British photographer Jason Larkin’s recent book, waiting, contains a series of photographs that depicts people standing in the shade as they wait for the bus. Photographed over a period of two years in South Africa, this is an aesthetically and formally coherent body of work as all the images have this in common: to the center of the image is a person waiting for the bus, shade from a nearby lamppost, tree or other object is at least partially covering the person’s body, and the exposure is set for background to the image rather than for the person waiting. This last point might appear like a technical detail though in actual fact it has a profound effect on how the images in this series are perceived. The identity of Larkin’s subjects is mostly disguised by this underexposure of their face. Instead, the viewer is presented with a silhouette, drawing attention towards gestures and body language. As such, the people that are waiting are not “doing” anything – which draws the viewers’ attention even to the most subtle of details.
By exposing for the background rather than the person waiting in the foreground, Larkin also emphasises the politics of race in contemporary “post-apartheid” South African society. The ethnicity of the subjects is strategically emphasised, perhaps even exaggerated, in this work. To that extent it is important to mention what is absent from all of the images: there are no white people depicted waiting for a bus. They, the viewer must assume, use a different mode or transport. By exposing for the background and not – as photography students are usually taught – for the skin tone, Larkin thus taps into a wider debate about race and the different experience of race in South Africa’s major cities.
Every image is accompanied by an indication as to how long the subject has waited for the bus, ranging from 10 minutes going up to 9 hours. The majority of waiting times far exceed what most people in the West would readily accept as an appropriate time to wait for a bus. In addition to the textual element, Larkin’s body of work also references time on a visual level. Many images depict people standing in a sort of half shade, such as behind a street sign. As the sun moves, the people would necessarily move as well in order to stay in the shade. The impression given is that the photograph depicts a subject always in transition, waiting and standing still on one hand, though also moving slowly in order to take in as much shade as possible. As the occasional glance back into the camera indicates, Larkin clearly interrupts this process by his very presence, and his subjects appear willing participants in this body of work.
The implication of the long waiting times is not just a commentary on the dysfunctional transport system in South Africa, but more importantly, it is a reflection of how much the time of the individual is valued – or not valued, in this case. Here, Larkin has photographed something that is rather rare in a capitalist system: time that is completely unproductive. The subjects neither produce nor consume anything. Instead, they wait with the intended goal of going from one place to the next; though at the moment the photograph is taken, this future movement is a not-yet-fulfilled promise.
– reviewed by Marco Bohr
waiting by Jason Larkin was co-published by Photoworks and Fourthwall Books.