All images by Alon Skuy.
Alon Skuy’s images linger long in the mind – whether it is the horror of machete-armed mobs baying for blood, women running from burning shacks or the quiet, contemplative and poetic silhouette of a man behind a curtain, smoking a cigarette in candle light or the whimsical, somewhat sad shot of a man bathing in a bucket – they manage to say something pertinent.
His ability to get under the skin, to define aptly, what French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson referred to as the “decisive moment”, has made him a favourite of award committees, two of which handed him prizes in 2009 alone.
Alon is a committed chronicler of South African life, a cameraman whose decisive moments tell in unflinching candour (the image of the man in the bucket is perhaps sadder than whimsical), events upon which nation moments turn:
In 2009, he won the Vodacom Journalist of the Year Awards for the Living inside a Bridge series. That series was produced after he was granted the Ruth First Fellowship in 2008 together with journalist, Hilary Joffe.
The yearly fellowship (named after Ruth First; an investigative journalist killed during the apartheid era in 1982) is granted to a journalist and a photographer to work together on a theme.
At that time, South Africa was experiencing power outages so appropriately they were to interpret the theme Politics and the Economics of Energy in South Africa. ‘I wanted to photograph how the crisis affected ordinary people and incorporate the politics intertwined in energy’.
He embarked on a search of homeless people who survive without electricity. He then met a homeless man living in a park who offered to take him to a bridge in Auckland Park inhabited by a group of people. After explaining his project to them, Alon was granted access to their ‘home’.
He knew that the success of his story depended on his getting a firsthand experience of what it was like to live in under such conditions. One evening he decided to spend the night.
‘In the beginning I felt a little vulnerable because no one knows who you are and you don’t know how the guys are going to react to you when you are alone. But during the course of the project they were very free and I felt very welcome inside the bridge’. As a result, the pictures he took reflected his engagement with his subjects on a personal level.
Bridge series – Man smoking behind a curtain
One of the captivating images was of a silhouette of a man behind a curtain partition, smoking a cigarette in candle light. If this picture stood on its own, one would think that, the picture was taken inside a house. Another picture shows a man bathing in a bucket while another shows a man with a leopard print shawl exiting their ‘home’ through a small hole.
He photographed from different viewpoints to give the viewer an idea of how the bridge relates to the people who live in it.
The entire body of work brings another point to perspective.
Apart from the bridge being a structure that supports a road, it serves as a connection or transitional route between the people living under it and the outside world. The pictures exposed the different worlds that exist in South Africa’s economic capital.
His work bears some similarity to Nigerian photographer Uche Okpa Iroha’s series “Under the Bridge Life” that he exhibited during the African Photography Biennial in Mali Bamako. The one and half month project was exhibited at the Atlas Studios in Johannesburg; a kilometer from the bridge and some of his subjects attended the exhibition.
In the same year, Alon won the Mondi Shanduka Newspaper Award for News Photographs for his “Hillbrow flight” picture. Police officers were raiding a hijacked building in Hillbrow during New Years Eve. As they scaled up the stairs, a woman came running down and was almost shot by a police officer who was pointing a gun in the direction she was coming from. Although the woman escaped unharmed, the blurred image carries an aura of tension and emotion.
The twenty nine year old does not seem to flinch in the face of danger. ‘I enjoy being exposed to different worlds and expressing those worlds through images’ he says.
Alon dropped journalism to study photography at the Market Photo Workshop in 2005. He then freelanced with The Star and in 2007 joined The Times where he is to date.
As a post apartheid photographer, Alon believes that although the political climate in South Africa has changed, photographers still face greater challenges and have greater responsibility.
In May 2008, South Africa was plagued by xenophobic violence that started in Alexandra Township and spread across the country. Alon was among the journalists assigned to cover the violence. His pictures brought him face to face with angry mobs carrying machetes, women leaving their burning shacks with what they could salvage and police trying to maintain order as perpetrators threw stones at them. It required courage and focus to cover this kind of violence.
‘It was very scary’ he admits but feels that exposing the issue will prevent it from happening again. His pictures were published in a book “Go Home or Die here” by Shireen Hassim, Tawana Kupe and Eric Worby and exhibited in 2009 at the Constitution Hill in commemoration of the violence.
Police arresting perpetrators of the Xenophobic violence
While most photographers would think twice about covering conflict, Alon says he would ‘jump at the opportunity’, challenging as it may be. It is no wonder that his main influences are Elliott Erwitt, Joao Silva and Josef Koudelka.
Recently, Alon travelled together with the South African Rescue team and other journalists to Haiti after a 7.0 magnitude earthquake struck the island and left thousands dead. One of the captivating images he took was of fifteen-year-old Fabienne Geismar hit by a stray bullet after a police officer shot in the air to disperse looters. The picture carried a lot of sadness as her lifeless body lay on the floor as blood flowed out of her head.
Although the photography industry faces stiff competition, Alon believes that hard work and passion are the key qualities needed to survive in the industry. Speaking about new media, he says that photographers should embrace it and ‘dedicated to experience other forms of expression because it’s very exciting’.
Alons parting shot; ‘Photography is an extension of yourself and photographers frame and record things in such a way it’s an interpretation’.
Xenophoboia series – A man pouring water to save his burning house