Apartheid rage, distilled into black-and-white

By David Goldblatt, May 30, 2008

Photographer David Goldblatt spent 60 years chronicling South Africa’s social injustices. He was driven by anger, he says

David goldblatt has been railing against injustice for decades. The award-winning 78-year-old South African photographer has spent the past half-century chronicling the realities of life in his country. Under apartheid, his work was fuelled by anger at the way black people were treated. Post-apartheid, his work is fuelled by his anger that so many injustices still exist.

His first experience of discrimination came as a child, facing antisemitism at school during the 1930s and 1940s. “The antisemitism was palpable,” he says. “It was a daily force that existed all the time, from the odd remark to being surrounded by boys and girls who physically abused me. I was outraged by the injustice. I couldn’t understand it. And that sense of injustice influenced the way I looked at the world and the treatment of black people in this country.”

A shot from the series On Eloff Street, Johannesburg 1966-67. On show at Tate Modern

Once he moved to a new school, photography became his passion. “I used the camera to look at the world around me,” he says.

Over the next 60 years, this sense of injustice, coupled with a cool, critical eye, established his reputation as one of the finest photographers in the world. In 2006, he won the Hasselblad Award, photography’s equivalent to the Nobel prize. Now two exhibitions in London are featuring his work. The Tate Modern show, Street & Studio: An Urban History of Photography, includes photographs taken during apartheid from the series, On Eloff Street, Johannesburg 1966-7. These images show black and white people as one integrated crowd. “He is not isolating blacks. So it becomes a statement in terms of seeing them as an equal part of society,” says the show’s curator Ute Eskildsen.

The contemporary South African art exhibition, Home Lands — Land Marks, at Haunch of Venison, in Central London, is showcasing his more recent work, since apartheid. According to Tamar Garb, professor of art history at University College, London and curator of the Home Lands — Land Marks show, “Goldblatt is the most important visual artist to come out of South Africa in the late 20th and 21st century. He never shirks away from difficult truths and does not idealise the post-apartheid era either.”

Goldblatt grew up in Randfontein, a goldmining town 40km outside Johannesburg, among a middle-class Jewish community. “I went to Hebrew school like most of the kids in the village,” he says. “In my teens, I joined the Habonim youth group, where I met my wife, Lily. Now, my wife and I are one of the very few couples of our generation of Habonim still in Johannesburg.”

Many have gone to other big cities in South Africa or emigrated, mainly, he believes, of the fear of antisemitism. Indeed, one of the images in Home Lands — Land Marks, Shoemaker on Raleigh Street, Yeovill, Johannesburg (taken in September 2006) depicts a suburb that used to house a large Jewish community.

Goldblatt notes that despite the huge improvements of the post-apartheid era, “there is still a huge and unbreakable awareness of race”.

Goldblatt's 2006 black-and-white image of a woman watering her garden the the impoverished Alexandra

As Goldblatt talks about his work in the shows, it is clear that his anger at the injustices within South Africa remains strong. “The photograph of the Shoemaker was made in anger and with a deep sense of regret that this is what we are reduced to. It tells us about the violence and crime that has gripped us here. The shoemaker, like all of us, lives behind a razor wire and electric fence.” 

He is equally outraged when discussing his 2006 image of Miriam Mazibuko watering the garden of her new RDP (Reconstruction and Development) house in the Alexandra Township, one of the poorest areas in the region. “It looks like an ideal version of the modern South African woman with her watering can.  But she waited eight years for this home. And as it only has one room, her four children live with her parents-in-law. It is appalling that we can’t afford to give that woman a decent home because we’ve squandered it on other things.”

Goldblatt points out that he shot both these images in black-and-white deliberately: “Because colour would have prettified the images and I wanted to emphasise the things I am photographing.”

And he stresses that his approach to taking photographs has remained the same from the On Eloff Street series to today. “I am a straight-line man. A critical observer, with no ambition to be creative,” he says.

Currently he is working on a book that will bring together his images, documenting life in Johannesburg since 1952. Contributors will include two of South Africa’s foremost contemporary authors. Garb sums him up: “He is a man of extraordinary conviction, integrity and critical observation.”

Street & Studio: An Urban History of Photography is at Tate Modern, London SE1, until August 31 (www.tate.org.uk).

Home Land — Land Marks is at Haunch of Venison, London W1 from May 31 (www.haunchofvenison.com)

Last updated: 9:19am, May 30 2008