Montana State University

Van Coller's work illuminates life a half-world away

April 8, 2009 -- Carol Schmidt, MSU News

MSU photography professor Ian van Coller says after 17 years and thousands of miles away from his native South Africa, he gained the insight and perspective to develop a series of photographs of domestic workers that have earned him acclaim throughout the U.S. Van Coller photo by MSU photographer Kelly Gorham.   High-Res Available

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Montana State University photography professor Ian van Coller tells his students to photograph what they know. Van Coller follows his own advice. What he knows is a complex society in South Africa, and his intimate portraits of that transitional society a half-world away have earned him critically acclaimed exhibitions around the U.S.

Van Coller's "Interior Relations," a collection of large, vibrant portraits of domestic workers in South Africa, recently have been exhibited in galleries in San Francisco and New York and will soon be on exhibit in Philadelphia, Chicago and Portland. The show is currently hanging in the Holter Museum of Art in Helena, where it will be until April 19.

The 16 portraits of black African women who work as domestics in affluent homes owned by white families offer an intimate look at a life a half-world away. And van Coller said that it took several years of living in the U.S. to develop the distance, vision and perspective necessary to photograph the women, some in traditional dress, posing in their white employers' homes. The results are colorful, disparate and fascinating.

"I also tell my students to photograph what they are passionate about," van Coller said. "This (collection) is my answer to that."

Van Coller said the idea for the collection was rooted in his relationship with Nelson and Gracie, the two domestic workers who worked for van Coller's family when he grew up in Johannesburg.

"I grew up with those two people in my life," van Coller said. It wasn't until he was older and had children of his own that he realized the sacrifice the two had made to support their families. One was an immigrant from Malawi, the other a South African Zulu. Both lived long distances from their own children, as long as 10 hours by bus. He estimates that they only saw their own children one to three times a year.

"They left their children to be cared for by family members while they took care of a different family. These were very personal stories and a sacrifice I didn't understand at the time."

Van Coller's work has long been linked to his own colorful past, although his previous photos had a slightly different form. His first degree was in photography and came from Tehnikon Natal in South Africa. Van Coller's mother was American so he wanted to attend school in the U.S and he received a bachelor's degree from Arizona State University, where he was the outstanding senior in photography in 1996. He earned a master's degree from the University of New Mexico. For his thesis there he developed intricate personal collages of black and white images that he called "memory boards."

"The natural progression from that was to start looking at other people's stories," van Coller said.

After being gone from South Africa for 17 years, he could also see the drama and possibilities in the stories of his upbringing, particularly the uneasy world of the affluent white society and their employees, largely tribal and black.

"In that time I had become an outsider, although I had the intimate insights of an insider," van Coller said. Funded by an MSU Scholarship and Creativity Grant, he traveled back to Johannesburg. His family connections gave him access to the workers that others might not have had. All of the employers were friends of his family and allowed him to take photos of their workers in their sumptuous homes. Many of the women wear parts of their traditional clothes in the photos.

And while there is no longer apartheid in his country, van Coller is focusing the honest gaze of his camera on a political and cultural division that still exists.

"I tread on that line very carefully," he said. "I did ask myself that if I don't make (these photos), who is going to make them?"

Van Coller said the world he documented is quickly changing. There is a large black middle class in South Africa now and many employ black domestic workers. And while the domestics often came from South Africa in van Coller's childhood, many of them now come from Malawi, Mozambique and Zimbabwe. Of the 40 workers he photographed on his most recent trip in December, only five were from South Africa.

Van Coller also collected oral histories from the women and became particularly interested in the lives of the women's children, particularly how the women's sacrifices had affected the children.

"I was able to glean insights, although they were frustratingly superficial, into the life paths the children of these women had taken," he said. "I learned that because of their mother's support, and often their mother's employers support, the children were able to receive a good education and move onto professional careers."

It felt almost as if the cycle of being a domestic worker was being broken in the generation after apartheid.

"Now it's an issue of class rather than just race. This (series of photographs) is really based on economics, race and power."

Van Coller says the photographs have become a complicated issue in his family.

"They love my photographs but they feel that I am a little strident in how I feel about it politically," he said.

Others seem to love the work as well. He has exhibited the work in San Francisco. Three of his images won a contest in New York and were exhibited at the Jen Bekman Gallery. Upcoming exhibitions include Lincoln, Neb., Philadelphia, Chicago and Portland, Ore.

Next up for van Coller is a series of portraits including black male gardeners, also photographed in South Africa.

"What I want to get across is the complexity of the relationship between the employers and employees," van Coller said. "I hope the photographs speak for themselves."

Ian van Coller (406) 994-2941,