Words and photographs by Niamh Walsh-Vorster
“What is the magic that makes one’s eye
Sparkle and gleam, light up the skies
The name of the game is lightworks”
“Lightworks”, J Dilla (2006)
Smokey-white laser lights illuminated a sea of dancers on Durban’s Blue Lagoon promenade. There was a magic show happening on stage and the tricks were a combination of musical talent and visual wizardry.
Zakifo Music Festival is in it’s third year in Durban, and the acts that the hardworking crew managed to pull out of the hat this year were impressive. Just like any ‘Heat City’ gig, the people floated in and out under a Durban Poison spell, attracted to the sights, sounds and of course, musical line-up. From established local names such as Thandiswa Mazwai, Bongeziwe Mabandla and new players, Easy Freak, to international legends like Birdy Nam Nam, Sax Machine and of course, Damian ‘Jr. Gong’ Marley, the event itself was a massive privilege to attend let alone photograph.
Things started off slowly, as every other day does in Durban. The crowd was sparse on Friday, with cool kids and families ambling about waiting for the show to start. First off was KZN afro-soul vocalist Jobie Clarke, with the singer and traditional instrumentalist Lu Dlamini to follow. By the time Thandiswa Mazwai performed, people were well into the festivities thanks to the festival’s impressive curtain-raisers, as well as the endless flow of Fiery Dragon Ginger Beers.
Ignoring the photographer privileges which allowed me in the pit, I stood far out, behind the audience to witness a powerful projection. Mazwai used the moment to stand in solidarity against violence against womxn, projecting an image of students, bare-breasted in protest against rape culture as she sang. It was during this set that inspired what I wanted to pursue photographically – how lights are used and the deeper meanings you can create.
As a freelance photojournalist, making images that will first: pay a bill, and second: be remembered, are the two motivating factors to getting a thoughtful and emotionally packed frame. With so many photographs being made – by professionals, amateurs, and iPhones alike – there is a need to push one’s own boundries and create something that will be unlike any other.
The aim of this game is to think about the frame before it’s made. What do you want to say with an image? How can well-known faces be documented in unfamiliar ways? For example, you cannot miss striking features which may define a musician, such as Damian ‘Jr. Gong’ Marley’s iconic ankle-length dreads. The rules are to break away from the norm, in order to make the image magical in the moment you are given. There is no cropping in post-production. You, the lights, and the musician have one chance to be live.
Mazwai’s performance used lights as a tool of art and activism, while music royalty, Ray Phiri, had a set that inspired musically and visually. The atmosphere was celebratory. Yellow lights radiated off the stage toward the crowd, urging them to dance. Documenting that feeling of joy in a photograph was made easier when the right lighting visuals were paired with the artist.
The technicalities of photography are all about light. Light is manipulated to create mood and evoke emotion. For instance: an image of Sax Machine’s front man, RACECAR , is framed in low light for the effect of mystery and isolation, which you’ll find in the photographs.
Saturday was a drab day weather-wise (one spit of drizzle and the raincoats were out in full force). The only shine we got was from the Zakifo stages. Nova Twins had dreamy technicolour lights during their performance. Tiggs Da Author’s set used brillaint blue lights which were a much needed antidote to the grey Durban skies. The VJaying during Birdy Nam Nam’s set was the quintessence of a European rave scene.
The light choice by the stage producers created an other-worldly visual experience, where there was a relationship of art-making taking place between the light technicians, musicians and photographers. All of them worked together to provide a comprehensive emotional experience for the audience.
After nearly breaking my back from running around and absorbing as much light into my 35mm, Sunday arrived. As the busiest day of the festival, reggae and ska fan, alongside the few appropriative white guys with Marley shirts flooded the space. A lighting bolt flashed on the big screen as ‘Jr. Gong’ jumped onto the stage. Two hours went by and all photomaking, dancing, smoking, Bob Marley-hit-singing and light-flashing had ended.
‘Welcome to Jamrock’ settled the “encore!” cries, and a few minutes later, the show was over. I was left with images that needed to be refined. This photo-story tries to reflect a re-imagining of live music photography with a focus on a powerful presence: the presence of light.