Documentary, performance and fictions – Hasan and Husain Essop

Performative documents

So, I’ve just had a delve into documentary bodies of work that involved photographing imaginary scenes which could happen in reality, with examples from Mohamed Bourouissa and Tom Hunter. Now it’s time to look even further into the role of the imagination within this genre, by exploring ‘performative’ scenes, which are then digitally manipulated/reconstructed. The photographers that we are asked to research are Hasan and Husain Essop. Their work was on display back in 2011 as part of the V&A Figures and Fictions exhibition, presenting the work of 17 South African photographers, all of whom live and work in South Africa, with the images being made between 2000 -2010.

I attended this exhibition, really enjoying their work and their approach to representing Muslim identity, and some of the taboos in Islamic culture and society.


View the video on Hasan and Husain Essop at the V&A exhibition Figures and Fictions and write a short reflective commentary in your learning log.

This was my review in 2011 (but now with typos corrected!):

I found the work by twins Hasan and Husain Essop very interesting on many levels. They produce colourful digital composite images, cloning themselves over and over again. This is a consistent way of working and they have produced other series using the same technique. There are many reasons that they give for working like this, firstly that they have a ‘split personality’ being brought up by traditional Muslin parents, yet growing up in cosmopolitan Cape Town. Secondly they state ‘This is our experience. We don’t want to make an objective statement. We don’t want to put words in other people’s mouths,’ and lastly there is the conflict of religious beliefs in Islam with the depiction of the human figure. Told by their mother that ‘anything you draw that has life, you are going to have to give life to it,’  photographing themselves resolved that problem. Earlier work, Fast Food 2008 and Thornton Road  2008, contain more of the juxtaposition of East v West, religion v pop culture.Their series Halaal Art was shot in Cape Town, and recorded the ritual of cleansing meat for consumption. The shots are planned and they work fairly quickly due to rapidly changing light. The frames are shot with the camera on a tripod, Husain goes through a series of acts which Hasan will photograph. They then swap roles and effortlessly seem to know what space the other has occupied. Noting that with each successive generation, Western culture is nibbling at the edges of Islam. They have taken the opportunity to investigate the Muslim way of life and the rituals as they still exist in Cape Town today.Finding a solution to a photographic problem is a challenge many photographers face and I think the solution found by the Essop twins is brilliant. Not only are the images composed and expertly merged, they also successfully tell the story associated with butchery in the Halaal tradition and the feast of Eid. The lighting, especially on the night shot, is excellent. The idea of clones conveys the idea of having to be two people at the same time, with many inner and exterior conflicts, superbly.

On watching the video, and finding more examples on their work to display on my blog, I have exactly the same opinions now as I did then.

The sense of split personality is emphasised in most of their composites by the obvious differing modes of attire, either dressed in designer clothes, traditional garb and occasionally army camouflage gear, the twin’s ‘doubles, triples and multiples act out contradictory stereotypical identities.’

Initially the images appear playful, boys being boys, scenes full of ‘comic overacting and physical antics.’ However, on closer inspection there are many signs and symbols that indicate a more sinister undertone. For example, the brightly coloured outfits worn in Pennsylvanians are owned by ‘a notorious Cape Town gangster’, and the site where Thornton Road was shot, is the scene of an apartheid-era massacre.

Our work questions global and local hegemonies. We explore the influence of Western popular culture and the distorting effects it has on existing religions and cultures. Internal conflicts are expressed through performance.

Pit Bull Training (2007) portrays this conflict with less subtlety.

Shot in Cape Town’s illegal dog-fighting arena, the photograph shows two pit bulls braced to fight each other, Essop clones waving a fluffy toy dressed in American colours between them like a red flag to a bull. The conflict between East and West then, is an internalised one; the Essop clones playing both victim and aggressor.

Although heavily constructed, I would still argue that these bodies of work should be considered part of the documentary genre. This is due to the images documenting personal struggles with regards to a modern clash of cultures. Some of the scenes are simple reconstructions of everyday events, such as going to the mosque, playing basketball or going to the beach. Others are more complex, with subtle signifiers which underline the issues faced by many young people; growing up with traditional parents in a non-secular, or multi-cultural society.

Their work is a prime example of: work that demonstrates how subjectivity, imagination and authorship affects the production of documentary photographs. (course notes, p.60) And as Clarke stated: ‘If the documentary photograph wants us to accept it on the terms in which it is given, then it equally needs to be looked at in relation to the way it was taken.’ (Clarke, 1997, p.165)


Clarke, G. (1997). The photograph. 1st ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Katherine Jacobs, Hasan and Husain Essop %5BAccessed 07/04/2017] [Accessed 07/04/2017]


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