Tamsyn Adams MA

  • PhD candidate
  • Family photography, history and memory, archives, South Africa/KwaZulu-Natal

Telephone number: +31 (0)71 527 2727
E-Mail: t.h.adams@fsw.leidenuniv.nl
Faculty / Department: Faculteit der Sociale Wetenschappen, Instituut CA/Ontwikkelingssociologie
Office Address: Pieter de la Court gebouw
Wassenaarseweg 52
2333 AK Leiden

Tamsyn Adams completed her Masters degree in Cultural Studies at Goldsmiths College, University of London, in 2009. Her PhD research focuses on a collection of family photographs from a small town in the KwaZulu-Natal Midlands in South Africa, concentrating on the period 1850-1961.

Part of what makes this photographic collection interesting is the combination of its ‘ordinariness’ together with the volume of data that constitutes it, much of it taken within a specific geographical region. This provides a starting point for several lines of enquiry. For a start, the collection provides a concrete basis for examining the ways in which particular identities (white, English-speaking, settler) were performatively constituted, affected by different senses of belonging, and mediated by various power structures at different historical periods in South Africa. The images also suggest ways in which the idea of a ‘fixed’ identity is challenged through everyday lived experience, and interactions with other ethnic groups; in this case, primarily black Zulu-speaking workers employed by the family. Much of this information is unintentional – a result of the photographs revealing more than was their original intention about social circumstances of the time.

More broadly, the collection highlights the complex relationships between families, photographs, memory, and the written and spoken narratives that animate photographic images. In dealing with a collection of physical objects, the research process will also address questions of preservation and heritage, and processes of digitization and cataloguing. Finally, the process of working with family photographs raises certain ethical concerns, the most immediate involving the collection’s transition from private to public sphere and the ways in which the new layers of meaning introduced by the research affect the ways in which the people continue to relate to their photographs, and the memories and histories tied up in them.

Photo Exhibition

Tamsyn Adams and PhD candidate Sophie Feyder (History) recently curated the photo exhibition ‘Sidetracks’ in Johannesburg, South Africa. Certain iconic images have come to stand in for major events in South African history. But what about family pictures? What kinds of stories and histories do they convey? If one were to compile a history of South Africa using essentially private photographic material – family albums, studio photographs, hand-coloured portraits, framed wedding photographs etc – what would it look like?

Sidetracks – an extension of Tamsyn Adams and Sophie Feyder’s PhD research at the University of Leiden – is a travelling exhibition that draws on two very different family-owned photographic collections. The older of the two is a collection of family photographs, covering 150 years, and belonging to a white English-speaking farming family from Estcourt, KwaZulu-Natal. A more recent collection is made up of the work of Ronald Ngilima and his son Torrance, ambulant photographers who recorded the black, coloured and Indian communities living around Benoni in the 1950s, prior to the 1960s forced removals.

An old train map of the South African railway system, including Estcourt and Benoni stations, provides a starting point to the exhibition. In their original context, ‘sidetracks’ refer to the minor or auxiliary tracks on the railway system. In South Africa, during the time period covered by these two collections, the train had the potential to both connect and divide populations. Firstly, it enabled people to travel across the country, linking urban and rural areas. One photograph from the Adams collection, for instance, shows the family’s cattle at the Rand Fair Show in Johannesburg, where they would have travelled to from Estcourt by train. Conversely, an Ngilima photograph shows several young girls carrying suitcases and blankets, about to board the train that would take them from Benoni (near Johannesburg) to boarding school in Kwa-Zulu Natal. But at the same time as the trains allowed for this movement between places, they also also served to divide, a process most evident in the racial segregation of the train’s coaches. Train tracks also frequently functioned as a physical border between two areas, for instance between the Indian and the new Black neighbourhood in Benoni.

These ideas of connection, movement, division and even diversion – to use the figurative meaning of ‘sidetrack’ – were all central to imagining a reciprocity between the societies represented in the two collections. What started out as an email correspondence between the two PhD students gradually evolved towards a pairing of photographs that seemed to resonate with each other. Connections emerged where least expected, in terms of patterns of composition, conventions of posing, and subject matter repeated across class, race and generations. The result was a sprawling constellation of images – a photo-map that not only started to suggest some of the complexities of South African micro-history, but also raised questions about the process of looking at, and working with, photographs and photographic collections.

Although they represent intimate moments, many of the pictures selected for this exhibition also reverberate with the larger socio-economic forces at play in the country. Familiar histories are hinted at, most tellingly the history of South Africa’s racial divide, and the experience of living under apartheid. Black figures hover at the margins of the Fyvie photographs, escaping the photographer’s attention; beaming white pin-up ‘girls’ can be seen in calendars and advertising posters in the background of the Ngilima portraits. Yet beyond this, private photographs invite us to also acknowledge the quiet, non-sensational stories taking place at the margins of the ‘struggle narrative’.

‘Sidetracks’ was first exhibited in Johannesburg at the Market Photo Workshop Gallery in July 2013. It coincided with “Beyond the iconic image: Tracing South African Micro-histories”, a two-day conference organised by Leiden PhD students at the University of the Witwatersrand (Johannesburg), which explored how photographic collections and archives intended for small-scale and private usages could be mobilised to write alternative South African histories.