South African photographer Katharine Cooper (1978, Grahamstown, South Africa) is known for identifying with her subjects and works in the space between representation and expression, opposing the “objective” documentary photographer. From October 2015 on Cooper made several journeys to Syria and Iraqi Kurdistan with the support of SOS Chrétiens d’Orient, a young French organisation which works to rehabilitate the Middle Eastern populations affected by the war. A selection of her work from the Middle East has been selected for the exhibition ‘Chrétiens d’Orient. Deux mille ans d’histoire’ at the Institut du monde arabe in Paris from 26 septembre 2017 till 14 janvier 2018.
When in Iraqi Kurdistan, Cooper travelled to the settlements and refugee camps inhabited by hundreds of thousands of people who have been forced to flee their homes in the wake of terrorism. In Syria Cooper visited the ruined cities such as Ma’aloula and Aleppo, just after its Liberation to capture the atmosphere of this city ravaged by attacks from diverse terrorist factions such as Jabhat al-Nosra (today renamed Fatah al-Cham) and Daech.
Cooper, known for depicting women, men, and children with a great form of respect and sensitivity, saw beyond the disaster. What she discovered in these scorched regions was an overwhelming life-force. In Aleppo for example she found men covered with the dust of reconstruction; women offering her strawberries; green almonds and outrageously-fragrant pink roses that were sold at each street corner. She saw wrecks of lorries hit by shrapnel and condemned to remain immobile in place, transformed into kiosks by merchants who had lost everything in the bombings. Drawn to get close with her subjects, to break down the boundaries between the people and herself, Cooper’s black and white portraits show us the world beyond newspaper photographs.
In 2013 Cooper was awarded the Photography prize by the Academy of Fine Arts in Paris ‘le Prix de Photographie Marc Ladreit de Lacharrière – Academie des beaux-arts’ for her stunning documentary on the white minority in South Africa, ‘Les Blancs Africains. Voyage au pays natal’. A subject shrouded in taboo. Based upon her own life in Africa, Cooper gave us her personal vision of the white minority in South Africa and Zimbabwe. Deliberately ignoring the anti-apartheid sentiments, she followed her own intuition, presenting with a mix of dignity and complexity, the lives of those she could have shared. By doing so she achieved an intimate portrait that allows us easily to imagine that we could have shared their same complicated history and background.
To Cooper the process of developing and printing her photographs is a very large part of the content and part of the viewing and reading. In her opinion the singularity of her photographs (each print can be seen as a unique work) leaves a material trace that anchors her photographs firmly in the real, todays world, making them contemporary as opposed to the seemingly nostalgia black-and-white appeal. It demonstrates practically the topicality of her subject and actually makes these beautiful photographs unsettling.
Cooper works with a Hasselblad medium format camera and mostly uses the legendary Kodak Tri-X, as well as Ilford films. In Paris she worked many years with master printer Choi (Helmut Newton and Nan Goldin’s printer) and continues working at his atelier with his successor masterprinter Philippe Bonneau at Cadre en Seine Choi.
Originally from Grahamstown (in the Eastern Cape of South Africa), Katharine Cooper (1978), left her native country in 1986 to settle in Zimbabwe. In Harare, she went to school with the Dominican sisters and started learning photography from her journalist father, using his Nikkormat at first before progressing to a Leica M4 and the Hasselblad 500c medium format camera she continues to use today. At the age of nineteen, she left Africa to do a B.A Honours Photography at the Nottingham Trent University in the United Kingdom. In 2000 she moved to Arles where she graduated in 2004 with honours from the renowned Ecole Nationale Supérieure de la Photographie d’Arles (ENSP). Between 2005 and 2016 Cooper made many visits back to Africa, mainly to Zimbabwe, Mozambique and South Africa. In this period she also worked as the darkroom printer for the late photographer Lucien Clergue (and co-founder of the Rencontres d’Arles photography festival in Arles).
Cooper’s work has been exhibited at the Institut du monde arabe in Paris; MUba Eugène Leroy, Turcoing; L’Académie des beaux-arts, Paris au Palais de l’Institut de France, Paris; Castello di Lerici, Italy; Chapelle Sainte Anne, Arles; ENSASE, Saint Etienne; Gemeentemuseum Helmond, Netherlands; Chapelle St Louis at Les Invalides, Paris. She was part of the show ‘Photographers Night. The voice of cameramen and woman’ that included Jeroen Robert Kramer, Desiree Dolron and Martin Usborne in 2017 and the large groupshow at the gallery ‘Hunting: the world of intense concentration’, with Martin Parr in 2014. That year she did a duo presentation with Jaap Scheeren in the gallery, ‘ White Africans & This spot might mean shit to you, but is the world to me’.
L’Académie des Beaux-Arts, Paris, France
FIMALAC (F. Marc de Ladreit de Lacharrière), France
Djurhuus Collection, Copenhagen, Denmark
Hugo and Carla Brown Collection, The Netherlands
Stichting ArtService, The Netherlands
Private collections in Switserland, France, Zimbabwe, South Africa, The Netherlands, United States, Israel and Belgium
Cooper’s work has been included in Vanity Fair, The Huffington Post, The Art Newspaper, New York and NRC.