Dreaming the Street, Reviews & Essays

'The street, & dreams of the connected world' by David Lurie

The street, & dreams of the connected world

In Walter Benjamin’s seminal essay, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” (1936) he discusses how the camera is the perfect medium for exploring urban spaces, allowing the photographer to walk the streets, slowing down & choosing subjects of interest to capture in our ever changing world, where people spontaneously act out their fears & hopes, aspirations & survival strategies, wakefully dreaming…

Inspired by Achille Mbembe’s intriguing essay, “The digital age erases the divide between humans and objects”, Dreaming the Street explores the realism of urban culture at street level in parts of Cape Town & Johannesburg, combining elements of portraiture & cityscape, where a constantly recurring motif is the ubiquity of smart devices, literally, wherever one looks.

In Mbembe’s words: “Africa is going through a silent revolution in digital technologies and computational media… Here, as elsewhere in the world, life behind screens has become a fact of daily existence, including for many urban poor”…..“The advent of computational media in the continent has also ushered in a new aesthetic and cultural sensibility many have called Afropolitanism; a new form of worldliness which can be recognised by the extent to which the local is shaped by, and transacted through, global symbolic resources and imaginaries of circulation”.

And he further observes, “The computer and the cellphone are the key technological vectors of Afropolitanism. They have become portable stores of knowledge, and crucial devices that have changed the way the new African speaks, writes, communicates, imagines who he or she is, or even relates to others and to the world at large. ..Hardly any African today can be considered to not be connected to the rest of the world, the rest of the continent….. [It has] become the new infrastructure of the unconscious.” (1)

This innovative & utopian dream of a connected world was initially seen as the new liberation, emancipation, a magical free space, where anyone could express their beliefs, free of coercion, in a humane, fair & un-hierarchical cyberspace, a final refuge from the harsh reality of mainstream, corrupted politics. That’s what these images suggest; a celebration of the street as a site of limitless cosmopolitanism, creativity, energy, engagement & community (notwithstanding the ubiquitous SA signs of poverty & distress).

But new giant networks of information are aggressively undermining this possibility: behind what people are fed and what they can see are giant corporations gathering data on them, feeding them what they want them to hear & see. At the heart of the matter is data, the resource that makes all this possible: the “monopolisation of information” (about us, but not for us!) is in the hands of a few tech giants who are able to harvest (and own!), utilise or sell that information, thereby threatening, and diminishing our private, personal spaces.

These tech giants have created spectacularly lucrative markets in online targeted advertising, based on their successful predictions of which ads users would click; however, and more worryingly, this data has subsequently been hijacked for political objectives, by sinister organisations peddling misinformation, lies, rage and hate.

Both ‘surveillance capitalism’ (and its Chinese, state mass surveillance counterpart) have tragically corrupted the original utopian dream of the internet – society of equals, without leaders. The social media platforms that connect people are not formally responsible for the actual content of messages or the vision for the future that seems to be promoted & controlled by these mega-corporations of the internet & their political allies, which affects who we are, how we got here, and where we are going. The internet doesn’t just reflect reality any more; it shapes it. And without recourse to verifiable truth, democracy & life as we know and value it is doomed. As Orwell warned, “Political chaos is connected with the decay of language”.

These images represent a visual negotiation between what I can see and what I believe & fear to be the case: they often conceal more than they reveal, and provide only indirect & ambiguous hints at the ominous & invisible dangers that lie outside the picture frame, and beneath the visible surface. I wonder how viewers in the future will understand contemporary images of people obsessively conspiring with their digital devices. We are often told that seeing is believing, but it’s surely the other way round: what we see is not independent of our beliefs and our beliefs are not determined solely be what we see; we can no longer naively & unquestioningly trust what we see any more than we can trust what we are being told.

Dream machines or control machines? Daydream or nightmare?

October, 2021

1. Achille Mbembe, “The digital age erases the divide between humans and objects”, Mail & Guardian, January, 2017

'Dreaming the Street', by Daniel Herwitz

Dreaming the Street

Photography is the perfect instrument for capturing the urban street as a place of dreams because of its dreamlike character. Roland Barthes put the matter well in Camera Lucida. Studying a photo of his dearly beloved, recently-dead mother, a madness takes him over (as he puts it). Barthes feels she has emerged from the photo ghostlike or spectral, and is there before him, as if he could speak to her. Yet as soon as he reaches out to touch her, or opens his mouth to speak to her, the experience of her presence, the seeming-presentness-of-her, gives rise to its deflationary opposite. She is only an image on paper; she is not really there. This double experience of figures and things appearing from the photo or film screen before us, seeming to be there while we know all we really see is an image or projected light, is central to the unearthly character of the photograph, even when it is of documentary value, capturing the hard facts of real life.
This explains why photography was perhaps the most successful medium of the Surrealists, with geniuses like Man Ray turning women into apparitions, their bodies into the stuff of dreams. Voyeuristic no doubt, and worthy of criticism, but astonishing all the same. In Ray’s hands the camera is a lens into the unconscious, the allure of the unknown, the spectral presence of those neither here nor there but in some strange netherworld; this is the artifact of the photographic medium.
David Lurie captures the street with documentary clarity, showing us contemporary African lives in the making and remaking, hanging out, performative, dressed to the nines, caught in wakeful interiority as they retreat into themselves, distracted, or in boldly direct posing. And he captures the street in a strangely transient way, as if the persons there are busy dreaming their identities into existence (real or imaginary), in the process of an inexplicable process of becoming. The photos are perspicuous and opaque, documentary and dreamlike.
Cell phones proliferate in the manner of silent film props or motifs: the Chaplin hat and walking stick, the swirl of objects unhinged in the surreal adventures of Buster Keaton. Silent film calls objects into animated form. They become alive before the camera. The cell phone in Lurie’s photos is ever at the ready, a prop tucked neatly into a bra or the front pocket of tight fitting pants, accentuating sexuality, or there like a gun just in case. Sometimes the mobile is in use as people text, survey, talk, check out social media.
The phone empowers by extending the peoples’ domain and range from being there on the street to wherever and whatever circuitry is activated. It is the part of their body, or armamentaria, which expands the self, momentarily isolating person from street by connecting her elsewhere, to Shanghai, Dubai, Mombasa, Harari or round the corner to some restaurant, club, friend or business associate. The matrix of the street is actual and digital, four-dimensional if you will. The cell phone, like all silent film props, is at once decorative, definitive and a conduit for this matrix. It seems to have a life of its own, a hidden power far greater than its size. A photo of a cell phone in use always implies a hidden narrative, not of interiority but of connectivity. The photo shows you all there is to see, but also all that cannot be seen. It is assertive yet deferential, revealing the ordinary to be elusive.
The street is to the African of the twenty-first century as Paris was to the nineteenth. The rise of modern art in 1860s Paris was a result of Baron Hausmann’s reconstruction of the city after the failed revolutions of 1848. He introduced the Boulevards, which opened up the city from its tangle of streets to overall circulation. The purpose was to allow for enhanced surveillance by the police (who had found themselves unable to reach the socialist barricades, given Paris’ warren of tiny streets) but also to open it to the circulation which emerging markets require. The rise of a new bourgeois (middle) class demanded access to consumption. This new class, wanting profile, prestige and distinction, took to the streets in their finery, advertising their arrival as a class through the display of the commodities they newly owned. This included their women (mistresses, prostitutes), their clothing, their walking sticks and top hats, and the art they began to collect.
It is in part this rising middle class that can be seen on the African street, with consumer power, interest in seeing and being seen, in making the scene or observing it in the manner of a French denizen of the Boulevard, or what the poet Baudelaire called that new person on the scene of history: the painter of modern life. This painter, an Impressionist, responded by turning to what Baudelaire called the fleeting, the transient, and the ephemeral rather than the eternal and immutable, which had been the earlier task of European art. Impressionists loved and lived on the streets, painting every chance event as if its very transience were part of what made it memorable. This fascination with the instant always left the figure in the painting caught in a moment of interiority or activity which fell beyond the frame. We cannot know what is happening because we cannot know what will happen next, or what happened before. Narrative is permanently elusive.
Lurie is a kind of impressionist painter of the street, capturing its fleeting, transient nature, those who briefly pose to return to whatever they were doing, those who appear in shops, in windows, at this particular instant, only to disappear a moment later. The cell phone is part of what makes him an impressionist since it too is permanently elusive, since we have no idea what is being texted, followed or said. What we have on the street are urban lives caught in the same continuum of privacy, internalization, distraction, and bold assertion as the impressionists found in the Paris of the nineteenth century. Their finery is not soft yellow bonnets and black top coats, but gloriously assertive fabrics and colors, sculpted clothing, long caftans, glorious hair styling, and…cell phones.
Indeed the street is also, being a hangout, a place where life happens as often as not without any overall project or design. It is about being there: as consumer, seller, hanger-out, the one who makes the scene. This project of mere appearance without overall destiny is in fact the core of its life; a core equal to the role of the street in the life narratives that are implied but not visible. The street is where things happen and where they don’t happen. This is what makes it interesting.
And then there is the signage. Lurie has long been interested in the writing, painting, graffiti, symbols on city walls, plastered on the sides of buildings, spray-painted or drawn on the sides of highways, signage made in celebration, protest, fury, desperation, speaking to “the city” or to “whomever” with the goal of gaining attention, recognition. Or at least with the goal of refusing the indignity of silence in a democracy where the marginalized hardly count and are excluded from the institutional forms of the state (apart perhaps from voting). These artifacts of the city represent voices seeking an audience beyond the confines of their lives. Seeking an audience…on the street. One can see this in a masterful Lurie photo of a poster or painting on a door, in vivid day-glow ochres, pinks, blacks, greens of (I think) Robert Sobukwe surrounded by other revolutionaries of the struggle, and icons like Elvis. It is an extravaganza of politics and pleasure, reveling in the fierceness of the figure, but also in the fun of everyone else. The word “CODESA” is scribbled in somewhere towards the bottom, Convention for a Democratic South Africa. It refers to the 1991 meeting of 92 organizations united in opposition to Apartheid that gathered in Durban to form the Patriotic Front. This crucial meeting led to agreement that an interim government was required to manage the democratic transition. The fact of graffiti like this may be taken to confirm that the democratic transition is far from over, if by democratic one also means emancipatory. The street is the place for such statements. And yet, on the street they soon become part of the woodwork, frayed and half (almost?)decorative. On such doors and walls time turns the political into the aesthetic. This is how a photo shows us time, which is itself strange.
Let me adopt a term from the American philosopher/aesthetician Arthur Danto, which he used to characterize the texture of Wallace Stevens’ poetic riff on Picasso’s famous 1903 painting The Old Guitarist, an ethereal painting from Picasso’s youthful Blue Period, in which the Spanish philosopher Miguel di Unamuno figured centrally, with his Spanish sense of melancholy: life is but a dream. The guitarist is so elongated and abstracted, so pale and two dimensional, that he seems no more there than Barthes’ mother in the photo. In the Stevens poem (The Man with the Blue Guitar) the poet transposes the washed out, spectral grey-blue of the Picasso work into a paean to the American blues, a study of blue moods, of the strange migration of paint into language (can language be blue?). Danto describes Stevens’ poem as a “wakeful dream” . What Lurie finds on the street is a kind of wakeful dreaming, aspirational, performative, melancholy, rough and tumble, interior, fascinated. His photos capture the ordinary banality of it all, but also its peculiar opacity, since the street becomes a kind of photographic silhouette, whisked from the flow of time into photographic stillness.
On the street one finds every element of economy, society, race, class, gender. Identities are revealed but also re-scripted through performance. The street is a process of becoming which cannot be reduced to any analytic or explanatory category. It is life unfolding in multiple directions, or no direction. It is where people pass each other going a hundred different places, or nowhere. It is a place where the photographer may find the uncanny nature of momentary interactions and arrangements that only the camera could capture. Life without explanation, singularity of purpose, life as display and as daily banality.
When all those things appear at once, we have the strangeness of life without order or explanation, and it’s just a bit uncanny. David Lurie is its poet.

Daniel Herwitz
Frederick G. L. Huetwell Professor
Comparative Literature, Philosophy and History of Art
University of Michigan, Ann Arbor

'Love and Squalor (and other dreams)' by Ashraf Jamal

Love and Squalor (and other dreams)

David Lurie channels the calloused skin of South African art – documentary photography. His latest series of photographs, comprising inner-city scenes in Johannesburg and Cape Town – Dreaming the Street – offers a very different lesson as to what faces do, and what they are. His portraits are palpable excrescences – visible lesions of pain and historical horror. Whether guarded or discomposed, they release a brittle force. Look at me, they say. What do you see? What can you see? Me? Lurie gives it to us straight up. However, the question persists: Are these images the truth? Or are they sallies in the name of -truth? Where, in a photograph, does truth lie? Photographs ‘economise the truth’, Sally Mann reminds us. ‘They are always moments more or less illusorily abducted from time’s continuum.’

Roland Barthes seems to agree with Sally Mann. In Camera Lucida we read: ‘Since every photograph is contingent (and therefore outside of meaning), photography cannot signify (aim at a generality) except by assuming a mask.’ Is this all photographs can ever be – masks? If so, what of documentary photography, the aesthetics of protest which in South Africa in the 1980s, notes Simon Njami, shifts from reaction to introspection, from indictment to reflection. David Lurie’s photography is an integral manifestation of this shift. True, like all photographs, his are abducted, and yet, they never lose their contingent trace – their sense of time and place – the streets of Johannesburg and Cape Town. In the case of this essay, the photographs of Long Street in particular. Therein I find a distillation of the precarity of life at the foot of Africa, in a heterogeneous port city in which the extremes of poverty and wealth collide, and all importantly, in which consumption is the extension of waste. This because it is waste that compels one in Lurie’s Long Street photographs – an acute sense of the deep human vulnerability that stems from a history of neglect and disregard. Lurie’s approach to this existential horror is as vulnerable as the human condition he witnesses, and inextricably locked within.

Rather, after Athol Fugard, what compels Lurie is a need to understand how and why, in a putative democracy, South Africa remains the most unequal society on earth. This abomination has everything to do with the disregard for life, the existential toll of a brutally exclusive and exclusionary history. Fugard sums up this catastrophic condition witheringly in his play Boesman and Lena: the ‘white man’ is so ‘beneukt with us’. ‘He can’t get rid of his rubbish. He throws it away, we pick it up. Wear it, Sleep in it. We’re made of it now. His rubbish is people’. One cannot look at a South African photograph without grasping the psychic damage at its root. No neutrality is ever permitted, and no exemption. This is Lurie’s core understanding; it explains the way he looks at the world. His vision is an aching record of a pathology. If Long Street, after T.S. Eliot, is his waste land, it is because it is an inner-city realm that exemplifies an undoing – palpable, raw, disfigured, true.

Elsewhere in Camera Lucida, Barthes declares that ‘Photography is subversive not when it frightens, repels, or even stigmatizes, but when it is pensive, when it thinks’ It is this reflective power – which frees the world from its objectification, which sinks further into the fragility of being, and, thereby, frees the body from its type – which makes Lurie’s photographs remarkable. After Barthes, they are ‘pensive’ – they think. This is the vital ingredient in a Lurie photograph. He is never lured by dark tourism, refuses personal exemption in the moment of apprehension – seeing. Instead, we, like the photographer, are caught up in the mix. Because the photographic moment is as pointed as it is disjunct – skewed, off-kilter, a definitional accident – we are never allowed the ability to compose ourselves before them. The moment of thought occurs as an abrasion, as though one were rubbed raw. This because thinking in South Africa – grasping the pensive – is inescapably a vulnerable act. In other words, there is something utterly distinctive about the South African moment in photography, which, according to the Nobel Laureate J.M. Coetzee makes it a country ‘as irresistible as it is unlovable’. Herein lies the complex tug.

But of course, if we remain with Sally Mann’s wager, photographs, irrespective of where they are shot, remain miscarriages, ‘abducted from time’s continuum’, and thus vulnerable, always, to misinterpretation. Photographs, in other words, are never quite understood, despite their seeming transparency. If this is so, then, the more, we must we reflect on their duplicity, or their inability to tell an unvarnished truth. Are photographs necessarily perverse? Is that why we are drawn to them? Because they are irresistible and unlovable? But then, isn’t all of life precisely thus – duplicitous, vulnerable to misinterpretation? If no essential truth exists, no absolute, is not the entirety of being an abduction, some staccato disarticulation of a forever deferred totality? Illusion, it seems, is inevitable, it is the degree that counts. How connected, how separate, is the moment when the photographer meets the eye of his subject – how pensive is that moment, how true?

In Lurie’s psycho-geographic photographic record eyes matter, they look straight at you. Deflection is exchanged for inflection – the nature of looking. These are not photographs parlayed for the squeamish. It is decadence that runs through these images, decadence as a right that tolls on bodies that have been through many wars. Hurt is their metronome – because history hurts. As J.M. Coetzee notoriously resumes in his ‘Jerusalem Prize Acceptance Speech’, South Africans are damaged, psychically butchered, beings’ intestate, unresolved, forever incomplete. If this is true, it is only partly so, because what David Lurie reminds us, is that damage, in-and-of itself, is never the entire story. Which is why his photographs of inner-city Johannesburg and Cape Town possess a great vivacity. Certainly, damage lingers, corrodes, disputes the illusion which Lurie’s images body forth – beings intact, wholly alive in their fullness, precarious or not. Look how a woman hugs her dogs. How a man in a brown fedora, with yellow ear discs, fingers pinched to the lapels of his jacket, scans the field in front of him – the photographer, the viewer. There is fragility there – true, as there is fragility in every human being – but there is also a refusal of self-objectification, or objectification by others, and a counter-intuitive drive towards self-love – being in love with oneself. It is this self-love which, for Lurie, embodies what Achille Mbembe terms ‘Afropolitanism’, a peculiarly African urbanity, that runs counter to ‘Afropessimism’, a deeply prejudicial vision of Africa as the locus of unreason, barbarity – darkness. As Mbembe counter-intuitively reminds us, Afropolitanism is ‘a new form of worldliness which can be recognised by the extent to which the local is shaped by and transacted through global symbolic resources and imaginaries of circulation’.

This inclusive diasporic vision is a vital antidote and inspiration for Lurie. However, it cannot be celebrated at the expense of a corrosive reality in which the South African majority remains trapped. It is therefore a split focus that drives the photographer. In what for me remains one of his most potent portraits, we see a young woman veering to the right yet seeming to exit left. Off-kilter. Nothing is posed, nothing set. Her eyes are blank slates, as though blind. Drugged? Surely. There’s an emptiness in the look, as though she is navigating the street without seeking. We all do this, look without looking, compelled by a consul that takes us where we need to be, or twists us involuntarily into places we never anticipated. In the background, far clearer than her fudged person, is a sign that reads – FICTION. The tension between raw reality and fantasy is stark. This is not art that pretends to be something else. There is no verisimilitude, no ballast. The whole is off-key. Wrong. As the young woman lurches past the viewer, the sign that reads FICTION holds its own. Implacable in its certainty it catches the eye because we pull ourselves there, because she, the woman, immune, is difficult to look at, because truth, in South Africa, is too great to carry. Then again, as Barthes reassuringly reminds us, ‘Ultimately – or at the limit – in order to see a photograph well, it is best to look away or close your eyes’.

Lurie’s best portraits take us to places we refuse to go. They find us where we hurt most – when we look at the poor, the dispossessed, those destroyed by life. The Mexican-American poet, Cynthia Cruz, is justifiably troubled by the art and literary world’s failure to understand life outside of its narrow privileged orbit. In his essay on Cruz’s poetry, ‘Broken Pieces’, Cody Delistraty asks why the literary world fails to understand Cruz’s ‘familiarity with, and respect for, the working class.’ Because her poems are not created to suit their optic, they are considered deficient. Poverty must have a digestible language, be choreographed to fit the needs of those seeking some elective affinity. Black experience suffers the same denigration, though, ironically, in this day and age, the literary and art worlds are more than happy to absorb racial and sexual difference. Poverty, in a looser sense, overriding race and gender, remains mired in damnation, worse, disregard.

What Lurie does is pick up the broken pieces. Never lured by what is fashionable or appropriate, he chooses to gift us with that which is indigestible. No dark reasoning feeds this decision. It is simply the way he looks at the world, and the way it looks back at him. Because there is no moral code at work, no need to right a wrong, we are allowed – if willing – worlds as tender, as real, as they are indecipherable. A woman in a yellow jacket, great hooped earrings, and grey baseball cap finds her whimsical echo in a painted backdrop of a woman with a flower placed like a conch to the ear, her gaze rich with promise. In another interplay of two levels of reality – or fiction for that matter – we peer through the window of a supermarket, a cashier in the distance, while flush against the pane is an advert for Coca-Cola, the woman sporting the brand with eyes turned upwards, as though in a trance. In another photograph, two figures lie deep in sleep on an olive couch placed on the street, their secret inner worlds toasted by a sign that reads – SUMMER ROCKS. Signage is key in many of Lurie’s images, unsurprising given they are shot in inner-city streets, in the gut of Capital. In one image we read the urban mantra – ‘Vibrators / Condoms / Lingerie / Toys’.

However, in Lurie’s photographs, people are never the prosthetic extensions of things. Rather, they are elegies to human existence. Their rarity, in my view, stems from the artist’s ability to find grace in the most unyielding of places. Hurt is present, but so is love inside of squalor. This place that Lurie records belongs to all of us. There is no reprieve. Lurie reveals the marvel of all signs, and their power to level the world. His faces are not conceits. They are designed to engender hope under the most difficult of circumstances. Because they draw us outward, onto a street as desolate as it is marvellous, they allow for what we rarely encounter – a genuine interface, a crux. Genuine, that is, to a point. Because as Mann reminds us, no photograph can ever speak the truth in its entirety. The eye economises what it sees, dismisses what it cannot. An image, a face, is an abduction.

And yet, knowing this, and knowing also that there exists no other grail in which meaning-life-existence is miraculously pieced together, I am nevertheless most enthralled by an image included in this book which is not a photograph of the street at all. It is a photograph of a figure on a misty beach. The figure is indecipherable, a pinprick, a fleck, in a realm as portentous as it is bluntly blind. I’m reminded of the only painting by Caspar David Friedrich which I care for – Monk by the Sea. What this peculiarly different photograph tells me is that photographs, fundamentally, remain inscrutable. That we might look, yet never see. That sometimes we might have to close our eyes in order to see better. After all, looking is a squalid act, because all it searches for remains beyond its petty and neglectful grasp. But looking is also an act of love – devotional – despite that little is truly grasped. It is because of this paradox – the paradox of a country as irresistible as it is lovable – that I feel that Lurie has included the vanishing man caught between beach and sea and impenetrable sky.

Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida, London: Vintage Classics, 2020.
J.M. Coetzee, ‘1987 Jerusalem Prize Acceptance Speech’, in Doubling the Point, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1992.
Cody Delistraty, ‘Broken Pieces: Cynthia Cruz’s poetry describes the violence of poverty’, Poverty Foundation, 2020. Online.
Sally Mann, Hold Still, New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2015.
Simon Njami, ‘The Value of Andrew Tshabangu’s Photography’, in Andrew Tshabangu Footprints, Johannesburg: Fourthwall Books, 2017.



About this book: David Lurie is an internationally exhibited and awardwinning
documentary and fine art photographer, with a considerable
back catalogue of prestigious and successful exhibitions and books of
his work. Recent book collections with highly respected European
publishing houses have taken cityscapes and landscapes as their subject,
specifically those of his native Cape Town, the Cradle of Humankind,
and the mysterious semi-desert vistas of South Africa’s Karoo region.
In his new collection, Dreaming the Street, Lurie returns to the terrain of
the city, but this time with a specific visual agenda in mind which he shapes
with the eye for a carefully composed frame of both a documentarist
and a fine artist. The many successful photographic collections which
Lurie has created in the course of his career have depended on a
combination of factors: an aesthetic eye, a skilful sense of composition,
lighting and colour, and, perhaps most importantly, a keen sense of the
topicality and socio-political importance of what is contained within his
frames. Nowhere is this more evident than in the current collection.
Perhaps the most burning issue facing the world, apart from the literal
burning of the planet by means of the human-induced climate crisis, is
the astounding social and economic inequality of global
hypercapitalism, sustained and facilitated by contemporary technology.
Lurie’s new collection strikes at the very heart of the dilemma of
unequal access to the technological means of production – the digital
sphere, usually reached via the ubiquitous smartphone. Having such
access is a non-negotiable to act within a global economy and socius
– and yet the technological system is subject to autocratic control
which turns people’s desire to connect into their personal data to be
commodified and sold.
His new project visually dramatizes the explosion of cheap and available
camera technology built into smartphones, which has coincided with
a corresponding explosion of the platforms on which their images can be
seen – social media. This seemingly extreme democratisation of
image making in fact also disempowers, by turning the data inherent in
all images – locations, faces, frequency of images, likes and dislikes –
into monetisable information to be harvested and deployed by social
media corporations.
Street photography started out as a means to document and thereby
understand new ways of living that rapid urbanisation and industrial
work and leisure practices had brought about. As a medium, street
photography focused on popular culture and the working classes as a
result. The novelty of having one’s lifestyle and values disseminated
photographically is a mainstay of the street photography idiom – one
that is now overshadowed by the ubiquity of its post-capitalist, selfinitiated
forms. This very ubiquity conceals the ideology behind a variable
and radically unequal access to digital culture, still very much organised
along class and racial lines.
Lurie’s new book interrogates these very contemporary phenomena from
the point of view of the original tenets of street photography – the visual
documentation of an emerging and usually working-class cultural formation
or set of phenomena. His book is not nostalgic, but very contemporary
– showing digital technology as potentially empowering in the hands of
the working class and street level subjects who use it. In the context of
a radically unequal society such as South Africa’s it is both a brave and
intriguing aesthetic decision.

James Sey