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Ian Berry in conversation

6 June 2011 by Sam

As part of the Look11 photography festival there has just been a big weekend of Magnum events at the International Slavery Museum. The Magnum Professional Practice course attracted photographers from across the country for two intense days of inspiring talks.

Magnum photographer Ian Berry, whose Living Apart exhibition is currently at the museum, arrived early on Friday evening for a free ‘in conversation’ event with National Museums Liverpool’s director of art galleries Reyahn King. It was a fascinating discussion, as Reyahn describes here:


The Living Apart exhibition of Ian’s photos of South Africa really moves me. My parents were in the African National Congress and I grew up with South Africans in exile in and out of our home. I felt like I knew the place because I knew the people and it’s the people – not the beautiful scenery or the famous animals – but the real heart of the country, its people, that Ian’s images capture.
photo of men dancing in the street

An impromptu pavement dance. Johannesburg, 1961 © Ian Berry/Magnum Photos

There’s a pavement dance (shown here) which captures the ability to find joy and express it in art in the hardest of circumstances. There’s the dignity of a boy whose house has been burnt down in Lesotho. The determination of those burning their passes, demonstrating at funerals, stocially getting on with their lives. It’s as if Ian’s camera has a heart of its own that documents the moment of subtle tension or even outright violence but does so always with compassion. Ian calls this honest observation, rather than political mission, and in all the images shown you can see his integrity as a photographer.

On Friday night Ian came up for an ‘In conversation’ event. His description of photographing as people fell down in the grass beside him, shot in the back by the South African police at Sharpeville created a horrified, transfixed hush in the 60 or so of us listening. Ian himself was matter of fact, telling us how glad he was that his images could be used as proof that people were innocent victims in the following trial of – not the police – but those shot at! I said that it seemed like a brave thing to do – not to run away, but just to lie down in the grass and take photos. Ian was dismissive – just being professional, doing a job.

There were some great questions from the audience too. Remember Liverpool was in the forefront of the anti-apartheid movement in the UK and the exhibition includes the ‘Liverpool 8 Against Apartheid’ banner that people of Toxteth (L8) used in their marches. Several questions from photographers about technique – why black and white for the images of South Africa? (Answer: Ian’s personal preference – he uses colour for professional assignments when required but prefers the quality of black and white). Does he use film now? (No, digital Leicas). An intriguing question asking if Ian had seen similar racial tensions on beaches in Rio de Janeiro. How would he feel if his work was presented as art? He said he didn’t have a problem with it – but he made no claims – his skill as a photographer was about capturing the moment, making it interesting, showing people in one part of the world what was going on in another part of the world. Ian commented too that there was decreasing call for a photographer like himself. The appetite for documentary photography of world events and places is being replaced by celebrity. What a shame. 

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