Johno Mellish explores documentary photography’s ability to tell its own truths in his photo book inspired by Elizabeth Klarer's autobiography about her encounter with an alien


In her autobiography Beyond the Light Barrier (1980), Elizabeth Klarer, a South African from KwaZulu-Natal, writes about her romantic relationship with Akon, a scientist from the planet Meton. In the book, Akon leaves Alpha Centauri, the closest star system to our solar system, to land his spaceship in the Drakensburg where Elizabeth meets him for the first time in 1956. She goes on to write about visiting Meton herself where she lived with Akon for four months and bore his child, a son who remained on Meton when she returned to Earth.

Cape Town born and based photographer Johno Mellish discovered the book and was fascinated to read about South Africa through a sci-fi lens. His curiosity about the story led him to Champagne Castle and Rosetta in Middleburg, KwaZulu-Natal, where the events were said to have taken place. His aim was to see what information he could gather for a possible documentary. Asking around, he was told by a shop owner to meet with local Diana Wilkinson, a woman interested in extra terrestrials and Elizabeth Klarer’s story. Wilkinson gave Mellish written correspondence between herself and the editor of UFO Afrinews, a South African publication from the 1970s, where they discussed the whereabouts of Klarer and their theories on her claims. Like Mellish, they had a lot of questions but never found any answers. “In the beginning you can see they’re not quite sure of the facts, and are constantly getting confused,” Mellish says.

“I like the freedom that photography allows. For me that’s the most interesting thing.”

Besides the holes in Klarer’s original documentation, errors appeared within this correspondence itself that added another layer of bizarre non-facts to the story. Mellish was inspired to respond to the information through photography and stayed in the Drakensburg for two weeks to shoot what has became his photo book, Rosetta 3301. He says, “All of this allowed me to photograph more errors and make up my own story. It liberated my understanding of documentary.”

In Rosetta 3301, his visual manipulations are subtle: warped colour and light that merely suggest that something is off but that don’t completely rule out taking the photograph at face value. “I like the freedom that photography allows. For me that’s the most interesting thing.”

Mellish studied cinematography at AFDA in Cape Town and is currently studying photography at UCT’s Michaelis. Whether shooting still lives, found objects or landscapes, his subject matter leans towards the strange and at times abstract. Images from Rosetta 3301 were recently shown at Cape Town’s Smith Studio gallery as part of the group show Hush Hush.

While Mellish intentionally blurs the lines between documentary photography, staged environments and photo manipulation in Rosetta 3301, he questions how far this really is from how photography is used in the media. In an era of fake news, it’s a question that’s especially relevant. While news media might not go as far as doctoring images, the choice of images used and the captions they are presented alongside go a long way to suggest how we should understand a story.

In Rosetta 3301, Mellish also makes use of captions to bend the truth or to suggest a bigger story. A good example is his photograph of trees with the caption ‘Landing Spot #45’. The viewer can choose to place meaning on the photograph or not. “I don’t think there’s all that much truth in photography,” Mellish says, “It’s always quite selective and suggestive. And that’s maybe the core interest in this work, not even aliens.”

Words Alix-Rose Cowie
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Published on 13/08/2017