At a time when the apartheid regime in South Africa was becoming increasingly desperate and harsh, Santu Mofokeng adopted the photographic essay form, which allowed for greater complexity than documentary photography
and its over-politicized depiction of repression and resistance. With his first photographic essay titled Train Church (1986), he began what was to become an ongoing exploration of religious rituals and the displacement of places of worship.
In 1988, Santu Mofokeng joined the African Studies Institute (ASI) where he stayed for almost ten years as a photographic researcher. He produced his photographic essay Rumours/ The Bloemhof Portfolio, which constitutes a genuine archive of rural life in South Africa. The ASI gave Santu Mofokeng the necessary space and time to develop his research on the representation of everyday life in the townships, and in particular his project on images of the self and family histories of black South Africans (The Black Photo Album/Look at Me: 1890–1950), and thus to go beyond the stereotypical news pictures of violence or poverty in Soweto.
In 1996 he began to photograph congregations, religious gatherings, and rituals performed in caves for his ongoing photographic essay Chasing Shadows, which inquires into the relationships between landscape, memory, and religion. With Trauma Landscapes and Landscape and Memory, Mofokeng took his exploration of landscapes imbued with historical significance and memories further, in a way that questioned the very idea of landscape. Stretching the use of the word landscape to its fullest in order “to invoke literal, colloquial, psychological, philosophical, mystical, metaphysical and metonymic meanings, and applications,” he reclaims the land and posits that, “landscape appreciation is informed by personal experience, myth, and memory, amongst other things. Suffice to say, it is also informed by ideology, indoctrination, projection, and prejudice.” These concerns also inform the polluted landscapes of Radiant Landscapes where human and geographical bodies are poisoned and forced to undergo a gradual metamorphosis. They are the uneven and parallel precipitates of both climate change and photography itself.