Defiant Images: Photography and Apartheid South Africa

July 22, 2010

My first visit to South Africa was just before Nelson Mandela's release from prison. Overseas journalists were, in effect, banned and the only way to enter the country was as a tourist, so I arrived at the airport in Johannesburg dressed in a flannel blazer, carrying a telephoto lens and claiming to be on safari. This kind of journalistic subterfuge permeates Darren Newbury's fascinating exploration of the complex interactions between photography and the apartheid regime.

Newbury maps out a chronology of images in opposition to the state. He begins by exploring the origins of social documentary photography in South Africa before the beginnings of apartheid in 1948; details the rise of The African Drum (later simply Drum), the seminal magazine that reflected issues relevant to the country's black urban citizens; explores the years of "struggle photography" in the 1970s and 1980s; and finally offers a fascinating chapter on the role of visual images in the post-apartheid, post-Truth and Reconciliation Commission era, focusing particularly on how photographs have been used in museum displays to re-narrate the past for the viewer in the present.

The book is full of rich detail about the complex nexus of the visual and political economy that enmeshed the practice of photojournalism under apartheid, with wonderful examples of how journalists subverted the apartheid regime. An interesting example is the background to the Drum expose of life in the prison system, "Mr Drum goes to jail", which saw a reporter engineering his own arrest and imprisonment for breaking the curfew. Meanwhile, photographer Bob Gosani pretended to be the assistant of a white female photographer (in reality a secretary at Drum) and gained access to a nearby rooftop from which he used a telephoto lens to photograph the prison yard and the degradation of the inmates.

The chapter on Drum situates the magazine in the context of developments in international photojournalism and the rise of picture magazines in Europe and the US, while acknowledging the influence that urban black culture had on its style and content, with its concentration on US sportsmen and jazz music as well as stories on crime and poverty.

Newbury also highlights the simultaneously heartbreaking and inspiring story of Ernest Cole, whose 1967 book House of Bondage would expose the daily humiliation of the regime and achieve considerable success in the West, despite being banned in South Africa. Cole, who lived in self-exile in the US, ironically found the racism there as difficult to endure as that he had left behind, and he died in penury without fulfilling his undoubted potential as a photosphere on the international stage.

The chapter on the struggle years provides a coherent argument for the vital role of photography in the discrediting of the apartheid state, and examines how the individual photographer was subsumed to the greater cause of resistance.

This is a valuable book for a range of academic interests including human rights, photography and journalism, and the history of South Africa and apartheid. Newbury weaves together a history that examines how political, ethical, journalistic, economic, cultural and external influences affected the lives of the practitioners of photography, their subjects and their audiences. Its relation to the wider issues of reporting in repressive regimes is a sad reminder that the topic is still tragically relevant today.

Defiant Images: Photography and Apartheid South Africa

By Darren Newbury
Unisa Press, 356pp, £21.95
ISBN 9781868885237
Published 15 January 2010

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