5 Questions for Lard Buurman

Lard Buurman
Lard Buurman | Lard Buurman © Image supplied by the artist

For his exhibition and publication “Africa Junctions”, Dutch photographer Lard Buurman photographed 14 cities in 12 African countries. He spoke to us about his fascination with urban public spaces and African photographers he admires.

Lard Buurman, where does your fascination with urban development come from?

I started researching public spaces in Europe in my series Taking Time. Ever since my trip to China in 2004 my fascination for urban development has been growing. I was surprised at how differently one perceives a city when looking at the sky-lines as opposed to when looking at the city from street-level. In China I was confronted for the first time with the influence of rural culture in an urban context. Later, this brought me to Africa, where the formal and informal merge and create networks that are at first invisible. For me, the idea of the African city was also invisible in a wider context, as we in the West tend to look at Africa as still a rural place, in which culture is always traditional and nature is untouched.

You were in Johannesburg in 2009, for a residency at the Bag Factory, and again in 2011, in Maboneng. How has the city changed since your last stay?

Johannesburg is constantly on the move. My friend Raymond Marlowe, who worked at the Bag Factory as an assistant in 2009, taught me where I could walk around freely in the city centre. He gave me advice; for instance he told me not to go any further than Joe Slovo Drive alone and not to go into Hillbrow. Two years later I did a residency at LiveCollection/MainStreetLive and I was surprised at how safe it was to sit outside on the streets in Maboneng, not far from Joe Slovo Drive. I had the feeling that the city centre was also less dangerous. In the evenings the streets seem to be busier than during my last visit in 2009. I have to admit that my judgement about this change is not very reliable. These days, I am not afraid to walk to George Khosi's Boxing school in Hillbrow. It's hard for me to say whether it is me or Hillbrow that has changed so much. In the meantime, I had been to many more cities in Africa: Lagos, Luanda and Nairobi; so I got more experienced in navigating African cities, which made me less afraid. In general I think that Johannesburg is moving forward. Braamfontein changes every time I come back. Newtown seems to have fallen back, for now. I still have to have a look at Gandhi Square. I'm not an urban planner, but I think this square has a future. It feels like it has the potential to be a space for encounters.

There is a much higher level of informality in African cities than in those in Europe. Life takes place in the streets and public and private spaces often merge – giving way to both entrepreneurial opportunity and chaos. What do you wish urban planners in a European city like Amsterdam could learn from a more informal city like for instance Lagos?

An organized urban space has many advantages; but in Europe we have been too focused on safety in the last decade. We are losing our flexibility. We're creating safe but boring spaces. Everything is planned and starts to look the same. What we could learn from Lagos is to listen to the requirements of the people who use public spaces - they know best what they need. Informality can bring unexpected joys to the city. It makes it more likely for people to network in the streets. In African cities I meet and talk with people more than in the streets of Amsterdam.

You say the images in Africa Junctions challenge the assumed veracity of documentary photography – how so?

My images are compiled out of dozens of images from the same street scene. In documentary photography, especially journalism, this is still a taboo. I don't understand why this is the case. We have all accepted that photography can't capture the truth. We know that images can be manipulated in post-processing. Still, for most media it is a sin to combine more than one moment in time, whereas if I convert a photograph to black and white, it’s accepted. Why?

Which African photographers do you admire and why?

There are many African photographers I admire. One of them is George Oshodi from Lagos, whom I got to know through his photographic series “Devil's Dexterity”, which is about the dangers of traffic. Last October I saw the work of Sabelo Mlangeni in the Picha Rencontres Festival in Lubumbashi. His slideshow about gay and transgender individuals in Alexandra is very interesting and relevant. I certainly also admire the work of Zanele Muholi and I'm looking forward to see the new book by Mikhael Subotzky and Patrick Waterhouse about the Ponte Tower in Johannesburg.

Dutch-born Lard Buurman studied Photography at the Royal Academy of Art in The Hague. In his photography the public realm has always been prominent. By reconstructing images from several documentary pictures taken from one spot, a hybrid of documentary and staged photography emerged. Buurman has shown his work in the Netherlands at art and architectural festivals as well as on the African continent at Lagos Photo (2010 and the upcoming edition of 2014) and the Biennial Picha Recontres Lubumbashi in Congo in 2013.

For "Africa Junctions", he photographed 14 cities in 12 countries in Africa over a period of six years. The book by the same name was published by Hatje Cantz. Africa Junctions is on show at the Goethe-Institut Gallery in Johannesburg from 29.05.2014 - 04.07.2014.