Approaching ignorance

Last week presented me with one of the first cases where my usual approach to art breaks down. While going in with an open mind is still good, when the subject matter is distinctly political, and writing or discussing it requires talking about those politics, I found that I have to address my ignorance independently of the art.

I don’t feel comfortable without doing some homework for background knowledge. Yet no matter what homework I do, I also can’t talk about the subject matter as an expert.

In the case of last week, it was impossible to talk about the South Africa in Apartheid and After exhibition without having to address, at some level, the history and legacy of apartheid. I only know it by reputation. I don’t want to teach it. The exhibition sure didn’t teach it. Yet I couldn’t leave it out of the discussion since the entire exhibition was about it.

So I’m left in a situation where even with a little background information, I have to find a way to take my ignorance and use it. Which is why my review of that exhibition became an essay on how familiar a lot of the images felt. All of the South Africa photos have an elephant in the room and have to be viewed through the prism of apartheid’s reputation. We don’t need to be told that it was bad, abnormal, and abhorrent. That’s a generally accepted fact—probably the only one I know for sure.

When I viewed the exhibition, it was with the knowledge of this framing and with a little background knowledge of mainly what other photographers and approaches to the subject matter were out there. I tried to distance myself from drawing any conclusions which weren’t specifically in the photos and instead concentrated on how they mattered to me.

Which is why In Boksburg was quietly the most powerful set of photographs I saw that day. It’s filled with idyllic images of normal everyday middle-class suburban life which many of us either aspire to or remember fondly. Or both. And the unspoken message to those photos is that to have this ideal, how do you have to treat the workers? That question is hugely important to all cultures. I can only hope that we choose a different answer than South Africa did.

A political piece where I’m ignorant of the history? No problem. The point now isn’t to spur me to action. It’s to make sure we don’t repeat the mistakes of the past. And to get there, I have to be able to apply it to today.

Author: Nick Vossbrink

Blogging about Photography, Museums, Printing, and Baseball Cards from both Princeton New Jersey and the San Francisco Bay Area. On Twitter as @vossbrink, WordPress at, and the web at

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