Reading the Image: Hidden hands of Markus Jooste

13 December 2017. The analysis of pictures can be fun. Sometimes it can be a silly pass-time, sometimes not. The semiotics is the serious part. In theory the semiotics of images – the study of signs and signifying practices in a photograph – refers to any particular thing that is purposefully or unwittingly placed within a frame, and that refers to something else, or that conveys particular messages that were not initially intended by the photographer.

There are several signifying practices which refers to how, as opposed to what, meaning is produced within a photograph. When viewing photographs, or any other image, for that matter, we identify codes (the Star of David is traditionally identified with Judaism, the Crucifix with Christianity, the crescent with Islam and so forth) or we impute codes or meaning into pictures. In this way, we almost re-interpret pictures by reading meaning into them. We do so on the basis of preconceived cultural understandings, biases, or cultural markers, very many of which we may not be aware of consciously. In these ways, meaning is attributed to images on the basis of cultural convention or linguistic preferences, twists and turns.

The following two pictures of Markus Jooste, the former CEO of Steinhoff who is believed to be responsible for the biggest corporate meltdown in South African history, seem easy to read. They are black and brown all over, with the slightest touches of gold (wrist watch) and light reflections off his shirt buttons. His concealed hands draw my attention.

SOUTH AFRICA – August 2008: Markus Jooste, CEO of Steinhoff. (Photo by Gallo Images / Financial Mail / Jeremy Glyn)

SOUTH AFRICA – August 2008: Markus Jooste, CEO of Steinhoff. (Photo by Gallo Images / Financial Mail / Jeremy Glyn)

In both pictures – the main ones that have been used in reports (See here and here) about the meltdown – Jooste is presented in sombre (dark) tones that, on the face of things, purport to reveal very little. But, they speak volumes if you consider the meanings of the dark colours, and of his hidden hand in the one, and concealment of both hands in the other photograph. It is this second reading that is quite startling.

The dark tones in the picture, especially the blacks and deep browns suggest seriousness, masculinity and strength. The range of colours also suggest a consistency or reliability. The painting on the wall tells us that this is deep money that needs no explanation or garish symbols of avarice and ostentation. An art historian may be able to read more into the painting. In these pictures, there is nothing ersatz or nouveau riche about Jooste. But we used to have a saying when I was growing up: “Hy kneip die kat in die donker.” Directly translated, it says he abuses the cat when it’s dark, (when no-one can see what he is up to)

Colour symbolism is heavily dependent on context, and can change over time. (This is an easy read on the subject colours across cultures).  Consider, in everyday life, stop signs are red (unless you’re a South African taxi driver, then it means go), green means go (except in South Africa it means wait for the taxi to run through the intersection). Some Muslims have a special affinity for the colour green, and if you believe rabid patriots the colours of their flag “don’t run”. The Christian bible (King James Version) uses colours to tell stories or give meaning. For instance the colour black is often used to refer to sin, death or sorrow.

Generally, yellow or orange is associated with sunshine or brightness; the sky with blue and green with vegetation. Brown, the most prominent tone in the Jooste images, suggest an earthiness, and also seriousness, comfort, material wealth and security. This is a neat combination of being “down-to-earth” – as Jooste has been made out to be – and an acute business mind. A combination of the settled, almost deadpan face, the brown and the hidden hands suggests that Jooste has done it all, seen it all, become stupendously wealthy and has nothing (further) to prove. There is also a “cleanliness” about the pictures, in the sense that it is devoid of anything ostentations; the slight view of a gold-coloured wristwatch is more suggestive than explicit. There are no bright colours in the pictures.

Jooste’s smile is unforced, almost absent, and his face is deadpan. His gaze is however cocksure. While there is little overtly triumphalist about the pictures, Jooste reminds me of the taciturn Big Paulie Cicero, Paul Sorvino’s character in GoodFellas, whose silent stares are, well, quite lethal.

Paulie is always cool and calm. He says very little, but he is a reliable boss. His only demand is that the mob’s code is never broken. Based on what his friends say of him, Jooste was well-loved, highly respected and, well, he made himself and others very wealthy – until he, himself, broke the code. I should probably add that his wrong-doings are all alleged. The pictures would be a fascinating study, more than what I have written, here. The easy part is the monotonous colours (the range is from black to brown) and the hidden hands.

Roland Barthes, the French literary theorist explained that a photograph told a story in the same way as a newspaper article. If an object meant something it became a speech. These photographs of Markus Jooste tell the story of a man who was confident, accomplished, reliable and wealthy – but his hidden hands also suggest that he may be hiding something, or that he cannot be trusted. Maybe that is just pop psychology. Or, it may also be part of what social psychologists may refer to as non-verbal behaviour or nonverbal communication.

UPDATED 19:27

Catching up with the news this evening, I found another picture online, in which Jooste hides one of his hands. It appears to be from the same shoot. I took a screengrab from The Times. (Source: https://www.timeslive.co.za/sunday-times/business/2017-12-08-what-wikipedia-is-saying-about-markus-jooste-its-not-pretty/)

I WILL EDIT AND UPDATE AS NECESSARY.

PHOTOGRAPHY: Seeing Simple Scenes Differently

Image

Cafeteria Seating at Schipol

By Ismail Lagardien

16 August 2017. There are times when the simplest, the most every-day scene, stands out, and presents itself – intact. There were any number of these arrangements (above) at a cafeteria at Schipol Airport.

What makes photography special is that the most ordinary, the most banal scenes almost create themselves, and present themselves intact in the photographer’s mind. This, surely, is the power that lies where the creative impulse and the gesture of photography intersect, and when the photographer captures something that everyone looks at every day, but sees it differently and does something more than.

Brutalist architecture of the University of Johannesburg.

On the beachfront, were I live in Port Elizabeth, there are everyday scenes that, when isolated from its surroundings, photography thrives, as much as it does, on decontexualisation. This is one of the reasons why photographs often need a good caption. Below is an everyday scene on the beachfront in Port Elizabeth.

Politics: Sideshows & The Last Man Standing

13 June 2017 It’s always amusing when the people who got us into trouble assure us they can get us out of trouble. It’s amusing, also, when they tell the poor that things will get better, someday, and always they speak with full bellies. Bertolt Brecht explained that a lot more eloquently.

Before us, now, we have a Cabinet Minister, Malusi Gigaba, freshly risen from the gaudy comforts that surround him, telling us, the great unwashed, the toothless peons, the lickspittles and sycophants, all of us, that things will get better. If only we ignored the putrid stench of corruption, cronyism, prebendialism, avarice, greed, the sounds of crying, chests clogged with smoke along the Southern Cape, wells and dams that have run dry, and the never-ending ricochet of  shots fired in the fields of Marikana. These, he tells us, are “sideshows”. What is important, ah so conveniently the truth can be sometimes, is getting the economy working again. Of course, he is right, but it is he, and his party loyalists, who got us to where we are. Mr Brecht gave us insights into this.

The echoes of that other, “sideshow” are powerful; the truth about Washington’s secret and illegal war against the people of Cambodia from 1969 to 1973. Those other odious fellows, Henry Kissinger and Richard Nixon, treated Cambodia as a sideshow. They claimed that secretly bombing people in Cambodia was necessary, and tried to deflect the truth: that the bombings spread the conflict, and led to the rise of the Khmer Rouge and the subsequent massacre of a third of Cambodia’s population.

In a review of Kissinger’s White House Years, William Berman cut close the bone.

“This obsessively detailed, shrewdly propagandistic, maliciously discerning, and artfully self-serving work is surely a most important contribution to the historical literature of our time. … the man’s vulgarity and amorality … remind us, again, of the obscene role he played in the early seventies in promoting fresh disasters in Indochina, Chile, and South Asia.”

Like the old dog Kissinger, when Gigaba speaks, I quiver. I laugh, also, sardonically, whenever he speaks. The minister is a bespoke-tailored fellow. He will have nothing to do with that standardised and quite tasteless clothes of utopian inelegance; that prozodezhda is not his style. Clothes are not for wearing, it is for making ideological statements.

Some people rise to the task before them, others remain in its shade, and quite unable, themselves, to cast a shadow. There are a few marvellous passages from The Fool, by Gilbert Chesterton, that really sums up the fellow, Gigaba.

“For many years I had sought him, and at last I found him in a club. I had been told that he was everywhere; but I had almost begun to think that he was nowhere. I had been assured that there were millions of him; but before my late discovery I inclined to think that there were none of him. After my late discovery I am sure that there is one; and I incline to think that there are several, say, a few hundreds; but unfortunately most of them occupying important positions. When I say “him,” I mean the entire idiot…

He was very well dressed… his clothes suggested the City and his gray moustaches the Army; but the whole suggested that he did not really belong to either, but was one of those who dabble in shares and who play at soldiers. There was some third element about him that was neither mercantile nor military. His manners were a shade too gentlemanly to be quite those of a gentleman.”

Where, you might ask, does all the wisdom come from? Surely that which he spews is mere frippery. It is, at best, lexical legerdemain; he knows how to arrange words cutely. Like a swaddling infant he speaks in sentences that only he can understand. He is like those among us who can recite passages of script in Latin, Hebrew, Aramaic, or Arabic, but really have no idea what we are saying. We know, only that we are the voice of our god. Gigaba is unimaginative, unoriginal, uncreative, and complete in his mediocrity.

Everywhere he goes there is that “powerful and obnoxious odor of mendacity” and “There ain’t nothin’ more powerful than the odor of mendacity!” Big Daddy Pollitt reminded us, in Richard Brooks’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.

Mr Gigaba, alas, he is the counter-point of Nietzsche’s Übermensch, the one who is willing to risk everything for the enhancement of humanity. He is, in some way, Nietzsche’s “last man”, whose sole desire is to increase his own comfort and is quite incapable of creating anything beyond what he wants for himself. (Donald Trump is probably the best exemplar)

The only value of his life is his own value, projected, as Mr Chesterton said, a bit too gentlemanly to be a gentleman. Nietzsche’s last man is incapable of shame, he is the shame. Like a camel, he cannot see the hump on his own back. The sideshows tell us more than the main attraction, to which our attentions are forced.

Backstories of a Picture: Morning in an Istanbul Bar

5 January 2017. I recently read a story on the power of a single photograph, published by Time Magazine. The Time story was inspired by an exhibition, One Image, described as a pièce de résistance, featuring just one photograph, a seemingly inconsequential, blurred image of a young girl sat on a deck chair. It recounts how, with the ubiquity of cellphone cameras, we are swamped, daily, by hundreds of images. The writer presents the one image, this particular case, as an experiment to force us to look at one image, and push us to look more closely at the back story of the picture. One Image was part of a larger exhibition, Podróż do nieśmiertelności fotografii: Photography Never Dies (The Journey to Immortality: Photography Never Dies) held at the Main Railway Station in Wroclaw, Poland.

The story drew my attention to the very many pictures I have made over the years, and especially, to the ‘back story’ of each picture or set of pictures. It also reminded me of the way that I have drifted away from photography, the act of making pictures, towards the philosophy and sociology of photography. I want to share, then, short stories on some of the pictures I have made in places around the world, as a way to give greater meaning to what I originally considered to be the time and spaces between photographs.

Notwithstanding the catchy idiom that ‘a picture is worth a thousand words’ (Read a piece on this meme, here) there are times when a caption, or a short story on the context of a photograph tells us more than what is depicted in the image. Sometimes, as with the photograph, below, it simply tells a story. This, then, is the first in a series of short takes on the back stories of pictures, and short takes on photographs.

Morning in an Istanbul Bar

I was sat deep inside a bar in Istanbul drinking coffee. The entire front of the bar was open to the street. A tram line ran along the front edge of the bar. It was a cold December morning. A man walked into the bar. He was bundled in a red parka. He sat down, ordered a beer and lit a cigarette. He took a sip of beer. A toke. A picture of Kemal Ataturk on the back wall of the bar flickered in pink fluorescent light. He took another sip. A toke. A tram sped by, barely two metres from the man. He did not flinch. Nobody flinched. There were three of us in the bar. The barman was arranging glasses on the counter. The man was lost in reverie. He took a sip. A toke. Kemal blinked in pink luminescence.