Better Lives I and II, 2003

    Sue Williamson

    Six projected portraits, transferred from 35 mm film to DVD. Each film plays for three and a half minutes. Also printed as film stills, large scale digital prints.

    Migrants, exiles and refugees all share the experience of displacement. Whether fleeing from war or seeking economic opportunities, displaced people have lost their sense of home, From all over Africa, people have been forced by war and poverty to seek temporary or permanent refuge in Cape Town, seen as the city of opportunity at the foot of the continent, thus adding to the already diverse cultural heritage of the city. Here, the newcomers face fresh difficulties gaining a foothold in communities already struggling to give their own families better lives.

    In the 1980s, I did a series entitled A Few South Africans, etched and screenprinted portraits of women in the struggle against apartheid. The subjects of Better Lives are the new South Africans, and the series updates the classic African photographic studio format.Ź

    At the start of the project, I conducted interviews in an audio studio with 10 people, asking them to tell about their lives š why they came to Cape Town, what had happened to them here, if they wanted to go back to their home country. From these tapes, I edited a three minute segment for chosen subjects. Next, we set up a portrait studio with a photographed backdrop of Cape Town. People were invited to come dressed in their best, as for a formal portrait. Different props were used for each portrait. Once seated, subjects were asked to keep still, as if sitting for a long exposure still photograph, but asked also to listen to extracts from their story as it was played. The intensity of the expressions of the subjects reflect the seriousness with which they participated in the project.

    Inevitably, small movements - hand tappings, little nods, gave away their reactions to hearing their story. Shot on 35 mm film with the camera turned sideways to utilise maximum negative area, we made only one take of each portrait.

    Better Lives (detail), 2003. Film transferred to DVD, Installation view, Bozar

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