I grew up in the whites-only suburbs of Cape Town, South Africa during the apartheid era when South African law decreed that 92% of the population were regulated to the status of second-class citizens.
My interest in photography began at the age of twelve, but I soon realized that a Kodak Instamatic was never going to produce the results that I wanted. I worked for three years in a bookshop and eventually bought myself a Fujica ST701. It was a real thing of beauty; a single reflex camera with a basic zoom lens, that provided me with the means to control how light formed itself onto the surface of the silver halide film. Sunsets and silhouettes held my attention for a few months, but I had already begun to explore the complex tradition of photographic expression. Life Magazine was for me, at that time, the Holy Grail. Over the years, my enthusiasm for exploring the photographic medium has never diminished.
My photographic momentum was temporarily diverted after school by parental pressure to obtain a 'proper' qualification. In my final school year, I was both the Dux scholar as well as a first-team sportsman, which resulted in me being offered a De Beers bursary to study Geology and Statistics at the University of Cape Town. After graduating, I broke the news to my unnerved parents that I was giving up this career path and instead of becoming a property photographer at the local newspaper. In the hierarchy of photographic jobs, this is very close to the bottom. My immediate aim was to gain access to unlimited amounts of film and the time to work on my own projects.
In 1987 I began photographing a conscientious objector and medical doctor, Ivan Toms, who refused to comply with the apartheid government's military service requirements. He was sentenced to 21 months in prison. The essay highlighted the absurdity of the political system. Renowned photographer, David Goldblatt, took an interest in this work and this interaction led to a three-decade relationship in which he became both a mentor and a friend. The rights to my essay on Ivan Toms were bought by Life magazine the following year.
Much of my work during this period was motivated by the desire to expose the social inequalities and racial divisions within my country. I eventually joined the strongly anti-apartheid collective, Afrapix, and later became a founding member and manager of the documentary collective, South Photographs.
In 1989, the beginning of the end of apartheid was evident. I was eager to situate myself in a position that would afford me the best opportunities to witness the transition to democracy. I joined Reuters News Agency as a permanent stringer and for the next five years, I became immersed in the events, both violent and momentous, that led up to the inauguration of Nelson Mandela as president in 1994. Many of my photographs from this period have taken on a life of their own. The image of Nelson Mandela walking out of prison with his wife, Winnie, has been exhibited and published worldwide. In 2008, as Barack Obama fought John McCain for the presidency, Newsweek magazine ran a story asking each candidate to choose an image that best personified their worldview. Obama's team chose an image that I photographed in Thokoza township in 1991. Last year the same photograph became central in a high-profile image-appropriation dispute between me and New York artist, Hank Willis Thomas. There was a massive groundswell of support from colleagues and media from around the world. An amicable settlement was reached.
Since 1994 I have concentrated on producing personalized and contemporary bodies of work that reflect this complex country and the continent as a whole. These essays have been shown in solo exhibitions in New York, London, Paris, Cape Town, and Johannesburg as well as numerous photo festivals around the world. (Including China, Singapore, Brazil, Cambodia, France, and the USA). I have been privileged to have been included in major international exhibitions showcasing contemporary South African photography; including Figures and Fictions at London's Victoria and Albert Museum, Apartheid and After at Huis Marseille in Amsterdam, Earth Matters at the Smithsonian in New York, The Rise and Fall of Apartheid at the ICP in New York and Being There, at the Louis Vuitton Foundation in Paris. Awards include the CAP Prize for Contemporary African Photography (Basel) in 2013 and the Ernest Cole Award (South Africa) in the same year.
I have continued working on commissioned assignments and traveling to over fifty countries. My photographs have appeared on the cover of Time magazine twice, and have been published in The New York Times Magazine, National Geographic, Newsweek, Stern, and many others.
Whilst working on my long-term projects, I try to bear in mind how the work will be exhibited and published. So, therefore, during the planning and photographing stages, I attempt to create a broad context for my essays, that includes a general look and feel while creating the space for each image to convey its individual complexity. This need to develop a dual awareness in my personal work has benefitted me from a long-term interest in designing and producing photobooks. I have created over 20 publications, some of them winning awards and many being shortlisted in dummy book competitions.
During the past five years, I have felt a need to shift my attention from South Africa to the American social, political, and physical landscape. Some of my motivations for this change in direction have been outlined within the 'Plan' document. In 2016 I was granted a residency in the US by the Ampersand Foundation, giving me an opportunity to develop a body of work that interrogated the social strata within the greater community of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. I designed and produced a book called, Diverging Dreamlines that included, portraits, urban landscapes as well as multi-image, digital, illustrations. The publication was chosen as "best of the show" in the Annual Photobook Exhibition at the Griffin Museum of Photography in Winchester, Massachusetts. The work was also included in the Unmasked exhibition at Axis Gallery, New York in 2017.
Earlier this year (2019) I co-presented a paper, Over Time, at the International Psychoanalytical Association (IPA) Congress held in London. Four of my personal essays were incorporated into the presentation, allowing a psychoanalytical exploration into the parallels between this photographic record and South Africa's dynamics and process of change.
I have participated in various mentorship programs, supporting students from South African photographic institutions: Tierney Fellowship winners from the University of the Witwatersrand (2018/2019) and the Market Photo Workshop (2015/2016). As well as candidates from the Photographer incubator Program in 2016.
Learn more about Graeme Williams on videos:
Victoria and Albert Museum
Photography and Democracy
South African Studios
Dwell in Possibility opening
Check out Graeme Williams's interview about his latest project America Revisited