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White trash

People look towards the lens, yet it is as if they would prefer to retreat and retreat to the courtyard, to the outfield, to the family, to the drug, to the church, to sleep.

This article is machine translated by Google from Norwegian

Speech Hall, Marienstr. 26, Berlin

Today, approximately 20 percent of the white population in South Africa is unable to support themselves. Because despite the fact that the most affluent still constitute a white minority and a majority of blacks live in catastrophic poverty, the poor whites / poor whites / white trash are the big losers of society. This group falls between two chairs. They live outside the cities, are tucked away in courtyards, in wilderness neighborhoods or in campers where drinking water and electricity are rare.

Shame and pride. For several weeks, Susanne Schleyer and Michael J. Stephan have traveled around abandoned places in South Africa and set up improvised photo studios along the way. The result is the personal texts and 30 black-and-white photographs in semi-total snapshots. The portraits have been told that they can come dressed as they please. Some put on the blouse that is otherwise only taken up for church visits on Sundays. Others pose as they are, and one contours the contours of one night, of many nights, and lived life.

Archive Susanne SchleyerIt's nice that the portraits are taken out of their environment, that we meet them without props, in the same cuts, in front of a white canvas. Such a demarcation makes it easier to spot man. The years have left strong traces. Here are young lives that already appear to be overtime. Not only physically, but also in the eyes, it is as if something has collapsed, as if the light has gone out – if it was ever lit.

The eyes look towards the lens, yet it is as if they would prefer to retreat, to retreat to the courtyard, to the outfield, family, intoxication, church, sleep. And precisely in this avoidance lies some of the confrontation: We exist, but we are in the way. We shouldn't have been here. There is an attitude that is repeated in the photographs: the gestures that support the feeling of redundancy. The arms that are hidden behind the back, the crooked necks, the flow of apologetic smiles, the looks that look, but not out, the shame these attitudes and the looks convey. But here, too, is anger and defiance and pride, fortunately – perhaps, of course, both shame and pride exist side by side; the portraits are not "just" poor whites – they are people.

To dictate his life. "I was born on September 7, 1986. My full name is Anna Cornelia D. OK, I basically came into the world on a 'plot', as they say in Afrikaans. It was in Pretoria, and the place is called… the name I do not remember standing up. I went to school in Pretoria Voortrekker-Euufees. There I went from first to seventh grade. Then, two months before high school, I switched to another nearby school. … I did not stay long at this school – it was Gerhard Maritz High School. I only went there for a couple of months, and then I left school. "It's really a private matter, but I still say it: I was pregnant."

Here are young lives that already appear as if they are overtime.

What stories do we want to tell about ourselves? On a pillar in the showroom, the portraits' stories about big questions – perhaps some of the biggest – can be read. The stories of childhood, family life, prospects, hopes and dreams of a happy life. There are several things that remain in these stories: large siblings, fraternity mothers, interrupted schooling, intoxication, violence, unemployment, frequent relocation; There is talk of God, lack of water, electricity and food, about growing up on farms where parents have had to sell to live in barracks on the outskirts of the yard, and there is talk of hoping to see the children grow up.

There is talk of protection. About loyalty feeling connected to family and history. Occasionally there are contradictions – as in 64-year-old Myra with the cross on her chest, who tells of childhood: “I've lived a very happy life. I was one of ten children – we were five brothers and five sisters. I grew up on a farm. ... I would not have exchanged that life for a life in the city, never the world. … Even if you don't have gold and glitter around, you really don't miss anything. … We didn't have much, but we never had to sleep on the floor. That was enough for us. ”

Or as with Netta at 19, who has had to place the daughters with her parents because she has no job and is unable to do anything else. She tells of the place where she grew up – almost without water: "I'm fine here, it's very quiet, no major difficulties, plenty of space for the motorhome, no drugs, no alcohol."

Or Corne, 23, who can't get a job because of a lack of education: "But you know what, I've learned a lot, getting pregnant as a fifteen-year-old, becoming a mother, and I've found a man who can support me and the child . "

We tell our stories and shape them for ourselves and the people who have been and are part of us. Thus, the story of a life is always a subjective story, a poem, adapted and told with care and loyalty to those we want to protect.

I know I can't bear to see anymore.

Viscous and claustrophobic. It is a saturated exhibition. The lyrics are many and long and at times depressingly depressing about hopelessness. It feels chewy, uncomfortable, almost claustrophobic with all the details of the unhappy fates. And then perhaps it is precisely the toughness that causes another confrontation to arise: I know that I can not see anymore. That I can't. I want to look away, out, another way. I want a moment exactly the same as the people in the picture – I want escape. And as I want to leave, I realize that is exactly where the exhibition hits. The discomfort in the stories has taken hold in me now.

So – though Poor Whites Telling about a certain group of people in a particular place in the world at a particular time is one of the exhibition's strengths that it casts shadows beyond the local. Precisely through the texts' touch of belonging, the narratives we make about ourselves, the loyalty to the family and to the place where one grew up. How people are driven between shame and pride – be it in South Africa or somewhere else. At the same time, of course, the certainty lies that most of the portraits are on the spot resting and difficult to move forward. It makes the desperation all the stronger.

Poor Whites is an exhibition that is in Berlin, which could be in Oslo, which could be in any city. Not just because it is an exhibition about a stigmatized group of people you may know – but first and foremost because it is an exhibition about being human, and about surviving.

Hilde Lindset
Lindset is a short story writer. hilde.lindset@hotmail.com

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