coupled with a desire to pull apart and reassemble the schizophrenia of contemporary existence,” he says.

Along the way, Subotzky also learned that sometimes the surface of images had to be shattered or even scratched in order for the viewer to get a deeper understanding of what was depicted.

“Reality is such a loaded term. I never believed in anything like pure reality. Especially photography’s ability to capture reality. But I think we have been taught as viewers to see photographs as real, which is hugely problematic in many terms – in propaganda terms, advertising terms. It’s that confusion around reality that makes propaganda and advertising effective.”

Subotzky was born in 1981 in Cape Town, South Africa, and is currently based in Johannesburg. In 2012 he was awarded the Standard Bank Young Artist Award (South Africa) and the resulting exhibition, Retinal Shift, toured the country. Ponte City, a collaboration with artist Patrick Waterhouse, was awarded the 2015 Deutsche Börse Photography Prize, and the exhibition, which consists of a single installation of thousands of photographs and documents, was acquired by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. His work has been included in the Liverpool Biennale (2012), Lubumbashi Biennale (2013) and the 56th Venice Biennale (2015).

Subotzky’s works have been acquired by many institutions, including The Museum of Modern Art (New York), Solomon R Guggenheim Museum (New York), The National Gallery of Art (Washington DC), the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Tate (London), the Centre Pompidou (Paris), The Art Gallery of New South Wales, (Sydney) and the South African National Gallery (Cape Town).

Subotzky’s third film, Epilogue: Disordered, and Flatulent, debuted at Goodman Gallery London in June 2022.

Mikhael Subotzky was interviewed by Marc-Christoph Wagner in June 2022. The interview took place at Goodman Gallery in London, UK.

Camera: Kyle Stevenson
Edited by: Signe Boe Pedersen
Produced by: Marc-Christoph Wagner
Copyright: Louisiana Channel, Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, 2022

Louisiana Channel is supported by Den A.P. Møllerske Støttefond, Ny Carlsbergfondet, C.L. Davids Fond og Samling, and Fritz Hansen.

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