Enemies and Friends: Documenting African Conflict

Standing alongside his images of child-soldiers, displaced civilians and war-torn landscapes, James Oatway explains to the small crowd gathered around him that he doesn’t consider himself a ‘war photographer.’  His exhibition entitled Enemies & Friends is divided into three segments, each one a powerful collection of Oatway’s work documenting conflict in African countries.

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The Enemies & Friends exhibition brings together Oatway’s images from South Africa, the Democratic Republic of Congo and the Central African Republic. Between 2013 and 2015, Oatway documented combatants in some of Africa’s least known and under-reported conflicts. He also recorded the xenophobic violence that rocked South Africa in 2008 and, most famously, the murder of Mozambican immigrant Emmanuel Sithole in Alexandra township, Johannesburg, in 2015.

Throughout the exhibition Oatway moves slowly between each photograph, taking time to explain how and where each image was captured. Fifteen-year-old’s show off their makeshift weapons in front of dilapidated mud-caked houses, some wearing t-shirts advertising American strip bars. Battered Congolese battalions emerge from dense Central African forests, frozen dramatically in black and white. While Oatway may object to the term ‘war-photographer’, his images deal primarily with the absurdity and tragedy of conflict in central and southern Africa; what Oatway refers to as ‘the quieter moments.’

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Through his in-depth exploration of these moments of stillness, Oatway focuses on the very real human cost of violence in Africa. The exhibition is not simply a collection of photographs. Oatway spends a considerable amount of time exploring the story and context behind each image, offering a glimpse into his own profound perspectives and impressions of these conflicts. Enemies & Friends is as much an exploration of African conflict as it is an exhibition of Oatway’s own unique perspectives of these remote and largely unknown spaces.

Featured alongside these ‘quiet moments’ are Oatway’s images of the attack on Emmanuel Sithole, which were published in the Sunday Times and shared widely in international media, reinvigorating the national debate on xenephobic violence. Oatway describes the events of that day in great detail, offering a unique insight into one of South Africa’s most influential modern photographs and one of its most persistent social problems.

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In describing the conditions of opposing and complimentary militias, the influence of regional and international governments, the subtle yet distinct differences between forms of violence and the historical basis for these armed struggles, Enemies & Friends challenges the simplistic perceptions of African conflicts in traditional media and offers a more sophisticated and complete exposition of these situations.

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