British photographer Chris Kirby first visited South Africa in the late 1970s, a few years after the introduction of the Krugerrand, a South African gold coin developed by the country’s apartheid regime in 1967. Kirby vividly remembers this initial journey because it took place three years after the Soweto Uprising, a massive protest that resulted in 20,000 schoolchildren taking to the streets in response to a declaration that Afrikaans would become the primary language of instruction in the classroom. The young protestors were met with police brutality, and an estimated 700 of them were killed. While Kirby arrived with the intent to photographically document the effects of apartheid on South African citizens, he soon realized that the ripple effect of the Uprising’s violence meant that he had to leave his equipment at home. “I was advised not to use my camera, as only the hated surveillance police used them. When apartheid ended, I resolved to go back to Soweto and photograph the changes that were going to inevitably happen there. I’ve been back to Soweto and South Africa countless times since.”
Following this first visit, Kirby’s oeuvre has evolved into a multi-faceted output that spans multiple genres. In particular, his series “We Gave You Forgiveness…(You Kept the Krugerrands)” builds on his visual condemnation of apartheid and its aftermath. He reflects, “Two decades after Nelson Mandela was elected, and after the much-lauded peace and reconciliation process, racial tensions in South Africa are still a major issue. Many believe that the country has become more divided as the economy has failed to deliver the growth and jobs that were promised to bring greater financial equality to the population. For the majority of South Africans, not much has changed economically in the past twenty years.” Kirby chose to reflect this using specific visual interventions in his photographs.
As a tangible product of apartheid, the Krugerrand has deep-rooted sociopolitical and symbolic associations attached to it. In the 1970s and 1980s, a number of Western countries forbade its import due to its association with the problematic regime. Addressing the title of his series, Kirby explains, “90% of the country’s wealth is held by 10% of the primarily-white population. To put it simply, the black population was extremely magnanimous in offering forgiveness during public reconciliations, but the white population still kept the majority of the wealth. With this series, I wanted to present that fact and this situation.”
Kirby visually references the coin in each of his photographs with the addition of hazy, colorful overlays placed on his black and white images. These features distinguish Kirby’s style from other documentary works, adding an extra layer of synaesthetic symbolism to his photographs. He explains, “In my work, I often embellish my images with lines, marks, and colouring to disrupt the conventional perspective associated with the medium and subject matter, and in a nuanced way, I convey a deeper meaning in the imagery.” The coloured discs that appear as silhouettes over the subjects directly reference the Krugerrand, which Kirby contends is “a potent symbol of the apartheid era, as well as ownership and wealth today.” The other coloured embellishments were influenced by “distressed old images, colour-tinged and watermarked, to create a timeline aesthetic from the apartheid era to the present.”
With his inventive visuals, Kirby hopes to evoke a sense of curiosity in the viewer, propelling them to further engage with the work and pay attention to the subject matter. “Just like Richard Mosse’s work, I first want to stimulate the viewer’s initial impressions in order to create a visual and emotional reaction. Then, if they engage further with the imagery and attempt to understand and deconstruct the visual elements, there’s a better chance that they will have understood the story and its message.”
Chris Kirby was chosen by Jim Casper—LensCulture’s editor-in-chief—as his Juror’s Pick in the LensCulture Exposure Awards 2018.