History of Photography in Apartheid South Africa


History of Photography in Apartheid South Africa

By Kylie Thomas


The beginning of apartheid in 1948 saw the emergence of a generation of photographers whose work would come to define South African photography for the next four decades. Many of the most well-known South African photographers, such as Ernest Cole, Bob Gosani Peter Magubane, and Jürgen Schadeberg, worked for Drum magazine in the 1950s, where their images conveyed the experiences of Black people living in cities in the first years of apartheid. Photographers chronicled the Defiance Campaign, the violence of the police, and the growing resistance movements. At the same time, they took portraits and images of everyday life that provide insight into what it was like to live under apartheid.

These kinds of images have increasingly been of interest to researchers and curators who have come to recognize the importance of vernacular photography, street photography, and the work of studio portrait photographers. The Sharpeville Massacre of 1960 marked a turning point in the country’s history and was followed by intensified repression and violence, the banning of opposition political parties, the jailing of political leaders such as Nelson Mandela and Robert Sobukwe, and mass forced removals as neighborhoods were declared “whites only” areas.

The Soweto uprisings in June 1976 and the protests that followed across South Africa signaled the beginning of a time of increased violence as the apartheid state sought to crush the resistance movements and thousands of protestors were detained without trial, interrogated, and tortured and several political activists were murdered by the security police. By the 1980s, photography had a clear place in the struggle for freedom in the country and many photographers perceived the camera as a weapon to be used against the state. In 1982, the Afrapix collective was formed by a group of photographers committed to opposing apartheid who went on to produce the most significant visual record of this time. The years immediately before the end of apartheid saw an increase in political violence and between 1990 and 1994 more than 10, 000 people were killed. Photographers who documented this time drew the world’s attention to the bitter struggle in the country. They went on to photograph the jubilation when Mandela was finally released from prison and the first free and fair elections when South Africans of all races were able to vote. Some of the most brilliant photographers of the last century documented the apartheid years, and their work plays a key role in how this time period is remembered and understood.