For nearly three decades Ractliffe’s photographs have reflected her ongoing preoccupation with the South African landscape and the ways in which it figures in the country’s imaginary—particularly in relation to the violent legacies of apartheid. Her photographs explore how past trauma manifests in the landscape of the present, forensically and symbolically. In this they frequently portray the “after-event;” places where there was once terrible violence but where now the evidence has all but disappeared. In her photographs she draws our attention to the absent and unseen, alluding to the traces of meaning beyond the evidentiary.
For the past ten years Ractliffe has directed her focus on the aftermath of war in Angola, a war South Africa was heavily involved in, but one where much ignorance, shame, and, for many, even betrayal are associated. Terreno Ocupado (2007) explored the social and spatial demographics of Luanda five years after the end of civil war. This was followed by As Terras do Fim do Mundo (2009–10), which shifted focus from the urban manifestation of aftermath to the spaces of war itself. For two years Ractliffe travelled with ex-soldiers, going back to battlefields where they had fought as young men many years ago. Her recent work, The Borderlands (2013), looks at spaces within South Africa not usually associated with the military that were caught up in the mobilization and aftermath of that war.