Joseph Alfers was born in 1949 in Umbumbulu, where his father was the Assistant Native Commissioner. He attended school and university in Pietermaritzburg, graduating from the then University of Natal with a BA.LLB in 1972. At University, he met Paul Weinberg, later also an Afrapix photographer, who was also studying law at the time.
Alfers was called up for the first intake of the new Commando military service system in 1969 (which allowed conscripts to move from school to university without serving a continuous 12 months in military service), where he completed the required two months basic training in the first year.
Working at the Department of Justice to fulfill bursary obligations, he was dismissed in 1973 for political activities contrary to Section 12(1)(b) of the Civil Service Act, as a result of involvement in student political activities and work with the Wages Commission. After travelling around Europe in 1975 and then to South West Africa (now Namibia) as a research volunteer, he joined a commercial studio in Pietermaritzburg in 1976 as an apprentice photographer.
In 1977 he joined The Natal Witness as a photographer/reporter, and in 1979 moved to the Rand Daily Mail as a photographer.
In 1979, Alfers was offered a position as Photographer/Fieldworker at the National University of Lesotho on a research project, Analysis of Rock Art in Lesotho (ARAL) which made it possible to evade further military service. The ARAL Project ran for four years. He developed a photographic recording system which resulted in a uniform collection of 35,000 Kodachrome slides of rock paintings, as well as 3,500 pages of detailed site reports and maps. The ARAL Collection is now housed at the Origins Centre at Wits University, and has been digitized. The slides reflect a disappearing cultural heritage for southern Africa.
During this period, Alfers while on leave in South Africa, met Paul Weinberg and Omar Badsha, who were discussing the formation of a photographic collective, which subsequently evolved as Afrapix. He also attended the Culture and Resistance Conference in Gaborone, Botswana in 1982 as an associate of Afrapix, while still working in Lesotho. He maintained contact with Afrapix and contributed to the collective over the following years, and attended most of the Annual General Meetings until the demise of the collective.
Alfers collaborated with Professor Jeff Guy, the historian then teaching at the National University of Lesotho, to produce an essay reflecting aspects of the lives of Basotho people whose breadwinners were migrant laborers in South Africa. This was published and exhibited under the auspices of Afrapix as part of the ‘Cordoned Heart’, the book and exhibition resulting from the Second Carnegie Enquiry into Poverty and Development.
Some of his social documentary pictures were included in the book “Nicht Wird Uns Trennen"published in Berlin in 1983. In 1884 he moved to Vanderbijlpark to work as the Senior Photographer for Dorbyl Heavy Engineering, doing technical and illustrative photography. This resulted in a portfolio of work which was accepted and he was granted an Associateship of the South African Institute of Professional Photographers, and the Scrimgeour Award for Best Industrial Portfolio in 1985.
In 1986, Alfers was offered a position as a Photographer/Producer at the University of Bophuthatswana. He spent the next 12 years building up a Multimedia Production Studio which covered photographic documentation, print and video production for a wide range of clients. During this time he also worked on a photographic essay on the Fishing People of Kosi Bay, which resulted in an exhibition of photographs shown at the Documentary Photographers Conference at the University of Cape Town in 1987. He subsequently worked on a collaboration with David Webster, the anthropologist who was studying the people of the Kosi Bay region, but this was cut short when Professor Webster was tragically assassinated by an operative of the Apartheid regime.
In 1997, Alfers moved to Rhodes University in Grahamstown, Eastern Cape, and took up a position as the TV Studio Manager in the Department of Journalism and Media Studies, and is currently Media Technology Manager for the recently created School of Journalism and Media Studies at Rhodes. As a result of becoming heavily engaged in digital media technology, and the creation of the Africa Media Matrix, his involvement as a photographer has declined, except for research into digitization and archival storage of digital images.