Although both photojournalism shows at The Half King and Axis Gallery in Chelsea document the lives of individuals during times of political unrest and violence - Afghanistan at the former and South Africa at the latter - the spirit of the exhibits could not be more at odds with each other.
That is because the Afghan photos, taken by Dutch photojournalist Teun Voeten, focus on documenting private people living in extreme and difficult circumstances without consciously delivering a hard news punch; whereas the South African photographers pull no punches whatsoever in delivering devastating images of private people engaged in a very public ongoing conflict.
Voeten's mission statement is to "try to render a respectful portrait of a country and its citizens ravaged by an ongoing war." Or, the "effects of terrorism on the general public and what they are going through and still are," according to Cara Sutherland, director of exhibitions at the a21group, which works with The Half King to promote the work of photojournalists through a series of changing exhibits at the bar/restaurant.
Voeten became interested in documenting the so-called "forgotten wars" of Colombia, Afghanistan, Sudan and Sierra Leone in 1996, but it is his work of the Afghan people that is especially poignant at the moment. He first documented war-torn Kabul and Jalalabad in 1996 and 1998 and, in October of last year, he traveled extensively around the territory of the Northern Alliance. Following the events of Sept. 11, in November and December he went back and again documented slices of life in the newly liberated cities of Jalalabad and Kabul.
On Jan. 29 at The Half King, Voeten spoke for nearly an hour on his experiences and motivations for doing what he does. "I never called myself a war photographer," he said. "I'm just a photographer working in war-torn countries." Sebastian Junger, one of the four co-owners of The Half King who has also spent a good chunk of his career covering events in Afghanistan, met Voeten in 1993. "I was in Sarajevo and was completely new to reporting," Junger noted in his introductory remarks. For his first assignment in Afghanistan, Junger asked Voeten to join him. "I love his work. He's not just a photographer. He's just an incredible companion to work with," he continued.
Voeten "discovered his taste for Afghanistan" when the Taliban took over and he traveled all over the country as a result. "It's totally unbelievable, the country," he said, speaking of arid deserts and lush valleys. Soon after Sept. 11, he returned. Voeten prefers to focus on lots of different people. He will usually wake up with an agenda for that day - be it to take photos of women or beggars, for example.
In fact, of the 15 photos on display, he thinks his best shot is one of a woman begging for money, stretching out her arm into a cab window where he is sitting, while a young boy stands next to her washing the windshield. It is an unexpected shot, he said. The contrast in appearances between the woman with her face covered and the fresh-faced expression of the boy illustrates the storytelling capabilities of powerful photojournalism. "Afghanistan is actually a paradise for photographers - this is a secret," he added.
Despite the aspect of danger - of his first time in Sierra Leone, he recalled: "I was being hunted down by rebels who wanted to do all kinds of nasty things with me" - and the need to be compassionate without becoming overwhelmed with emotion, Voeten plans to return to Afghanistan in a couple of months. "A year ago nobody knew what was going on in Afghanistan. Now it's common knowledge," he said.
South Africa featured prominently in the news about a decade ago, when Nelson Mandela was released from prison and the country entered its first democratic era. However, many Americans weren't aware of the jostling of power prior to the change of government and the resulting conflict that was rife during that period, according to the Axis Gallery's director, Lisa Brittan. Brittan and her husband, Gary van Wyk, the gallery's curator, hope to highlight these events. The exhibit was also designed to coincide with Black History Month and "The Short Century" exhibit at P.S. 1 in Long Island City, which opened on Feb. 10 and focuses on independence and liberation movements in Africa from 1945 to '94.
Axis Gallery's exhibit spans the apartheid era in South Africa from the 1976 student uprising against the National party government for enforcing Afrikaans as a compulsory language in schools, to the democratic elections in 1994, loaded in between with violent images that document the intensity of the government's repressions and the resulting resistance of the mid-'80s. In fact, the very first photo of the exhibit, of the corpse of student Hector Petersen being carried in the arms of a friend after being shot by police, was seen around the world and became a symbol for the injustices of apartheid. The last photo, of a beaming Mandela casting his vote in South Africa's first democratic election, was shot by Paul Weinberg - the only photographer to capture this historic moment.
The approximately 65 photos, most of which have been printed digitally, showcase the work of 22 prominent South African photojournalists, all but one of whom are still working and based in South Africa. Ken Oosterbroek, who was the chief photographer for The Star newspaper during this time period - Johannesburg's largest daily broadsheet - was killed covering a firefight between two opposing political factions in 1994. Another top photojournalist of the time, Greg Marinovich, was shot three times in the same incident.
With Oosterbroek and Marinovich, Joao Silva and Kevin Carter formed a clique that was dubbed the "Bang Bang Club" by the South African media between 1991 and 1994 - a reference to the dangerous assignments they took on a daily basis. Carter committed suicide in 1994 after receiving a Pulitzer Prize for feature photography for his haunting picture of a malnourished Sudanese child bent over on the ground with a vulture eyeing it in the background.
Last year, a solo show at Axis Gallery featured the work of another famous South African photojournalist: Jčrgen Schadeberg (who is featured in this show as well). Schadeberg served as chief photographer for Drum magazine, which captured South African lifestyles and resistance during the 1950s and, in many ways, the images in the current exhibit pick up where he left off.
"At the opening, a lot of people cried and had to turn away," said Brittan, who also works as a filmmaker and recently returned from a six-week sojourn in South Africa where she was continuing work on her forthcoming documentary on Mandela's praise poet, Zolani Mkiva. "People were pretty blown away by the show and were astounded that it was such recent history," she added.
"Afghanistan 2001" by Teun Voeten, on view through Feb. 24 at The Half King, 505 W. 23rd St., 212-462-4300. "Shooting Resistance: South African Photography, 1976-1994," on view through March 16 at Axis Gallery, 453 W. 17th St., 212-741-2582, Tues.-Sat. 11 a.m.-6 p.m.