Subotzky, Mikhael


South African, b. 1981; lives and works in Johannesburg, South Africa


Mikhael Subotzky has been depicting South African life through the prism of its prisons since 2004, steadily building a portfolio that has garnished the young photographer numerous awards, as well as membership in the prestigious Magnum Photos cooperative agency. The series Die Vier Hoeke (The Four Corners), presented as Subotzky's degree portfolio at the Michaelis School of Fine Art, Cape Town, was conceptualized when then-student Subotzky accompanied members of the Independent Elections Commission to document the Pollsmoor prisoners at the polling booth. The project, comprising a series of relentlessly flattened panoramic images constructed from as many as eighteen separate negatives, was then exhibited at Pollsmoor Prison on Freedom Day, 27 April 2005, in the cell that once housed Nelson Mandela. Insofar as the exhibition was primarily directed toward the subjects depicted in the photographs themselves, it effectively reversed the prevailing relations of viewing by allowing only a group of 300 members of the public into the cell-cum-exhibition-hall. 

This allegorizing procedure is further developed in Subotzky's series Beaufort West, which depicts the town of the same name in Central Karoo; the town, once marking the border between Cape Colony and the remainder of the continent, was literally constructed around a prison marking off the ordered spaces of law and civilization from the wilds beyond. With these strategies, including a series of Prison Photo Workshops begun in 2005, Subotzky defends himself from the dangers of fetishization that his emphasis on technique and documentation betray; rather, Subotzky claims that "an image needs to… agitate the eye," and operates with "a notion of bearing witness… a type of reflection" that coincides with this aim.

Artworks by Subotzky, Mikhael

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