Juhan Kuus

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Juhan Kuus
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Born (1953-02-27) February 27, 1953 (age 71)
Cape Town
DiedJuly 12, 2015(2015-07-12) (aged 62)
NationalitySouth Africa

Juhan Kuus (February 27, 1953 – July 12, 2015) was a prominent documentary photographer born in Cape Town. Primarily capturing apartheid-related events, his lens consistently thrust him into the epicenter of perilous situations, earning him the moniker "South Africa's most beaten photographer." Over his illustrious 45-year career, Kuus cultivated a distinguished reputation within the realm of documentary photography, distinguished not only by his unwavering dedication to capturing the essence of apartheid but also for the radicalism evident in his distinctive style.


Early Life and Photography Beginnings (1969-1985)

Juhan Kuus's passion for photography blossomed during his formative years as a schoolboy. His profound connection with the art form was aptly described by Toomas Jarvet, who asserted that "taking pictures meant everything to Juhan. It was his calling, and he could not imagine his life without a camera." Hilton Hamann echoed this sentiment, emphasizing that documenting the world around him superseded all else in Kuus's life. Despite facing financial challenges, Kuus remained steadfast in his conviction that his work transcended personal considerations.

At the age of 17, Juhan Kuus embarked on his professional photography journey by joining the staff of the Cape Town newspaper Die Burger. His roles included darkroom assistant, messenger, cleaner, and novice photographer. Subsequently, he relocated to Johannesburg, where he transitioned to a career as a press photographer. Kuus contributed to various newspapers, including the Afrikaans Sunday national newspaper, Rapport, Die Beeld, The Rand Daily Mail, and the Sunday Times. Notably, during his tenure at the Sunday Times, he benefited from the mentorship of James Souiller.

In 1978, Juhan Kuus achieved international recognition by winning the third World Press Photo prize in the Spot News category, marking a pivotal moment in his burgeoning career.

Juhan Kuus's photographic oeuvre, marked by a deep commitment to social documentation and an acute sensitivity to the human condition, has left an indelible mark on the world of photojournalism. His legacy endures as a testament to the power of visual storytelling in shedding light on the complexities of society.

The Sipa Years: Career Boom (1986-1999)

From 1986 to 2000, Juhan Kuus experienced a significant surge in his career as he collaborated with the esteemed Paris and New York agencies, Sipa Press. Serving as their South African correspondent and photojournalist, this period marked a pinnacle in his professional journey. Kuus candidly expressed the profound impact of his association with Sipa Press during a dinner in Paris in 2014, stating, "Gökşin, you and others at Sipa Press made up my only real family."

During his tenure with Sipa, Kuus was tasked with documenting the tragic events unfolding in South Africa during the 1970s and 80s. His lens captured a society teetering on the edge of civil war, immortalizing a nation in crisis. However, his contract with Sipa concluded following Nelson Mandela's resignation as president, as South Africa ceased to be a global focal point.

The culmination of Kuus's work during these pivotal years is encapsulated in his book, "South Africa in Black and White," published in 1987 in collaboration with Trevor Macdonald and Harrap. The book, featuring 277 of Kuus's photographs, provided a powerful visual narrative of the tumultuous times in South Africa. In the acknowledgments, Kuus dedicated the book to fellow photographers working in repressive regimes, expressing gratitude to mentors such as Jimmy Soullier, the chief photographer of the Johannesburg Sunday Times, and Ian Berry.

Kuus, recognizing the influence of Soullier and Berry, remarked in February 2015, "What I see today and know, Soullier and Berry taught me." In addition, he acknowledged the support of Phyllis Springer, Gökşin, and the entire Sipa staff in Paris.

Despite the ban of "South Africa in Black and White" in his home country, Kuus continued to garner recognition for his impactful work. In 1990, one of his photos was featured in the album "75 Years of Leica Photography." Two years later, he received the 3rd World Press Photo award in the Daily Life category.

The extensive body of work produced by Kuus from 1986 to 2000 is preserved in the Sipa agency archives. In a collaborative effort in 2014, Sipa and the Adamson-Eric Museum in Tallinn organized an exhibition, further underscoring the enduring legacy of Juhan Kuus's contributions to the field of photojournalism.

End of Life (2000-2015)

In the early 2000s, Juhan Kuus confronted a period of personal struggle marked by a sense of detachment from his surroundings. Overcoming this challenging phase, he redirected his focus towards documenting humanist and social events, particularly highlighting the escalating crime rates. As a testament to his commitment to societal issues, Kuus took on the roles of editor and photographer for the non-profit newspaper, "The Big Issue."

In 2003, Juhan Kuus relocated to Oudtshoorn in the Western Cape, where he lived with his father, Harry Kuus. During this time, he engaged in leather cutting and turned his attention towards the working conditions of farm laborers. A return to the newspaper realm followed, including a stint with Die Burger from 2004 to 2005. By 2006, Kuus resumed freelancing and established a connection with gallery owner Gavin Furlonger, founder of PAPA (Photographic Archival and Preservation Association), where a significant portion of his work found archival refuge.

Maintaining a decade-long correspondence until his passing in 2015, Juhan Kuus connected with Toomas Jarvet and Kristel Aimee Laur, two Estonians who discovered him through his unmistakably Estonian name. Expressing a desire to settle in Europe since 1992, Kuus sought employment in Paris and dreamed of capturing Eastern European rituals and his ancestral homeland, Estonia.

Tragically, on a fateful day in 2015, Juhan Kuus succumbed to a fatal fall from a staircase at the St Monica nursing home in Cape Town. Throughout his life, he harbored a deep longing for Europe, particularly Estonia, the land of his roots. Despite spending the majority of his life in South Africa, Kuus remained connected to Estonia through his correspondence with Toomas and Kristel, expressing a profound attachment to his unknown homeland.

In recognition of his significant contributions to photojournalism, the Estonian Museum of Art invited Juhan Kuus to exhibit his work in 2014, a gesture he considered the culmination of a lifetime dedicated to photography in Africa. The exhibition, supported by the Adamson-Eric Museum and the Eesti Kultuurkapital Foundation, served as Kuus's way of expressing gratitude to Estonia for his heritage and the profound impact it had on his life. Juhan Kuus's legacy endures not only through his compelling photographic work but also through his unwavering connection to the land of his ancestors.

Works: his art and his subjects

Overall style:

Juhan Kuus's photographic body of work is characterized by its arresting and often unsettling nature. The images command attention through their explicit depiction of violence, compelling viewers to confront harsh realities. Kuus's photography is unapologetically honest, addressing events such as racial clashes, the plight of victims, the struggles of workers, the lives of marginalized individuals, the innocence of children, and the themes of death and pain. Yet, his lens did not discriminate, capturing a diverse range of subjects, from beauty pageants like Miss Africa and the innocence of children to the gritty scenes of police violence, wrestling competitions in the mud, Independence Day celebrations, and poignant portraits.

In essence, Juhan Kuus gravitated towards highlighting the lives of the marginalized, presenting them as either heroes or anti-heroes. While violence remains a prominent theme, it is not the sole focus of his work. Joy and hope find their place in some of his photographs, featuring scenes of children playing or simple portraits that capture the human spirit.

Central to Juhan Kuus's approach was the principle articulated by Robert Capa: "If your pictures aren't good enough, you aren't close enough." Kuus's photography thrived on intimacy with his subjects, capturing moments in an immediate and spontaneous manner. This closeness often blurred the lines between the professional and the personal, adding a unique dimension to his work. Textual information played a significant role in his photographs, with Kuus providing captions to enhance understanding.

While the majority of his earlier work was in black and white, starting from 1990, Juhan Kuus incorporated color film into his repertoire without altering his fundamental approach. He often worked simultaneously with two cameras—one loaded with black-and-white film, the other with color film—enabling him to capture scenes from different perspectives.

Beyond 1999, Kuus's subjects expanded to encompass contemporary issues such as homosexual culture and homelessness. Notably, he gained the trust of Cape Town gangs, offering an intimate portrayal of their lives and daily routines. Corresponding with his personal struggles and a period of melancholy, his style and subjects took on a somber tone. Kuus, in his own words, referred to his later works as "granular black-and-white photo monuments to the living dead," expressing a negative perspective on the world and its humanity. Violence remained a central and enduring theme throughout Juhan Kuus's profound and impactful photographic legacy.

Juhan Kuus and violence:

Juhan Kuus approached photography with a commitment to impartial documentation, eschewing alignment with any particular stance or viewpoint. His lens served as a tool for reporting events and creating a reflective portrait of society. The visceral impact of violence within his work stemmed from his unwavering proximity to what he referred to as his "victims." Describing himself as a misanthrope in a dystopian world, Kuus presented unadorned depictions of reality, devoid of artifice.

The inherent risks he undertook to capture his images earned him the moniker of the "most beaten photographer." In a dialogue with Sunday Star's editor Denis Beckett, Kuus questioned his own choices in the face of danger, contemplating the purpose of continually risking his safety for meager compensation. He saw himself as a self-appointed sheriff, holding up a mirror to his countrymen to confront their excesses. A poignant memory from Cape Town in 1976, witnessing a van loaded with corpses at a police station, solidified his resolve to bear witness to the harsh realities through his lens.

In the 1980s, ethical debates in journalism and photojournalism became central, and Kuus's decision to carry a gun further fueled the discourse. Despite going against established ethical norms, Kuus justified the choice as a means of reassurance in perilous situations. This choice, however, led to his expulsion from the South African Foreign Correspondents' Association and prevented his acceptance into the prestigious Magnum photographic agency.

Kuus's distinctive character, marked by a penchant for alcohol and a unique temperament, contributed to his reputation as an artist who defied conventions and embraced danger. Described by Chris Marais in the context of documentary photographers, Kuus embodied a breed that dressed like veterans of war, spoke in the spirit of Robert Capa, and often coped with the stresses of their profession by immersing themselves in the moment. Gavin Furlonger noted that even among the formidable members of the Bang-Bang club, Kuus stood out as exceptionally resilient.

Notably, Juhan Kuus maintained a non-affiliated stance with any socio-political groups, allowing him to interact with diverse groups, including students, activists, and police officers. This intentional neutrality, however, subjected him to accusations of collaboration with the wrong side, highlighting the complexities and challenges he faced in his pursuit of an unvarnished portrayal of South Africa's turbulent realities.


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