IN the age of selfies, where millions of photographs displayed and shared have an outstretched arm in the frame, we are at risk of forgetting that photography is an art form.

Technology has democratised the selection of what is worthy of display. Today, there is seemingly no human activity not observed and shared by anyone who has the time (or inclination) to look.

In her essay "On Photography", Susan Sontag predicted the rise of the selfie when she wrote that new camera technology held the power to democratise all experiences by translating them into images.

But she maintained that books were the most influential way of arranging photographs, thereby guaranteeing them longevity, if not immortality, and a wider public. In a book, a photograph can be offered to the public as a collectable object.

"The photograph in a book is, obviously, the image of an image. But since it is, to begin with, a printed, smooth object, a photograph loses much less of its essential quality when reproduced in a book than a painting does," Sontag wrote. "Still, the book is not a wholly satisfactory scheme for putting groups of photographs into general circulation. The sequence in which the photographs are to be looked at is proposed by the order of the pages, but nothing holds the readers to the recommended order or indicates the amount of time to be spent on each photograph."

Photographer and filmmaker Adrian Steirn and creative director Harriet Pratten established the 21 Icons project when visiting SA from Australia. The project combines fine-art portraits, short films, behind-the-scenes photography, written narrative and feature-length documentaries which have been aired on SABC.

"Our hope was to capture, in a holistic and immersive manner, the lives of the people it features ... to ensure that the charm, humility and sincerity of SA’s most remarkable people came though," Pratten writes in the introduction to the 21 Icons book.

"By making accessible the personal stories of those whose work has improved the lives of many, the goal was to show the way forward for a new generation of socially conscious and active citizens."

Sontag wrote that one of the tasks of photography is to shape our sense of the world. "It is not to present ideals. There is no agenda except diversity and interestingness. There are no judgments, which of course is itself a judgment."

Portraits of Nelson Mandela, FW de Klerk and Desmond Tutu appear first in 21 Icons, followed by a satisfying selection of artists, activists, sports heroes, healers and teachers — many well known and all deserving of our attention.

Steirn asks how many other icons of our world have passed through unnoticed, victims of timing or circumstance, undocumented and unheralded, with no legacy of hope to pass on to the children of tomorrow.

He says the intention of the project was to celebrate these icons while they were still living, but the book has come too late for some. Mandela’s prophetic words are a consolation and a gift: "What counts in life is not the mere fact that we have lived. It is what difference we have made to the lives of others that will determine the significance of the life we lead."

Mandela was photographed in his Qunu home in September 2011. He is seated and the portrait is taken from behind his out-of-focus, white-haired head. His face is in sharp focus, reflected in the hand-held mirror he holds. It is chiselled, drawn but determined.

De Klerk’s portrait is magnificent. Dressed in suit and tie, he is seated on a lichen-covered rock, his hands resting on his knees in a lotus position and his bare feet digging into the soil. He is connected to his land.

Steirn says the image is a reflection of peace on a number of levels — of a man who helped facilitate a peaceful transition, who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize and who has found inner peace.

Tutu’s portrait is less satisfying. He is posed on an empty stage next to a ballerina’s tutu, seemingly suspended in mid-air. His arms are crooked as though he is about to launch into his trademark dance, but there is little movement suggested by his rigid body.

There are behind-the-scenes descriptions and text for each portrait. Tutu is described as a "wonderful nuisance". George Bizos says: "I was able to make a small contribution towards liberty coming to the people of SA." Phillip Tobias says: "When people ask, ‘what has Africa ever given to the world?’ the answer is humanity."

The staging of the artists’ portraits is a mixed bag. William Kentridge’s stunning portrait is titled "In Spite of Myself". A single 10-second exposure captures Kentridge at work in his studio in three superimposed poses, in homage to his multimedia art.

The expressions on the subjects’ faces are mostly determined stares into the distance, which is a great pity. Where are the cheeky grins, the twinkles in the eyes? The portraits taken at their homes are far more successful than the recreation of histories at their sites of struggle.

The activists’ portraits are stunning successes, art indeed. Greenpeace executive director Kumi Naidoo, dressed in waterproofs, stands astride a Zodiac inflatable boat planted in a thicket of trees. Zackie Achmat’s veins bulge in his arms, his body a triple-decker "I" in the slogan "Alive With HIV", strung across a township street.

In the text one is struck by how hard all the lives of Steirn’s 21 icons were, even those raised in material comfort. Those who struggled for an education are all an inspiration. The icons were all battered by apartheid and are relieved by democracy.

In his introduction to the book, Tutu says the icons are "a part of our society’s tapestry, part of a lesson learnt; a comforting reminder of our humanity".

"The 21 Icons project is a gift to our nation on the occasion of our 20th year since achieving our hard-earned democracy, one that reflects the charm, humility and sincerity of SA’s remarkable people. It reminds us that SA is a nation of ordinary people doing extraordinary things."

Since the project was conceived, Mandela, Tobias and Nadine Gordimer have left us. The book is an opportunity to acquire a fantastic fragment of them, to add to our memory chests.

"What is written about a person ... is frankly an interpretation, as are paintings and drawings," Sontag wrote. "Photographed images do not seem to be statements about the world so much as pieces of it, miniatures of reality that anyone can make or acquire."

Photographs are collectable objects when served up in books, said Sontag. 21 Icons is collectable indeed.

21 Icons South Africa
Adrian Steirn and Harriet Pratten
Quivertree Publications

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