Review: Interior Relations by Ian van Coller


Book Reviews, Photobooks


South Africa’s recent history is one of those wonderful stories. Apartheid was finally dismantled in the 1990s, and a new country, with everybody having the same rights and the same freedom, was born. At least on paper. The reality is not quite as rosy. Here is the OECD reporting on the situation: “South Africa’s high aggregate level of income inequality increased between 1993 and 2008. The same is true of inequality within each of South Africa’s four major racial groups. Income poverty has fallen slightly in the aggregate but it persists at acute levels for the African and Coloured racial groups. Poverty in urban areas has increased. There have been continual improvements in non-monetary well-being (for example, access to piped water, electricity and formal housing) over the entire post-Apartheid period up to 2008.” There’s more: “In the third quarter of 2010, 29.80% of blacks were officially unemployed, compared with 22.30% of coloureds, 8.60 of Asians and 5.10% of whites.” (source, with further reference therein) (more)

It is against this background that Ian van Coller’s Interior Relations has to be seen. In its foreword, Sindiwe Magona eloquently connects the photographs with South Africa’s recent history, writing

“The plight of the domestic worker reflects that of the black nation as a whole within South Africa. Most black people are dirt poor and continue to sink deeper and deeper into poverty. The promise of new dispensation may soon evaporate into thin air. Already, throughout the country, rumblings of discontent are beginning to sound - unthinkable in the heady days of 19994. Perhaps nowhere else is the legacy of apartheid as vividly portrayed as in the domestic worker’s life.”
Van Coller’s photographs show these domestic workers, dressed in their best clothes, inside their employers’ homes. The portraits are formal and beautiful, with hints here and there what is really going on: These are not the portrayed women’s homes. This is not a situation these women would be in if they had a choice.

Now that income inequality and unemployment have become hot topics in the US this book will hopefully speak to more people than when we were pretending that all was just fine. After all, what is keeping South Africa in its current state is the same economic system that has resulted in the situation the US - and many other countries - are in now. Where this discussion will go remains to be seen. But a book like Interior Relations makes it clear that contemporary photography does not always shy away from depicting harsh economic realities. It is much to Van Coller’s credit to have thrown some light on the plight of domestic workers in South Africa.

Interior Relations, photographs by Ian van Coller, essay by Sindiwe Magona, 68 pages, Charles Lane Press, 2011