The light in the (un)familiar dark (Marc Shoul)

“Don’t you think the oddness is such a beautiful thing?” says Marc Shoul.

I’m in photographer’s Killarney apartment, savouring the darkness with pomegranate tea.

I turn a page of a Jim Goldberg photography book, taking in a black and white image of a gorgeous, Asiatic woman, tattoos dripping down her arms. A phone receiver is casually propped against her ear; her head tilted with nonchalance … or is it uncertainty? She’s sitting behind a thick glass window: her beautifully sad retinas are silently imploring the visitor on the other side of the barrier. And me.

Another book lies open on the table; a photograph by Nick Waplington waits to be visually devoured: a man is lying on the floor in the middle of council house clutter. His pasty toddler is next to him, lovingly feeding him a morsel. The English poverty is extremely disconcerting, but the image is touching, profound.

Both photographs are from other worlds; worlds that I know nothing about. Yet they’re uncomfortably, inexplicably familiar. They tell fragments of stories, but, like photographer Diane Arbus once said, “A photograph is a secret about a secret. The more it tells you, the less you know.”

I finally answer his question: “Yes, the oddness is beautiful”.

Many of his own black and white images seem like a visual wasteland of sadness and rough edges: grimy inner city bars, crude tattoos on hairy beer bellies, and gnarled, abandoned jungle gyms. But, if you look closely, his work is the epitome of Leonard Cohen’s words “There’s a crack in everything; that’s how the light gets in”.

“The will to survive”

We talk a little about Brakpan.

Shoul was first drawn to the working-class East Rand outpost not to “seek out freaks”, but to “learn from people who have different values and lifestyles”.  According to him, Brakpan has “a bad rap”. He wanted to explore this part of Johannesburg that was a designated ‘prototype-Apartheid’ town, but is now forgotten – barring the odd reference to cousin-copulation.

Shoul adds: “It really interested me how these people benefited from Apartheid – you’d think they would’ve used it to advance themselves. But they didn’t. I wanted to see how people cope and adapt in stagnation … my photographs are an exploration of the will to survive”

He spent four years documenting people’s lives in Brakpan, slowly gaining their trust, and, he says, this can be achieved through a simple formula: “trust = access”. Some of his photos are taken in very intimate, private spaces: in bedrooms, and at a ‘prison release party,’ for example. According to Shoul, to be allowed into someone’s home is a “huge honour”, as it’s “sacred”. He adds that he has close relationships with his subjects, and that, as a photographer, he “doesn’t just switch off to them” once a project is completed: he is “very transparent”, and he still keeps in contact, via phone or Facebook.

A mangled slide in a foggy Brakpan park
Slide, Jan Smuts Dam, 2008


Another series, entitled “Flatlands”, took seven years to complete, documenting Johannesburg’s raw inner city. Again, this series is about survival, but it’s also about capturing the human-side and the beauty of its dirty streets. Much like his photography, he describes the city as a “happy/sad place”. Shoul continues, “Jo’burg is concrete and fucking sports cars, but it has fantastic people … it’s challenging and difficult. One moment it can uplift you, the next take you right down. But there’s an energy here that’s unequal to any other city in South Africa … it houses the whole continent of Africa, it’s progressive, it’s got clout. Cape Town is a ‘Maybe’ city, but Jo’burg is a ‘Yes’ city.”

A black man in tribal attire kneeling on the ground with his head bowed; a black Mercedes is behind him
Siggy, praying outside The House of Legislator, Johannesburg Central, 2006
A black woman walking along a city street carrying a microwave on her head
Microwave Pedestrian, corner of Nugget and Wolmarans Street, Hillbrow, 2006

“Come, let me take a picture of you”. He picks up a clunky, archaic-looking Hasselblad camera (“It’s basically a box with a mirror”, he quips). I stand against a white wall, unsure of what to do with my line of vision. I fold and unfold my arms. “Relax”, he instructs. I hear three clicks from the shutter. I look straight at the lens, then turn my head: the Johannesburg sun is languid and low; Sandton’s buildings glint in its orange heaviness.

Shoul has an artist’s residency in Marseille, and he will be exhibiting his “Brakpan” series there in September. He hopes to document Marseille while he is there, because, like Johannesburg, the French port city thrums with African immigrants; he wants to capture that energy with his mirror-box. He adds that for his next series, he will “experiment with colour” and take pictures “in his own backyard”. An orthodox Jew, he plans to document the Hasidic community in Johannesburg, which, he philosophises, makes sense, as “every image is essentially a self-portrait, isn’t it?”

He is “consumed” by the vortex of his art; it’s almost an obsessive-compulsion to take photographs, and he looks for images everywhere he goes. For Shoul, photography is telling stories through images, which are “easier to decipher than text”. Like Diane Arbus, his images never tell a complete story: they keep people guessing and discovering.  And, no matter how dark or “odd”, they keep letting the beauty, and the light, in.

*All images copyright Marc Shoul 1999-2020; see his website for more.

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