Documentary Photography is not encouraged because I think it threatens the core of what this country is about. It’s a very powerful medium, it touches on something that people don’t want to look at. 1
Tambo’s voice is heard calling--let the new men and women emerge amidst this
Botha’s voice is heard calling--tear gas, rubber bullets, Hippos and Casspirs mow down the children, women and men while Reagans smiles and Thatcher grins 2
The Aftermath of Soweto, the Rise of Documentary Photography, and the International Audience
Following the Soweto uprising of 1976, the South African government placed increased importance on controlling imagery. As we have seen, the apartheid regime extensively legislated against inflammatory imagery, but as an aside to censorship legislation. With the media blitz that followed Soweto, control of images in the media became a primary concern; as Peter Davis writes:
What Soweto meant in public relations terms was that South Africa’s image had slipped from the control of the white authorities into the hands of the black activists. 3
As a result of the public relations nightmare that was the Soweto uprising and its brutal repression, the South African government strictly enforced censorship laws. While photojournalism continued in South Africa, the new restrictions on the media helped move photography away from direct photojournalism and towards the often subtler and less controllable genre of documentary photography. Documentary photographers eluded on-site censorship by choosing subjects located where censors would not think to go and by avoiding government black lists because of the seemingly politically innocuousness of their imagery.
Yet the demand for more hard-line photojournalistic images increased as the supply decreased. Photographers persevered with photojournalism in spite of extremely difficult working conditions because images of a struggling South Africa were so highly valued. Resistance Photographer, Omar Badsha described those working conditions in a conversation with Alex Harris, "Photographs are so powerful that the state makes sure that no cameramen are allowed in the streets. That they be shot on sight. That they can be put away for twenty years because they have a camera and are taking photographs." 4 Photojournalists were forced to quickly shoot images that would symbolize the struggle.
The international media craved images of South Africa, not only because of worldwide interest in apartheid, but also because of their gruesome nature. Greg Marinovich, who won a Pulitzer Prize for his work in South Africa in the early 1990’s, wrote, "In South Africa the violence of the photographs had an explosive effect." 5 Photographs that came from daring South African photographers would be transmitted "over the wire" mostly through wire services, such as the Associated Press (AP) and Reuters. Obtaining these images was often life threatening, and required quick and skillful maneuvering through conflict scenes, as well as good luck. 6
The necessary superficiality and the limited subject matter of photojournalism after Soweto, combined with the tendency for those images to travel overseas and define South Africa to the international audience, caused a division between resistance photographers. Omar Badsha commented:
The International Guys would take the first ten minutes take one shot from this angle, and another shot from that angle, then take off. They have to get their stuff in before ten O’clock so that they can get their three grand...But for us that wasn’t the issue...we are going to tape this whole fucking meeting right until the end because this stuff has to be documented. 7
As resistance photography grew as a genre rifts between photographers emerged. Differences in methodology and audience, while divisive, allowed resistance photography to work on multiple fronts of the liberation struggle simultaneously. The revolutionary essence that lay at the heart of resistance photography and the insatiable international desire for images from South Africa caused a convergence of these factions on the international scene. Omar Badsha who vociferously attacked "International Guys" (photographers who were contracted by, or freelanced for, international publications or wire services) later edited two selections of photographs that toured and were published extensively outside of South Africa. Photojournalism and documentary photography actually complemented each other quite well. Photojournalistic photography, while perhaps sensationalist and not necessarily concerned with the most realistic portrayal, generated an interest in South Africa’s struggle for freedom that in turn created a market for documentary photography.
Documentary photography, which flourished in South Africa after 1976, played a crucial role in informing the international community about the injustice and inhumanity of apartheid, and raised international pressure against the Nationalists. By 1976 most of the other African colonies had decolonized, and the eyes of the international community focused on South Africa. What those eyes saw were documentary films, newsreels, and photographs. The role those images played in the liberation struggle should not be underestimated. As photographer Paul Weinberg said in a conversation with Omar Badsha, "You are looking at times when a single picture, or a bit of information can actually sway public and world opinion. It is incredible to be aware of the power that one has as a photographer." 8 The following chapter will chronicle resistance photography between 1976 and 1994, and argue that the most significant contribution to the liberation struggle by resistance photography was its effect on the international community.
The themes developed before 1976, those of racial mixing and exploitative labor conditions, were further elaborated upon after 1976. The documentary photographers included: the same documentary photographers that previously made documentary images, photojournalists who made a name for themselves and could afford to do documentary projects, and a new generation of photographers who were attracted to the documentary genre. 9 Photographs of racial mixing continued in the previous vein of highlighting both intimacy across race lines and the dehumanizing employer-employee relationship, but also came to include new tropes such as bifurcating the frame along race lines and juxtaposing images of white privilege and African squalor.
David Goldblatt mixes all of these techniques in his 1982 book, In Boksburg . Goldblatt approached this "small-town, middle-class, white community" with a subtly condemning gaze that scratches beneath the veneer of whites’ everyday lifestyle to reveal their complicity with the injustices of apartheid. 10 The book’s first image combines intimate and exploitative race mixing. The photograph is of a tide of African workers crossing the street toward Goldblatt’s camera with a few whites interspersed. The few white people in the frame blend into the mass of Africans surprisingly well, yet the service role of the Africans is apparent in their dress. Another image that relies on race mixing to make its statement is of a group of people sitting in chairs listening seriously and dispassionately to a speaker who is beyond the frame. While the first two rows are entirely black and the third row and behind is much whiter, there is a white woman who sits between two black women in the first row. Because of her centrality in the foreground, she is undoubtedly the subject of the photograph. The caption reads, "Members of the Methodist Church on the East Rand meet to find ways of reducing the racial, cultural and class barriers which divide them." 11 Characterized by the feeling of racial harmony in spite of apartheid, these two photographs present an optimistic vision for the transition from apartheid to a non-racial democracy.
The bifurcated frame is an interesting technique Goldblatt used in In Boksburg to make statements against apartheid. On page ten a manager and a worker sit on opposite sides of the frame looking obliquely past each other. They are partitioned symmetrically, which is emphasized by a crack in a door behind them exactly in the middle of the frame. The white man has paperwork and the hand of another white man lying on the desk in his side of the frame, while the African has his arms folded and only cigarettes on his portion of desk. The caption reads, "Meeting of the worker-management Liaison Committee of the Colgate-Palmolive Company." 12 Goldblatt successfully photographed labor exploitation away from the job site, which signified a move away from his earlier publication On the Mines , which handled the issue of race in a more conventional context. Two other interesting examples of the bifurcated frame are: 1) an African woman sewing opposite white women leisurely talking over a cigarette at the same table but on the opposite side of the frame, and 2) a "lovely legs" competition where white models on a dais dominate the left side of the frame and bewildered African spectators dominate the right side of the frame. 13
Goldblatt also repeated subjects in different racial contexts and often juxtaposed those images to make a statement. Two pages before the photograph of the mixed race meeting in a Methodist church, Goldblatt photographed a meeting of the local branch of the National Party, all elderly whites. 14 Billy Partridge best achieved the technique of juxtaposing similar images of different races in the two photographs below:
A major component of In Boksburg is the ostentation and privilege of white South Africa. Rolls Royces, ballerinas, custom designed swimming pools and elaborate gardens appear throughout the book. At the end Goldblatt includes direct quotations from the Group Areas Act and other racist legislation so that his subversive message would not be misconstrued in any way as a celebration of white South Africa.
Goldblatt’s images were an important element of documentary photography because of the sizeable audience they reached by virtue of their publication, but those who had the notoriety to publish cannot solely define documentary photography in South Africa. Alex Harris, a photographer who helped edit three books of South African resistance photography, wrote in 1989, "Goldblatt is joined by a growing number of South African documentary photographers in understanding that positive social change can come to their country if South Africans have a better sense of one another." 15 Staffrider‘s 1983 special edition dedicated to documentary photography demonstrates the breadth of subject and style of documentary photography in South Africa. Nineteen different photographers each made distinctive statements with their photographs. As the introduction explains:
The photographs span the universal concepts upon which the social documentary genre exists. Themes like sadness, dignity, strength, privilege and power these prevail.
But the images go beyond this. They locate these themes in a divided struggling South Africa. These South African photographers project a vision of the realities which they confront. 16
"South Africa through the Lens" helped to unravel the complexity of the apartheid state and set a precedent for important compilations of documentary photography such as South Africa: The Cordoned Heart and Beyond the Barricades both of which reached large international audiences. South Africa: The Cordoned Heart toured for seven years in the U.S., and Beyond the Barricades traveled in the United States, Japan, Germany, England, France, Holland, and the United Nations. 17
The diversity of images included in "South Africa through the Lens" demonstrates the danger of categorizing documentary photography into themes and styles. While trends and styles can be deduced from certain photographers and time periods, definitive statements must remain on a general plane. Documentary photography is largely concerned with details, which makes each photograph unique. 18 The resistance photographers themselves often disagreed about style, audience, and effectiveness of their images; what tied them together was a desire to undermine the hegemony of the National Party. 19 After explaining the varying levels of political commitment amongst resistance photographers, Omar Badsha commented, "We all have the same enemies." 20
The early 1980’s not only saw an exciting increase in documentary photographers but also the establishment of a cooperative infrastructure among them. In 1981, Omar Badsha and Paul Weinberg founded Afrapix, a photographic collective dedicated to the editorial control of resistance photography and the collaboration of resistance photographers. Afrapix united resistance photographers throughout the nation, acting as an agency, archive, and site of exchange and training. Its membership grew first and its notoriety second. Originally only used by the local alternative press, Afrapix grew into a port of exportation of images to the international media. 21
One year after the founding of Afrapix, from July 5 to July 9 of 1982, a group of South African exiles - mostly members of the ANC - convened at the University of Botswana to discuss the role of the arts in the South African liberation struggle. 22 That conference, the Botswana Culture and Resistance Conference is significant for two reasons. First it affirmed a non-racial approach toward the resistance movement, which deviated from the popular beliefs of Black Consciousness. Second it galvanized photographers to participate in the liberation struggle. Omar Badsha wrote, "For the first time photographers were given a platform at an arts conference and with a series of speakers and an exhibition was organized." 23 The Staffrider exhibition that emerged from the Botswana conference was seminal. Its success within South Africa laid the foundation for the Carnegie Inquiry, which enabled South African photographers to reach an international audience.
As photography was emerging as an institutionalized form of resistance the apartheid government began to crumble. The new constitution of 1983 marked the beginning of the end for the apartheid regime. By trying to co-opt the Indian and "coloured" communities with a tricameral parliament that made nominal concessions to those groups, the National Party acknowledged its own illegitimacy. 24 The opposition smelled weakness and surged forward with unprecedented unity and sustained intensity. Allister Sparks wrote:
A wider range of groups were brought together than ever before. Soweto ‘76 was a children’s revolution, but this time the UDF [United Democratic Front] spanned the generation gap. The generations of the old Defiance Campaign, of Sharpeville, of Soweto ‘76, and the angry new generation of the day came together with trade unionists and liberation theologists, educators and students as well as politicians - from exiled ANC leaders to former Black Consciousness leaders now incorporated into the UDF. And more than ever the white liberals and radicals were involved. 25
The government dealt with the revolutionary tide by mobilizing the army and declaring three national states of emergency in 1986, 1987 and 1989. Acts of resistance were met with acts of repression, and as the cycle continued so did the delegitimization of the South African government. Photography helped the liberation struggle by inviting more repression. Alex Harris wrote, "among the journalists working in South Africa, photographers make a highly visible and particularly vulnerable target for the security police." 26 In the brochure for the exhibition, South Africa: The Cordoned Heart, Alex Harris and Bruce Payne further elaborated on photographs as a means of inviting more repression:
Pictures made [community-based organizations and the black trade union movement] vulnerable to the Nationalist government. A record existed. Pictures and film could be confiscated and used as evidence, as in the treason trials of the United Democratic Front leaders in the fall of 1986. 27
An anonymous photographer wrote:
I am not a writer; I am a photographer. My work is about creating images for the news and other media. I feel compelled to communicate what I saw, in written form, because the general media restrictions have intervened in our work to the extent that it is almost impossible to operate. 28
Like the resistance movement itself, resistance photographers could not be contained by acts of repression. In the 1980’s it became clear that although defiance could mean loss of life or terrible suffering, there was more to gain than to lose.
During the states of emergency all civil rights were suspended and repressive violence raged continuously in the townships. It is during this period that documentary photography thrived. Documentary photography in the 1980’s went in two directions simultaneously. It grew subtler and more sophisticated in its critique of apartheid by focusing on poverty and the quotidian indignities of being a non-white in South Africa; and it documented the revolution in full throttle. The latter was exemplified by Beyond the Barricades (1989), a publication that straddled the division between photojournalism and documentary photography. The former was exemplified by South Africa: The Cordoned Heart (1986) a compilation of twenty South African, documentary photographers exploring poverty.
Commissioned by the Second Carnegie Inquiry into Poverty and Development in Southern Africa, South Africa: The Cordoned Heart went beyond providing images of injustices indicative of apartheid such as forced removals and mining camps, to offer photographs of people’s personal stories. Those stories were subversive in their own right. The story of the first women to arrive at a resettlement camp in Peddie, the story of market gardeners on shrinking land plots around Durban, the story of pensioners who wait patiently for pensions that are never paid, the story of commuters traveling six hours each day via an overnight bus to get to work in Durban; these are all stories inimical to the image the South African government tried to impose on its citizens and the world. 29
The emphasis on poverty and daily injustice in South Africa: The Cordoned Heart contrasts with the other major compilation of South African photography of the 1980’s, Beyond the Barricades. Beyond the Barricades focused on the liberation struggle directly, featuring both active and passive resisters. Published in 1989 in New York City, the images in Beyond the Barricades captured the resistance movement at its most intense moments. The inside cover reads, "This book presents eloquent and searing testimony of the communal struggle for freedom as witnessed and expressed by South Africans. Their words and images take us beyond the barricades that keep most of the media from the heart of the conflict." 30
Beyond the Barricades is a document of a revolution resolved to succeed. Two photographs in particular poignantly speak to the idea of determination to achieve liberation regardless of sacrifice. On page ninety-nine a man with a tee-shirt that reads "BULLETS WON’T STOP US!" helps to lower coffins into the ground; and on page eleven a man winces under the burden of a coffin while holding up the clenched fist symbolizing resistance. 31
Beyond the Barricades presents pictures of police shooting and whipping unarmed civilians. 32 It shows a mother holding her son’s bloody tee-shirt after he was shot in the back by police, a lady screaming from tear gas, a dead man lying at the feet of four armed policemen. 33 Beyond the Barricades also shows numerous images of Africans in mass: marching, protesting, speaking out. The images in Beyond the Barricades are inflammatory indictments of apartheid, as well as celebrations of the popular energy behind the resistance. The photographers do not posit neutrality. The preface, which is simply signed "the photographers," reads:
The camera has played a special role in these times. It has been there to record inhumanity, injustice, and exploitation. It searches for peace and hope. It is beckoned by history to take sides. The photographers in this book have. 34
The photographs in Beyond the Barricades illustrate the complexity of the struggle against the state’s security forces. They display the result of the government’s desperate efforts to pit the opposition against itself. 35 For instance, they record the aftermath of deadly clashes between the Zulus of the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) and members of the UDF. A mother was photographed mourning the death of her two sons in an altercation with the IFP. 36 On pages sixty-five and sixty-six a Pondo woman looks out over the space where her house stood after Zulus burned it down. There is an image of a boy whose entire body is covered in whip scars from a vigilante group that probably received government support. 37 Those photographs and others in Beyond the Barricades illustrate the conflict between factions of the resistance, which was fueled by the government. Writing in 2000 Desmund Tutu wrote about:
a sinister third force somehow linked to the apartheid government and its security forces, which was intent on fomenting so-called black-on-black violence, enabling the apartheid government and many whites to crow about how these blacks were clearly not ready for democracy and political power. 38
The evocative reaction to the images in Beyond the Barricades was only amplified by evocative text, which recounted real tragedies. One caption reads: "Young pallbearers stand at solemn attention at the funeral of three boys killed in the ‘Trojan Horse incident,’ when police, hiding in the back of a van, opened fire on a crowd, Cape Town, 1985." 39 The documentation in Beyond the Barricades provided the most damning evidence against the apartheid government’s brutal repression.
By the 1990’s documentary photography had firmly established itself as a genre in South Africa. In 1990, Afrapix began to publish "Full Frame," a magazine dedicated entirely to documentary photography, a first in South Africa. "Full Frame" celebrated the richness of documentary photography, in South Africa. The December, 1990 issue, for example, featured work from a beginning photographer next to the latest images of David Goldblatt, and photographs ranging in subject from artists living in exile to the bloody IFP/UDF conflict in Natal. 40
It is my contention that resistance photography between 1976 and 1994 contributed to the liberation struggle mainly by calling on the international community to join the struggle against apartheid. While resistance photography continued to contribute domestically to the liberation struggle, its role in garnering international solidarity against apartheid became more significant, because of the historical moment. Allister Sparks wrote:
If it is axiomatic that no ruling oligarchy gives up power and privilege until it has to, then pressure is the name of the game. The question is, what kind of pressure? It is likely that international pressures could be of greater relative importance in South Africa than elsewhere because the apartheid issue is so uniquely internationalized, a moral issue that arouses strong feelings worldwide. 41
By the later stages of the liberation struggle political mobilization was not a major problem. Multifaceted campaigns that included strikes, boycotts, and sabotage were happening continuously throughout the country. Photographs continued to educate the oppressors in South Africa and mobilize the oppressed, but those roles became secondary in importance to resistance photography’s ability to solidify anti-apartheid sentiment in the international community.
Many scholars believe the difference between the apocalyptic bloodbath that was so often forecast for South Africa and the peaceful transition that actually took place hinged on international intervention. 42 The most forceful international action was taken by multilateral organizations, particularly the United Nations, which set up a Special Committee against Apartheid. 43 Economic sanctions, exclusion from international organizations, and validation of the ANC and the PAC as legitimate all helped to push the South African government towards the free, fair and inclusive election of 1994. 44 Writing in 1991, John Dugard commented, "It is not idealism and altruism that have brought the National Party to the negotiating table, but rather a combination of international pressure and internal unrest." 45 The internal unrest had been brewing for centuries in South Africa, and had coalesced by the 1980’s. The greater question mark was whether the international community would rally in time to coerce the Nationalists into a negotiated transition. That question mark was crucial since, militarily speaking, the ANC was considered, "one of the world’s least successful liberation movements." This could have made liberation by force one of the bloodiest conflicts on the continent. 46
The challenge in garnering international support was convincing conservative politicians to join in the fight against apartheid. Clinging to cold-war ideology Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher resisted joining the international movement against apartheid. 47 Yet as the leaders of the U.S and the U.K. lagged in pressuring the South African government, exhibitions of resistance photography traveled extensively in the United States and England. 48
In 1996, South Africa: The Cordoned Heart was exhibited at the International Center for Photography in New York City and toured the U.S., the same year the U.S. Congress passed the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act. 49 Photographs from Beyond the Barricades toured southern Africa, the U.S., Japan, Germany, England, France, and Holland. In 1990 those photographs settled at an exhibition in the United Nations, which was the driving force behind the international anti-apartheid movement. 50
The International Defense and Aid Fund that opposed apartheid from its London headquarters formed an intimate relationship with the Mayibuye Center, which collected photographs, films and oral histories in an effort to preserve the history of oppression and resistance in South Africa. The Center’s archive includes 50,000 photographs, which were transported back from the ANC’s London office to the University of the Western Cape in 1990. 51 The International Defense and Aid Fund often incorporated the Mayibuye Center’s images into its literature. 52
The foreign press also utilized resistance photography. The international media began to hire South African photographers; Time magazine set the standard for this practice by hiring Peter Magubane. 53 The predominant method the foreign press obtained images from South Africa was through wire-services, photo-agencies, both those based abroad as well as Afrapix. 54 Establishing causality between resistance photography and international sanctions would be difficult since photography was only part of the greater effort of awakening international consciousness to the horrors of apartheid. However the contemporaneous relationship of resistance photography at its zenith, with international action against apartheid at its zenith intimates a partial causality.
Without the international community aboard the struggle against apartheid, the course of events in South Africa would have been drastically different. Resistance photography’s contribution in alluring the hesitant members of the international community to take action against apartheid should not be overstated, but it deserves to be acknowledged as a critical component of the liberation struggle.
Within South African only one magazine recognized photographs as an expressive statement when divorced from a text, Staffrider, which consistently allocated space for documentary photographs and dedicated a special issue to documentary photography in 1983, "Social Documentary Photography: South Africa Through the Lens." 55