Updated Jan 2024
NB: This article contains images which may be distressing to some readers.
The “rainbow nation”, South Africa, a country still healing from the wounds of apartheid, has endured international isolation, armed opposition and decades of mass protests. Yet despite these hardships, South Africa has set about societal reconciliation processes since the democratically-elected leadership of Nelson Mandela was established in the nineties. South Africa exists as a unique place on the continent, with a strong identity and a big story to tell, making it one of the most fascinating places for photographers to shoot.
1. David Goldblatt – Shop assistant, Orlando West, Soweto, 1972
Renowned South African photographer David Goldblatt left a legacy of anti-apartheid photographs behind him. Goldblatt saw the effects of apartheid policies firsthand as they systematically marginalized non-white South Africans.
Goldblatt’s primary aim was to show the world the injustices of the apartheid regime, but he took a behind-the-scenes stance rather than marching towards the picket lines. His focus lay on the complex realities of daily life under the apartheid. His photos are incredibly empathetic, photos which beautifully strip down his subjects, revealing their humanity.
2. “Blessing”. Mpumalanga, South Africa, December 2020 – Alessandra Squarzon
This striking portrait by Alessandra Squarzon, depicts 12-year-old Blessing, one of the many children who work as waste pickers at the Steenbok Landfill site in Mpumalanga, South Africa. Standing resolutely against the backdrop of the waste-strewn landscape stretching into the distance, Blessing’s mature demeanour belies his youthfulness. It captures the harsh reality of racialized class inequality that persists in South Africa, underscoring the ongoing challenges faced by marginalized communities long after the end of apartheid.
3. Sam Nzima – The Soweto Uprising, 1976
Until June 16th 1976, the international media had largely ignored the atrocities of apartheid. On this day, several thousand Soweto students joined together in protest to oppose the introduction of mandatory Afrikaans-language instruction in their local schools. Gathering momentum and crowds from other schools, the police began to retaliate with teargas. Photographer Sam Nzima who was covering the protests for The World, a Black focused and run newspaper in Johannesburg, was present.
Shooting photos as bullets rained on the crowds, Nzima witnessed the police killing of Hector Pieterson, a young boy. As Nzima continued to photograph, high schooler Mbuyisa Makhubu picked up Pieterson’s body and ran to safety with Pieterson’s sister. The image of Pieterson and Makhubu shocked the world, demonstrating that the South African regime had killed its own people- and children at that. Nzima was forced into hiding amid death threats after publishing the image, but the effects of the photograph were not easily silenced. The opposition that would eventually topple the racist system had been generated by a photograph.
4. Pieter Hugo – Portrait #16, South Africa, 2016
Pieter Hugo, a white South African photographer who has lived in the country all his life, has made controversial work in Nigeria and the rest of the African continent. Yet his photographs are well-balanced juxtapositions of tenderness charged with a fervent political energy. Hugo has frequently vocalised his frustration with the political climate of South Africa, saying “Look at South Africa now… it’s all about self-enrichment. The opportunists have taken over. You want to know what makes me despondent? These problems could be solved. But they aren’t.”
His portrait of two brothers is reminiscent of the iconic picture taken by Sam Nzima during the Soweto Uprising of 1976. Yet Hugo’s intention was to reverse the power roles in his photograph: “I wanted them to feel empowered in the pictures, not just victims.”
5. Margaret Bourke-White – Carpenter Phillip Mbhele in protest, Johannesburg, date unknown
Bourke-White was the first American female photojournalist, covering conflicts all over the world, and now famous for her brave and shocking images of some of the world’s greatest atrocities. Her contact with Communist party activists in South Africa led her to a protest against pass laws, held on the outskirts of Johannesburg, where she photographed the crowd and individual speakers, including carpenter Phillip Mbehle, pictured here. In this iconic photo you can almost hear his shout of anger, his demand for equal rights, and feel his outrage at the conditions black South Africans were subject to under the new laws.
6. Mikhael Subotzky – Ponte City, Johannesburg, 2008
Ponte City, a residential tower envisioned in the 1970’s and built during Johannesburg’s economic boom, was an architectural fantasy promising its residents every amenity they could imagine and claiming people could “Live in Ponte and never go out.” The 54-story behemoth now stands like a failed science-fiction utopia, crumbling into decay, dreams dashed as it becomes home to illicit activity. Now notorious as a crime-hub, the tallest residential skyscraper in South Africa has been documented in an encyclopaedic manner by South African photographer Mikhael Subotzky and British artist Patrick Waterhouse.
Drawn to investigate the dilapidating building, their exhaustive approach covers every aspect of the tower, including every door, television set, every window and each resident, in the hope of uncovering what lies at the core of the lives of the citizens of Johannesburg. Their mammoth project was the winner of the Deutsche Borse prize for photography in 2015.
6. “Queezy” – Justin Keene
This portrait by Justin Keene is part of his project challenging traditional documentary methods of representation and gender in South Africa and depicts a young musician who is part of Cape Town’s emergent queer culture. The image was awarded second prize in our 2020 Portrait Award by world-renowned photographer Dan Winters, who called it ‘spectacular’. A fitting description for a profoundly compelling portrait that captures both the subject’s reluctance to fully reveal themselves and their simultaneous desire to be ‘seen’.
7. Roger Ballen – Dresie Casie twins, 1993
Roger Ballen’s bizarre and extreme works have every intention of confronting their audience. As a leading figure in modern fine art photography, American-born Ballen has spent over 30 years living and working in South Africa. Since the 1990’s he has developed a style he calls ‘documentary fiction’ – a confrontation of the deep recesses of his own mind engineered through powerful fabricated psychodramas. His style is distinct and unsettling; stark black and white square format photographs, usually depicting people living on the margins of society, who appear, as actors, to create unnerving and discomforting scenarios. These images merge ideas of social critique with interpretive visual metaphors which explore the movements of the mind.
8. “Montsho” – Bongani Tshabalala
The term “Montsho,” meaning “Black,” is commonly used in South Africa to mock individuals with darker skin tones. In this image, South African photographer Bongani Tshabalala delves into the emotional impact of childhood teasing, which often leads to depression among young black boys and girls. For Tshabalala, this image embodies both destruction and preservation, reflecting the choices individuals make in embracing themselves after experiencing trauma. This stunning portrait captures the inherent beauty of the sitter, accentuated by the high contrast of dark clothing against a white backdrop.
9. Andrew Tshabangu – Women Praying at the Crucifix, From ‘Bridges’, 2001
Andrew Tshabangu’s haunting black-and-white images suspend South Africa in an ethereal realm that we are unused to seeing. Coming of age as the aftermath of the Soweto uprising reared its ugly head, Tshabangu did not flee like many youths his age, but instead took refuge in Catholicism, hoping to enter the priesthood.
When he was not accepted into the order, his only other means of respite was the camera, the only item aside from a crucifix that he felt had the power to change the world.
10. Walter Dhladhla – Nelson Mandela arrives for his first election rally, Mmabatho, March 15, 1994
Nelson Mandela, the leading figure in modern South African history, was an anti-apartheid revolutionary, political leader, and philanthropist who served as President of South Africa from 1994 to 1999. The anti-apartheid fighter who spent 27 years as a political prisoner before becoming his nation’s first democratic leader – and first black president elected in a fully representative democratic election, is here pictured raising a clenched fist, the sign of black triumph, to supporters in Mmabatho, South Africa, upon his arrival for his first election rally. On 10 May 1994 he was inaugurated as South Africa’s first democratically elected President.
“There is no passion to be found playing small -in settling
for a life that is less than the one you are capable of living.”
– Nelson Mandela
All images © their respective owners