What you see is what you get

2011-12-03 14:33:29.0 previous next Obie Oberholzer, renegade photographer, seasoned berserker and lifelong moustache-wearer, has a new book out. He meets Oliver Roberts to discuss freedom, sadness and being an asshole

Obie Oberholzer Equator

Movember – the month when men the world over grow moustaches as an act of male unity – has just ended. Obie Oberholzer, though, doesnt need a silly observation like Movember to grow a moustache. He was born with one, grew it in the womb. No photograph exists of him without it.

A magnificent specimen, Obie Oberholzers moustache is. Its perched atop his upper lip like an industrial-strength wire scourer, the kind you buy specially from Builders Warehouse to scrub away at manly fluids such as grease and oil and diesel.

Initially, women must want to run screaming from the thing – this heavily follicled mass of testosterone that smirks and squirms and collects wayward debris that blows in from storms.

But, after a few minutes in the moustaches presence, listening to its stories of desolate places and graveyards and driving blindfolded across pans at 160km/h, the once-terrified ladies will want to linger, open to risking a little blood loss just to get closer to the dangerous mystique of The Moustache. And The Moustache, in turn, will be unexpectedly gentle. Just ask Lynn, his wife of 40 years.

But Im a man. So, within a few minutes of meeting The Moustache, its smoking and swearing and calling me a doos and a prick. Because thats what men born with moustaches do. And lesser men, those whove only managed to sprout facial hair post-pubescently – like me – are pleased that the great wire scourer is calling you these names, because you know it probably means that it likes you.

Im warned before I go to meet Oberholzer. Well, not so much warned, just told stories about the man. That hes obnoxious and arrogant. That hes a binge-drinker with an aggressive disdain for ignorance. That during his days as a lecturer at Rhodes University he shot a hole in the locker of a lazy student who never came to class.

This is all probably true. But none of it matters. What matters is that the man – whose very surname sounds like a rusty 18-wheeler clunking past in the night – has for decades been taking consistently beautiful photographs of South Africas most isolated places, and the people who inhabit them.

His new book, Diesel & Dust, is his 10th since 1983. This time, Oberholzer, 64, has included images from his travels in North Africa and the Middle East. Its a bright, beautiful compilation of roamings among sand and wind, camels and cows and mountains and all the faces that passed by, each laden with their own tacit history.

“Diesel and dust has always been a concept, a philosophy,” Oberholzer says. “Because if I can smell it out there, a bit of diesel, just a sniff, and the dust, then Im far away. That, to me, is freedom.”

When Oberholzer speaks of his freedom, he does not throw the idea around like many others do, nor does he exaggerate. For this is someone who has, on too many occasions to list, thrown a few clothes into the back of a 4×4, slipped on a pair of leather sandals, slung a camera around his neck and simply pissed off in the direction of what he calls Fokkolfontein. No maps. No schedule. The only plan being to meet people along the way, listen to their story, take a picture and possess them forever.

“Its in the search that is the beauty: A to B via Z,” he says. “We all seek our Utopia, we all seek our Nirvana, and hopefully I never find mine because, when I do, its over.”

One of the things that sets Oberholzers work apart from that of many of his contemporaries are the little stories he writes to accompany certain pictures. Too often with other photographers, the viewer is left with little more than an image. Oberholzer, though, feels compelled to give more emotional detail. Whether this adds or detracts from the perceived purpose of a photograph – to let the image speak for itself – is debatable, but Oberholzer is far too much of a raconteur, a showman, to let some photographs pass the viewer by without a story.

“I am an entertainer,” says Oberholzer. He leans back on his chair, sucks on his Camel, and lets Jozis mid-morning sun burn his arms and face. “I want a person to read the copy and feel more about my journey. Thats all. Plain and simple. I want the reader to understand what its like.”

The “it” that Oberholzer wants viewers to understand is, I think, the deeply emotional process that he goes through in taking many of his photographs, especially those with people in them. Page through any of his books and, despite the bright, happy colours and the playful tones, you always end up feeling a bit sad for one or two of the characters photographed. Whether its Sibusiso, from the book Raconteur Road, who makes life-size models of planes from scrap metal, actually sleeps in the things, but has never flown in a real plane in his life. Or Moduma, the shepherd from Round the Bend, who doesnt ask for sweets or money, but for his first ride in a car.

That, right there, is the inimitability of Oberholzers work. While many other photographers images either make you feel optimistic or profoundly moved, Oberholzers can make you feel both simultaneously.

In Diesel & Dust, theres Jimmy the gardener, up at 5am to be at work in Bryanston, looking directly at you in his torn hat and shirt. Theres Fabulous, who worked as a kind of bodyguard for Oberholzer while he photographed inner-city Johannesburg. He died of Aids a few months after Oberholzer photographed him.

Theres Chenzira, who makes his living taking photographs of weddings and funerals somewhere between Pontdrift and Musina. There he is on his bike, red T-shirt, red gloves, camera on his shoulder, on his way to another event.

Oh, and theres Bulelani, sitting outside his shack in the Klein Karoo, amid all that emptiness and heat and cold. Next to the photograph, Oberholzer writes: “Sometimes I am happy, sometimes I am sad, but a humanist all the same. I find photography easy, but sometimes, like here in the Klein Karoo, when I stopped to take a picture of Bulelanis hovel near Kuduskloof, its difficult. The cracks beneath the outer veneer of cool professionalism open up and the trickle of old memories turns into an underground stream.”

Its an old subject – the moral responsibility of the photographer. The question of whether taking a picture of someones hardship is exploitative, or an act that contributes in some way to a greater consciousness.

Oberholzer is characteristically forthright about this. About his innate ability to charm his way into these sad existences, if only for a few minutes, so that he can capture them, using the magical coincidence of light and entity and heartbreak, and then present them as a form of art.

“I know its false; I know Im a bullsh*tter,” he says. “Actually, I bullsh*t to get an image. I do not think about the art; it is the Obie that speaks. One power. Its about the alignment of shapes and objects in a scene. And because we live in Happy Sad Land [this is what Oberholzer calls his world] theres a lot to do. And I can honestly say that at 64 years old, I do it for the love. I dont care, I really dont care what people think. So Im not in the national gallery, and thats fine. If you think Im a wanker, thats fine.”

Its remarkable and somewhat troubling that Oberholzer has never been signed to a gallery in South Africa, nor has he won a single award for his work. But he isnt interested in being with a gallery. He couldnt. Hes too much of an asshole, and says so during the interview.

Theres no way a man with this much individualism would let some gallery decide how his work should be presented. When we discuss and laugh at the idea, Oberholzer throws up his right hand and flips a thick, hairy middle finger at some phantom gallery owner in the air.

“The art curators in this country have taken European and American photography and have said This is the standard. Im not moaning, but I find it sad. It hurts me sometimes. But the overwhelming enthusiasm for what I still do … that is the beauty of Obie Oberholzer. Hes got this unbelievable passion for the image, just for the alignment. But lets not go down the avenue of art, because I was an outcast from the beginning. When I first started writing about photographs, I was shoved apart. I have got a true talent for seeing objects together.”

There are plenty of people who dont like Oberholzer, and its easy to see why. Just there, he spoke about himself in the third person. He calls people wanker and prick and doos to their face. When hes had enough of you, hell tell you to f**k off.

But (and I know he will tell me Im a wanker for writing something so corny) take the man in the wrong light and, just like a photograph, its not going to come out right. When you look at his images and read the beautiful, poignant little stories he writes to go with them, it is impossible to maintain that he is a simply a brash, arrogant, gun-wielding alcoholic.

By the end of the interview I get the impression that, although all that machismo and name-calling is genuine Obie, genuine Moustache, its his way of holding back his cavernous sensibilities. Without those sensibilities, the quiet splendour and profundity of the mans work would all be a lie. And Oberholzer is too honest to be a liar.

He tells me one last story. About the Blue Horizon Liners, a club of which he is the only member. To become a member, he says, you must drive to the vast Hakskeen Pan in the Northern Cape, tie a blindfold over your eyes, and see how long you can drive for at maximum speed. Oberholzer says his record is 160km/h for six minutes, 35 seconds. Says it separates body and mind. A couple of others have tried it. They only managed one or two minutes.

“Wusses,” I say.

Oberholzer nods his head, smiles, strokes The Moustache. Then he says: “Can you now f**k off please, Ive got to go.”

We shake hands and say goodbye.

“If youre ever in Natures Valley, please come visit,” he says.

And I know that he means it.


Diesel & Dust , Jacana, R450.

Source: The Sunday Times

View the pdf article here: The Sunday Times – What you see is what you get – Obie Oberholzer

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