Since the beginning of her career in 1993, Laurence Bonvin has made her mark in landscape photography, and specifically the photography of peripheral urban landscapes, and landscapes she walks through, from Berlin to Johannesburg, from Geneva to Istanbul.
Bonvin approaches these cities through a process of exploration and research, without ever knowing where it will lead. Sometimes her attention is caught by a piece of urban design that has been dropped in the midst of the landscape—an example being ’gated communities’, which captured her interest because they imported an American suburban model into a quite different cultural and economic setting. Elsewhere she looks at how people appropriate—or reappropriate—a space marked by history. How do you photograph the invisible trace of a buried past that is still very present in people’s minds?
Laurence Bonvin generally prefers the periphery—disadvantaged areas where change can be more dynamic—to the centre. But the distinction is not necessarily a geographical one. In Johannesburg, since the end of apartheid, the city’s economic centre has shifted to the well-heeled northern suburbs, while the abandoned city centre has crumbled into an assortment of sleazy neighbour-hoods. On her first visit to South Africa in 2009, Bonvin photographed the townships—the districts set aside for black people under apartheid, now swiftly developing, but with stark contrasts between promise and reality—or prefabricated walls and areas of wasteland. On returning in 2012 she embarked on a new project based on the following simple process: she stood on a street corner in the downgraded city centre for an hour or so and took pictures of the passers-by.
Although her work is usually associated with documentary photography—despite its strong propensity to trigger the viewer’s imagination—Bonvin here adopts the codes of street photography, focused on human beings. But however complex the reality recorded in her work, this is not a gallery of characters; for the recurring, underlying character in the series is South African society itself, with its outpouring of energy into extreme, normalised violence, as well as into hopes of reconciliation and reconstruction. The photographer captures the chaotic staging of street-corner theatre, where all the actors seem to be acting just for themselves. Their bodies brush together and sidestep in a ballet of intersecting but separate pathways. The body is an issue for Bonvin personally: a white woman standing alone and motionless in a dangerous neighbourhood, taking pictures in the middle of the street. The standard vocabulary of photographic ’stalking’, of hunter and prey, is turned on its head. The resulting pictures suggest the awkwardness of this phys- ical confrontation. Contact seems to be ruled out. The walking figures turn away, lower their eyes, ignore the photographer, stare at her dully—and move on. Bonvin’s constant use of the selfsame angle, in which the same person sometimes turns up more than once, imbues the series with a sense of time and narrative potential. What emerges is an ambivalent take on the status of the pictures and the many meanings of ’passing’.
Bonvin’s work is exhibited here in collaboration with the Geneva-based photographic event 50 JPG.
Laurence Bonvin was born in the Swiss town of Sierre in 1967, and now divides her time between Berlin and Geneva.