From social backlash to upliftment: the picture that told a thousand words
Local documentary photographer and filmmaker, Joshua Rubin, 23, was moved by the twisted irony of the visuals before him, and asked the man’s permission to take his picture.
A click later, and he believed he had captured a powerful image of a city ground to a halt that simultaneously encapsulated a stark reminder of poverty in one of the world’s most unequal countries.
Rubin went home, collected some clothes and food, and went back to find him.
“I asked him whether I could take him to a shelter, but he didn’t want that,” said Rubin.
“While I was editing, I asked my dad whether this image was too much.” He then asked his friend and fellow cinematographer, Chad Nathan, aka @GingerWithaGoPro, if it was too hectic. Both agreed the image was powerful, so Rubin decided to post it on his Instagram page @JoshWideAwake.
Little did he know that the photograph would cause outrage on social media.
“Within an hour of posting the photograph, I received thousands of angry messages and threats from people on social media accusing me of being insensitive and exploiting the man in the photograph,” he told the SA Jewish Report.
A local disc jockey sparked the furore, and within hours, Rubin was lambasted by his attackers for depicting the man in a degrading, dehumanising, and humiliating way.
One message read, “Contrary to popular belief, it’s possible to raise awareness without dehumanising or exploiting the people you claim to be helping.”
An anti-racist advocacy group has accused him of “white saviourism” – a term that refers to a white person who provides help to non-white people in a self-serving manner.
“What we are seeing here is peak white saviourism,” the organisation said. “The photographer’s justification is that he gave this man some money, and that his friends are raising money for ‘people like him’. Your kindness can quickly turn into blackmail when it’s mentioned so many times and when it’s used as justification for your exploitation. Most people, if given then [sp] chance to give informed consent for this photograph, would have at the very least, pulled up their pants.
“I was pretty scared. I was pale for a few days,” said Rubin, who has had a passion for photography since the age of 10.
“My intention was never to offend or upset anyone. I don’t regret taking the photograph, but at the same time, I respect people’s opinion and I don’t want to hurt people,” he said.
The criticism took its toll on Rubin, who took the photograph down. He posted an apology to his Instagram story which read, “Over the past few days, there has been a large amount of reaction to the photograph I took on Long Street. What’s missing from this reaction is the context. I have been documenting the realities of lockdown and the huge divide this has amplified in our society. I believed this was a powerful representation of this, and asked permission to take this picture. Having taken it, I returned home to fetch clothes and food and returned with them. This image can be seen as offensive, which was absolutely never the intention. I have taken it down out of respect for this, and apologise unreservedly for any harm it may have caused.”
Avid art collector, Mike Abel, the co-founder and chief executive partner of M&C Saatchi Abel, stepped in to help Rubin navigate his way through the furore. He got wind of the backlash through Jarette Petzer, the founder of the movement #ImStaying, of which Abel is a patron.
“I think Joshua is an extremely talented young man with an extraordinarily observant eye. He has a rare talent for capturing a moment,” said Abel.
“What happened to him is an example of the toxicity and danger of some “woke” hyper-far-left voices intent on shutting down important voices,” he said.
As the issue of poverty and homelessness is close to his heart, Abel wanted to turn this into a positive story.
He reached out to nine art collectors who, like himself, purchased a copy of the photograph for R10 000 each. Half the money raised was then matched by the Angel Network, and given to The Kolisi Foundation, a non-profit organisation founded by South African rugby captain Siya Kolisi and his wife Rachel.
“The money raised fed 50 families for three months. Eventually, Joshua’s photograph created enormous good, and I have sent it to curators in the United Kingdom. What’s the benefit of hiding the plight of the suffering, and shutting down an important conversation on homelessness and the dispossessed? The photographer’s intention was never to humiliate, it was to raise awareness and create a conversation, which sadly was shut down before anyone got to appreciate it.”
The SA Jewish Report became aware of the photograph during this year’s eLimmud series of lectures in which Rubin was invited to present a talk about his work during lockdown.
Although the image has been removed, he still receives messages on social media.
“Some praise my photograph, but there are others that are critical and sadly, that’s where your mind goes,” said Rubin whose latest work includes photographing rival gangs in Manenberg on the Cape Flats, a project aimed at conflict resolution.
“I’ve been told I need to develop a tough skin, but I know that if I’m doing things for the right reason, I won’t have to worry. You can’t please everyone. People will find fault anywhere,” he said.