Photography in Fees van die ongenooides by P.G. du Plessis

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This article investigates the role of photographs, photography and the photographer in the historical novel Fees van die ongenooides (Tafelberg, 2008) based on the TV series Feast of the uninvited, by P.G. du Plessis.

It discusses the importance of the photographer (Joey Drew) as a character and the extensive use of and references to photographs in this novel. The discussion of the functions of these photographic references is one of the important structural aspects of the analysis of this historical novel, which also shows elements of a photographical novel (Petit 2010:227). Joey Drew was a British photographer during the Anglo-Boer war, and the structure of this novel is built around the opening of a collection of his photographs by Major Brooks, who was his superior, 40 years after the war, in the War Museum in Bloemfontein. What follows is the reconstruction and recontextualisation of events during the war by the different interpretations and experiences (even of the photographer) of these photos by the narrator, Major Brooks and other characters in the novel. The plot focuses on the experiences of two Boer families, the Van Wyks and the Minters, the photographer, Joey Drew and Major Brooks during the war.

Critics like Susan Sontag (2008) and Roland Barthes (2000) emphasise different functions of photographs: as an image of truth, an experience of pleasure and desire, a slice of time, an emotional or affective experience, nostalgia and memory, social critique, voyeurism and the expression of ideologies. Sontag states (2008:71) it is “open to any kind of reading”. Barthes (2000) also describes the difference between the studium – the direct recognition of objects, persons and nature in general – and the punctum – the personal emotional, affective reaction to a photograph. His references to the recognition of the presence of death in looking at photos and the importance of time as a presence and past in every photograph are discussed.

The article highlights the numerous references to photographs in the novel and discusses the description of these photographs by the third person or external narrator, the photographer’s thoughts during and after taking the photographs and the reaction of other focalisers. Theoretical concepts considering the nature and meaning of photographs by critics like Susan Sontag, Roland Barthes, Allen Trachtenberg and others are used as a framework for the discussion on the meaning and interpretation of photographs. The influence of the development of photography on the style of the 19th-century realistic novels is also taken into consideration.

During the analysis of the photographic meaning it becomes clear that the meaning of photographs is multidimensional. The idea that meaning is limited to the image of the reality of objects, space and persons is shown to be very naïve. Diverse and varied interpretations of photos become possible as a result of the different contexts of viewing and the difference in focus and background of the photographer, narrator and viewer (including different characters and readers).

The traditional role of the photograph as an archive, especially in a historical context, is undermined and questioned. In the case of this novel the photographs, according to Davis (2007:2), are “narrated images” that are described in the text and not “manifest images” where the photos themselves are part of the text.

The relationship between photographs and the truth, in reference to the writing of history and the fictionalisation of history are part of the analysis which leads to the identification of recurring themes like the importance of time and memory, distance and proximity, lies and truth, past and presence, death and loss. That the metonymic meaning of some photographs suggest a more universal application of meaning also becomes clear during the analysis. The experience of one family and those immediately associated with them also becomes representative of the experiences of other groups and individuals during the war.

The truthfulness and objectivity of photographs are questioned even from the beginning of the novel with the mention of the squint photographer with a “false” camera. Combined with this is the fact that Major Brooks, who has come back to lift the 40-year embargo on the photographs at the War Museum, is busy with a seemingly impossible search for things that have irrevocably passed. It is impossible to recreate the objective and full truth of events of the war. Although photographs are considered to be among the purest of archival sources, the viewer can still make only a fragmented recreation (Armstrong 2002:16) and interpretation of the reality that was only a “slice of time” (Sontag 2008) of the past.

Some critics of the novel have also stated the importance of the distanced and ironical narrator in the style of a photographer as narrator. Attention to photographs depicting and describing marginalised characters, like black South Africans during the Anglo-Boer War of 1899–1902, and a focus on the inhumanity of actions by the colonial power (the British Empire) by an English photographer and treacherous Boer fighters, undermine the official and traditional historical texts about this war. Even the photographer himself comes to the conclusion that photographs can and may tell terrible lies!

The continual undermining of the idea of the singularity of photographic meaning is also constructed by the different perspectives and focalisers in their experiences of, and the way they view, the photos described: the narrator’s description and contextualisation, the photographer’s thoughts during and after the taking of the photographs, Major Brooks’s opening of the photographs in the museum, and even the thoughts of some of the characters photographed.

On the one hand Joey Drew is the appointed, official regimental photographer who must document the official history of the war. On the other hand he disobeys orders and chooses to take photos of some of the atrocities (like the burning of farms and the conditions in concentration camps) and colour in the negatives to his liking, and in the end declares that the photographs are also bitter lies. The photographic illusion of a dead child being handed to his father, but who is depicted as being alive, is one of his greatest regrets afterwards.

One of the similarities between the author/narrator and the photographer is their freedom to choose what must be photographed and told, what context or caption to give. Their choice have an important influence on how much information a reader receives in order to make an interpretation, thereby becoming a co-interpreter of meaning in the photograph. They, the author and photographer, like Major Brooks, remember selectively, and none of them has all the knowledge to be certain about the final truth which needs to be conveyed to the assistant in the museum (the archive) and the reader.

The article shows that the photographic framework of extensive references to photography, photographs and the role of the photographer, parallel to that of the author/narrator, is certainly one of the many aspects of this multifaceted novel that emphasises the undermining of the idea of objective historical writing and a simplistic interpretation of photographs.

It is also true that the use of photographs strengthens the illusion of reality and forms part of a convincing and intense narrative about the pain, loss and regrets of individuals during the Anglo-Boer War, and the consequences for relationships and life-long thoughts about who and where they would have been without the war.

Keywords: affect in photography; archive; author and photographer; Feast of the uninvited; Fees van die ongenooides; historical fiction; P.G. du Plessis; meaning in photography; truth and history

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Fotografie in Fees van die ongenooides van P.G. du Plessis

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