Leica Oskar Barnack Award 2005: Guy Tillim „Johannesburg Story“

Guy Tillim – Jo’burg Story, 2005

The South African photographer Guy Tillim won the 2005 Leica Oskar Barnack Award with his photo reportage “Jo’burg Story”. His series documents the transformation of the town from an urban enclave of the white minority to an “African town”, as the photographer puts it. Tillim was the first photographer on the African continent to receive the Leica Oskar Barnack Award.

Guy Tillim’s photographs are an unsettling accusation against his own place of birth, Johannesburg: with a perceptive eye, he sheds light on its darkest corners. The fast transformation, steered by the municipal and regional authorities, has left behind its traumatizing mark. The emergence of a black and rootless underclass is leading to the creation of a new ghetto in Johannesburg – this time of a different kind.

Black home comers and their lost dreams amid architectural decay. In the 1990s, when the whites moved away from the inner city and the government lifted the decree on racial segregation in living quarters, the blacks returned in search of a better life. They were burdened, however, with the image of being criminals and looters, and this became a self-fulfilling prophecy. The landlords confronted their new tenants with unrealistic conditions; the city switched off the electricity and water. The black citizens organised themselves in committees, struggling to keep the buildings intact with their own, meagre resources. A battle against windmills. Furthermore, these committees were illegal, and the buildings were subject to financial speculation. The desperate city dwellers had a bitter choice to make: to return to the slums outside the city gates, or to stay. Regardless of their decision, it was a life in societal isolation. “In between the needs of the City Council, and the aspirations of developers anticipating the boom of an African city, lies the fate of Jo’burg’s residents. The outcome will decide whether or not Johannesburg becomes, once again, a city of exclusion,” says Tillim, who photographed the series with a Leica M6 and later with a Canon D.

“The series ‘Jo’burg Story’ marked a moment in my career when I started to more decisively follow my own path, rather than trying to imitate photographers I admired.”

Documentaries on African trouble zones, urban photo investigations and sensitive portraits: Guy Tillim’s approach is versatile, critical, poetic and, above all, dedicated. The photographer’s classically-orientated work ethics embody a refined technique and a virtuous play with light, shadow and courageous compositions. Tillim wants more, however: his photos leave space for the viewer’s own interpretations. With this reporting from the inside, the viewer is confronted with a bitter tasting sense of personal wealth. A sharp dialogue begins between image and viewer, by which Tillim has achieved his goal. He wants his work to cause a stir and to inform people. As a photographer, he gets involved, which also reveals a sense of compassion.

(Text updated 2020)

“At the time it was a huge confidence-booster. I was, and still am, proud to be in the company of other winners of the Leica Oskar Barnack Award.”

Guy Tillim

Born in Johannesburg in 1962, Tillim saw photography as his weapon in the fight against the Apartheid regime. In the eighties he worked as a reporter and joined Afrapix, the South African Photo Association. Numerous awards and participation in exhibitions. Tillim lives near Cape Town and is represented by the VU’ agency.

In 2005, the photo essay “Are you a real frog?” by the German photographer Linn Schröder, was given an Honourable Mention.