The Critical Camera – Understanding the History of Photography During Apartheid

Thokoza, 1990, Graeme Williams. Courtesy of Graeme Williams.

by Dr Kylie Thomas

“History of Photography in Apartheid South Africa”, by Kylie Thomas, provides a detailed overview of the history of photography in the country from 1948 to 1994. The article, published in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of African History, includes the following sections:

Read the full article on the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of African History website

Read an excerpt from the article below:

Photographs made under apartheid provide evidence of what renowned South African photographer David Goldblatt has termed “The Structure of Things Then.” In making the structures of racial oppression visible, images taken during apartheid document how the state sought to implement laws to eradicate freedom and secure white privilege, power, and hegemony. Photographs taken under apartheid make visible how crude oppositions operated in South African society and, at the same time, were defied and unmade through both individual and collective instances of collaboration and resistance (witness, for instance, images of Black police officers under apartheid; love across the “color-bar”; and photographs of the multiracial United Democratic Front). As the state became increasingly repressive, photographers documented the violence of the police and popular resistance to apartheid. These images were important at the time they were made in raising awareness about the devastating effects of apartheid on Black people in South Africa and in generating support for the anti-apartheid movement, both within South Africa and internationally. Documentary photographers played a central part in shaping the representation of oppression and resistance during apartheid and their work continues to contribute to how the history of apartheid is perceived and understood. Art historian and curator Okwui Enwezor argues:

No form of media frightened the regime more than photography did, with its powerful testimony that could be used to expose and counteract the sanitized propagandistic images working in the government’s favour, or to fashion an oppositional artistic practice of self-representation.[i]

Life under apartheid was extensively documented by photographers in South Africa and a great deal of the diversity and complexity of the visual record of this time remain under-researched. Projects such as “Rise and Fall of Apartheid,” curated by Okwui Enwezor and Rory Bester; “The Other Camera: South African Vernacular Photography,” curated by Paul Weinberg; and the work of scholars who are beginning to explore aspects of the history of photography during apartheid testify to the magnitude and richness of South Africa’s visual archive and is an indication that its significance is increasingly being recognized.

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