The new setting for the Erdmann Contemporary Gallery – a historical building in Kloof Street – is the perfect space to hold the Nic Bothma retrospective, Off the Wire. The clean lines, the white space and the light-filled room are simple and beautiful yet imbued with the gravitas of history – qualities that are echoed in Bothma’s work.
Nic Bothma began his career in photojournalism during the fall of apartheid, documenting the transition into democracy both for local newspapers and international agencies. He is now the Chief Photographer (West Africa) for the European Press Photo Agency. Interested in documenting extremes and in sharing stories of the enduring human spirit, Bothma says that the gift of photography is in how it allows us to see life in all its glory: the light and the dark.
The first part of the exhibition focuses on a selection of photographs spanning the last ten years of Bothma’s career as a ‘wire photographer.’ As Bothma explains, speed is of the essence – newspapers and magazines around the globe want to beam images of world-breaking news first, and competition is fierce. The art is in the numerous creative split-second decisions – where to stand, what to focus on, what medium to shoot in – that will result in The Shot, the singular image that brilliantly sums up the event.
What characterises Bothma’s work is his ability to capture the moments before or after the ‘official’ moment. Where others focus on the news, Bothma captures the story behind the news: the nervous statesman before his speech, the graphic pattern of multi-coloured surfboards bobbing in the ocean after tackling the world record for surfing a single wave or, perhaps the best example of all, the last image in the exhibition in which former president FW De Klerk and Nelson Mandela have just addressed the international media at Tuynhuis on 6 May 1994. The flashlights have faded, and the historical moment of the two statesmen shaking hands and posing for the press is over. Then as the two men turn away, Bothma presses the shutter, perfectly capturing the moment as Mandela’s arm is raised in a near embrace of De Klerk, a comforting gesture, as if to reassure De Klerk that he and the nation are safe… and the rest is history.
The fact that work by a reportage photographer is hanging in a high art gallery – with price tags to match – indicates, quite rightly, that ‘news photography’ is art in its own right. For example, in ‘Ronaldo Darfur’, a small boy dressed in a green and gold football shirt with the name “Ronaldo” emblazoned on his back sits amongst a sea of older men all dressed in traditional white garb. Not only is the image visually arresting, but it tells a story in its juxtaposition of the western and ancient worlds, the serious and the lighthearted.
In ‘Refugees Darfur’ a Sudanese Aid worker watches over internally displaced people outside a food distribution centre. Esentially a news story about the ravages of war, Bothma mentioned that the image had recently been criticized for being a ‘pretty’ image of deep suffering. The aid worker – dressed all in white – is shot from behind, leaning against what appears to be a wooden cross, arms outstretched in a Christ-like posture, while the seated people in front of him are dressed in multicoloured hues. It is, certainly, extraordinarily beautiful and almost bound to raise emotion and opinion.
As Bothma says, “much of the art of documentary-style photography lies in editing things out of the frame: getting rid of the noise and the clutter and only leaving the simplest thing to tell the story.” In ‘Ceasefire Monrovia’ a rebel is observing a ceasefire alongside a bullet-riddled house and bus in Liberia – a scene striking in its simplicity and stillness. What we don’t see is that this was in fact a chaotic scene filled with people and movement. So much so, that Bothma could only shoot two frames. By editing things out of the frame and focusing on a small detail, Bothma succeeds in saying more about the effects of a 14 year civil war than if he had filled the frame.
One of Bothma’s personal favourites, ‘Amputees Freetown’, is a portrait of two members of the Single Leg Amputee Sports Club of Sierra Leone playing football. Although victims of a horrific civil war, Bothma describes them as living a full life beyond their brutal past. Their attitude is deeply inspiring to him and the image, he says, is a constant reminder that he really has nothing to worry about in his own life.
The exhibition concludes with a space dedicated to Nelson Mandela: a collection of images that portrays the flashes of private moments in the public eye. It is both a homage to a great statesman and a reminder of the beginning of Bothma’s career when he was intimidated by the presence of the world’s best press photographers as he helped the BBC to document these momentous events.
Nic Bothma is now internationally recognized as one of the world’s top reportage photographers, but he remains humble. Glancing around the room at his award-winning work he says, “Life is the real story. We’re just a conduit.”
Off the Wire runs at Erdmann Contemporary from 3 to 26 June 2014.
Samantha Reynolds is a freelance writer and photographer focusing on art and travel. More of her work can be found at goldendreams.me.