Shifting the ground of the image: South African photographer Fanie Jason (1990s)

Patricia Hayes

Palavras-chave: apartheid; paparazzi; privilege

Participação: presencial

White privilege, Souleymane Bachir Diagne notes, is ‘the privilege of seeing without being seen.’ According to the Senegalese philosopher, it is about ‘considering oneself to be the norm while the others are different or particular, and that one represents a certain form of norm and universality.’ There is a suggestion that whiteness is about not being looked at. When Fanie Jason, a black press photographer in Cape Town, stumbled into the international paparazzi economy, these dynamics were laid bare. Initially barred from working for the newspapers by racial legislation under apartheid, and struggling to fund himself as a freelance in the 1990s, Jason was called in to assist British journalists obtain images of Earl Spencer (brother of Princess Diana) who had taken up residence in Cape Town after the democratic transition in 1994. The Earl resided in a secure gated community that kept journalists out. Turning a racialised system of historical servitude to his advantage, Jason donned overalls and went in through a service entrance with other black staff, his camera in a Tupperware, and managed to get a few fuzzy shots of the Earl pushing his child in a pram. These catapulted him to international fame and resulted in a court case where he lost what little he had. The struggle continued with Jason getting an inside track on Spencer’s extramarital affair through information from a domestic worker living in his black neighbourhood Gugulethu. Jason’s entire career motivation was to be a black photographer who could give a black perspective on black lives in Africa. But something else is revealed about the stakes of visibility when the photographic image in Africa, grounded in a history of whites looking through the viewfinder, is countered by a black photographer whom the press cast as ‘David’ fighting Earl Spencer’s ‘Goliath’. Fanie Jason was able to shift the ground of the overwhelming majority of images made in Africa when, as Jean-Luc Nancy expresses it: ‘By taking the photograph, I fix an other in a suspended hesitation by which the image and its subject are both determined.’


Diagne, Souleymane Bachir and Jean-Loup Amselle. 2020. In Search of Africa(s). Cambridge: Polity Press.
Nancy, Jean-Luc. 2005. The Ground of the Image. New York: Zone Books.


Patricia Hayes Patricia Hayes is the National Research Foundation SARChI (South African Research Chairs Initiative) Chair in Visual History & Theory at the Centre for Humanities Research, University of the Western Cape. Her research background is in African history, and she engages extensively with photographic archives and their methodological challenges to bring together history and aesthetics. She is co-editor of the volume Ambivalent. Photography and Visibility in African History (2019); also the special issue on ‘Other Lives of the Image’ of the journal Kronos, Vol 46 (2020), and the recent edited volume Love and Revolution in the Twentieth-Century Colonial and Postcolonial World: Perspectives from South Asia and Southern Africa (2021).