A photograph can trigger questions in ways almost nothing else can. Graphic yet mysterious, it can provoke and at the same time hold back. Maybe that’s one reason a great photograph will stay etched in the memory, while a video clip seldom does.
A black-and-white photo of two African miners I once found in a book will stay with me always. Even now, I can see the expressions on both men’s faces. It was in the 1950s that I first saw the image. I was about five years old. The photo—although I didn’t know it then—was a classic one by Margaret Bourke-White. It showed the two black men standing in an underground tunnel, their eyes cast away from the photographer, their chests covered in sweat.
At the time, all I wanted to know was: Who were those men in the strange hats? How come they didn’t they have their shirts on? Why did they seem so sad?
As often happens in life, the answers to those simple questions were complicated. That afternoon, sitting on my mother’s lap, I heard for the first time about a country called South Africa, where people of color were forced to live and work separately from whites.
Half a century of oppression
Twenty-five years later, the memory of that photo was one reason I agreed when some students at Columbia University asked me to join a protest against South African apartheid. By then it was the mid-1980s, but apartheid—highly systematized racial segregation—was still the law in South Africa. At the time, a popular uprising was roiling the country’s black townships, and the white-led government’s security forces terrorized the population with tear gas and bullets.
American students were beginning to realize that we were tied through an umbilical cord of dollars to that fight. Universities had invested chunks of their endowments in the mining companies that were propping up the apartheid government. It wasn’t until the mid-1990s, after years of struggle in South Africa and around the world, that the system collapsed. Today it’s easy for Americans to forget that government-enforced apartheid lasted close to 50 years: from the victory of the white-supremacist National Party in 1948 to its demise in 1994. The effects of that insanity still loom over that country today.
Retelling a wrenching history
“Rise and Fall of Apartheid: Photography and the Bureaucracy of Everyday Life,” an extraordinary photo exhibit at the ICP, brings us face-to-face with that wrenching history. Curated by Nigerian-born Okwui Enwezor and South African Rory Bester, the show’s more than 500 images offer a variety of windows into that time and place.
There is work by nearly 70 artists, working in various media. Photographers greatly outnumber everyone else, and they are the undisputed stars. These include South Africans Jürgen Schadeberg, Peter Magubane, George Hallett, David Goldblatt, Ernest Cole, Gideon Mendel, Cedric Nunn, Greg Marinovich, Gille de Vlieg and Guy Tillim. A few foreigner photographers, like Margaret Bourke-White, Ian Berry and João Silva, who did important work in the country, are also present.
Among the many memorable images in this show, some wield particular power, as much because of the moments they record as because of their strong compositions: Gideon Mendel’s 1985 picture of trade unionist Moses Mayekiso being slammed up against a car by the police during a Johannesburg protest march; Peter Magubane’s photograph of mourners crowded around a seemingly endless line of coffins after the Sharpeville massacre in 1960; his shot of students running jubilantly toward the camera on June 16, 1976, the start of the Soweto Uprising; and Sam Nzima’s famous photo of a student carrying the body of 12-year old Hector Pieterson, the first among many children killed that day. These pictures bear so much historic weight they seem to hit us like body blows.
Other images burn quietly: Ernest Cole’s photograph of naked miners, standing with their hands in the air, as they undergo the humiliation of a group medical exam; Peter Magubane’s 1956 photograph of a little white girl perched on a bench labeled “Europeans Only,” while her black nanny sits on bench behind her, stroking her hair; Gisèle Wolfsohn’s 1986 view of Lookout Beach, where a domestic worker stands stiffly in her uniform beside a white family in their bathing suits, relaxing at the water’s edge. Each of these photographs distills a moment so precisely it seems it will last forever.
A nation like—and unlike—our own
Some sections of the show are devoted to individual groups, movements and figures. We see white women from The Black Sash, an organization that opposed apartheid, standing on street corners and in front of the Johannesburg City Hall, in the 1950s, holding signs in silent protest. We view work by members of Afrapix, a photographers’ collective and photo agency formed in the 1980s: it provided hundreds of historic pictures to the alternative media. And, of course, we see photos of Nelson Mandela: laughing in front of the Pretoria courthouse in 1958 during the Treason Trial, dressed in traditional beads while in hiding from the police in 1961, and raising his fist in victory after his release from prison in 1990.
But this stunning show is far more than a pictorial history lesson. It’s a gripping, troubling experience, one that can’t help but raise all sorts of questions—about the links between the past and the present, the connections between South Africa and the USA, and even about the role of photography then and now.
Given our own racial history, it’s hard for an American to look at these photos without thinking about the parallels. Nzima’s photo of the student carrying young Pieterson may remind some of Jack Thornell’s equally famous picture of James Meredith, writhing in pain after a 1966 shotgun blast in Mississippi. There are dozens of other images that also bring echoes of the American civil rights movement and race relations in the United States.
These pictures also remind us that South Africa is another, very different country. Using wall texts, magazine clippings and videos, the curators provide a capsule history of apartheid and resistance: the Prohibition of Group Areas Act of 1950, the 1960 Sharpeville massacre, the Soweto Uprising in 1976, the government-declared State of Emergency during the 1980s. Yet the insanely baroque apartheid laws, which attempted to cut and dice each person’s racial identity into one of four categories—white, black, colored or Asian—and ship them to segregated regions, resulted in such complex cultural and political fallout it’s hard for any American to follow, without a detailed map and timeline in hand.
Images from the Bang-Bang Club
Besides the photos of the brutality perpetrated by the white-led government against blacks, there are riveting images near the end of the show of black-on-black violence. An unforgettable color photo by Greg Marinovich from 1990 shows an ANC (African National Congress) supporter standing, legs splayed, over a bloodied supporter of Inkatha, knife dramatically poised, ready to strike again. An equally compelling image by Kevin Carter shows a photographer taking cover and a gunman falling backward during a fight between ANC supporters and Zulu miners in 1994.
Along with João Silva and Ken Oosterbrock, Marinovich and Carter threw themselves into the constantly-shifting battle lines in the black townships during the ‘90s to come up with in-your-face pictures of the nightmare that unspooled just as apartheid was coming to an end. Of the four friends—dubbed the Bang-Bang Club by the press—Oosterbrock was shot dead in a crossfire in Thokoza township in 1994, Marinovich took a bullet to his lungs the same day but survived, Carter committed suicide a few months later, and Silva lost both legs to a landmine while covering Afghanistan in 2010 for the New York Times. There aren’t many true heroes these days, but the photographers who risk their lives and sanity to cover such struggles are clearly among them.
The questions these pictures raise
The disturbing images made by the Bang-Bang Club photographers raise lots of questions—especially for those unfamiliar with South African history. Why did the ANC and Inkatha followers rush to spill each other’s blood, just as the victory over apartheid loomed? And what does their continuing battle—even today—mean for the country? These are just two of the many questions the ICP show doesn’t articulate, let alone try to answer.
Americans, with our foggy grasp of history and of current events that aren’t stateside, get left with a confusing and violent historical muddle to try to make sense of. No doubt that’s how many South Africans have also experienced the horrendous times they’ve lived through. Yet I would have hoped that such a large exhibit would offer a deeper context and some incisive analysis. Instead the curators retreat into academic art-speak, claiming—among other questionable things—that apartheid caused South African photography to transform “its own visual language from a purely anthropological tool to a social instrument.” Is that truly what photography from the apartheid years has to tell us?
The absence of more insightful commentary is all the more reason to really exercise your eyes when taking in these pictures. Shaggy packaging can’t blunt the dozens of startling photographs hanging on the walls of the ICP. Many of these images seem as rivetingly fresh now as they must have been when they first emerged from the darkroom’s developing tray.
I loved the immediacy of Jodi Beiber’s 1993 picture of men protesting in front of the Johannesburg Central Police Station after activist Chris Hani’s assassination, their mouths wide with anger, their arms thrusting past the camera like branches in a hurricane. And I cannot forget the strangely disassociated dance of two young men running with guns in João Silva’s 1994 color print from Bekkersdal, West Rand. Poised in mid-flight, the men seem too beautiful to kill or be killed. Yet we know a terrible fate might await them around the next corner.
The price of apartheid
The most moving pictures were often the quiet ones of “ordinary” South African lives, as they were lived under apartheid and in the years that followed. David Goldblatt’s series of night shots from the mid-80s shows black workers standing in line to buy tickets, then yawning and sleeping on transport busses as they made the eight-hour journey home from their jobs in Pretoria to Kwandebele, the black homeland where the law required them to live.
Most beautiful of all are the pictures where photographer and subject seem to forget—at least for a moment—about the color of everybody’s skin. George Hallett’s timeless “Farmworkers, Oakhurst, Hout Bay, 1965” shows a group of people sitting peacefully in speckled light under a huge tree. It’s an evocative image that encouraged me to wonder about the little things—what did they eat that night for dinner? What lullabies did the mothers sing?
Cedric Nunn’s lyrical 2001 silver print of a bride and groom embracing beside a fresh grave, the small wooden crosses providing mysterious counterpoint to the woman’s white gown, is an image so beautifully composed, so archetypal in its combination of joy and sorrow, that it’s hard to believe it didn’t always exist. If Leonardo da Vinci had lived in KwaZulu Natal in 2001 and owned a camera, he might have shot this picture.
I wish “Apartheid” included more photographs like these. In the end, it may be the many small, seemingly personal moments—the kiss at the door as husband and wife say good-by, the children playing behind the house, the workers walking up the road at dawn toward the factory, that give us the mundane, nitty-gritty but sometimes lyrical vision we need in order to understand how apartheid affected—and still affects—the lives of people who are, in some ways, very much like us.
“Rise and Fall of Apartheid: Photography and the Bureaucracy of Everyday Life” – The International Center of Photography – 1133 Avenue of the Americas at 43rd Street, New York, NY 10036 | 212-857-0000