I recently saw David Goldblatt’s series called Ex Ofenders at SFMOMA. While I loved nearly everything I saw, this series of photographs really struck a chord. Ex Offenders is a group of portraits of people who have been convicted of crimes in South Africa. The portraits are taken at the scene of the crime and included under each photograph was the story of the individual and the crime they committed.
I think that for some, this has been the first opportunity they have had to tell their story without being judged.
I think often when we think of criminals we think they must be in some way very significantly different from us. It’s not easy to understand why anyone would steal or murder or rape and there are certainly no good excuses for many of these crimes, but Goldblatt attempts to portray these individuals from a different perspective, as people who deserve to tell their story. One of the stories from this series that I was most affected by was of a mother who strangled her son. But her story was not that simple, as is usually the case. The son that she strangled had a long history of beating her and her husband, as well as stealing and causing other damage. This was the son whom she cared for growing up, whom she welcomed back to her home every time he strayed. One night she just snapped and couldn’t handle it and attacked him in his sleep. It’s a heartbreaking story and after reading several of these, I had tears in my eyes. It is so easy to judge others based on the facts, but it is harder to look past the facts and take into account the tragedies that are not as easily acknowledged, the ones that shape individuals and eventually lead them to actions even they themselves did not know they were capable of. I thought Goldblatt’s series was very powerful and I really enjoyed it. If you’re interested, here’s Goldblatt himself talking about the project (if this does not work, here is the link):