Another Landscape: David Goldblatt's Photographs and What It Means to Bear Witness

A young man stares blankly into a space somewhere beyond the camera, his presence registering a dual sense of emotional alarm and physical fatigue. His long black arms are in plaster. As the caption tells us, the image records Fifteen-year-old Lawrence Matjee after his assault and detention by the Security Police, Khotso House, de Villiers Street, Soweto, Johannesburg. 1985. His injuries are the result of a police arrest: Matjee was forcibly dragged from his home by his feet, dislocating his arms in the process. Atrocities such as these were a common occurrence in South Africa during the brutal years that preceded the fall of apartheid. However, for more than 60 years, David Goldblatt has shown little interest in documenting violent events, preferring instead to focus on the conditions that led to them. For his early portraits of South Africans, Goldblatt avoided looking through the camera lens, preferring instead to maintain eye contact with his subjects. As a result, his photographs rarely index the turmoil and carnage of South Africa’s troubled history; instead, they speak to the complexities of photography as a reflexive and analytical mode of historical representation.

As one of the key progenitors of 20th-century documentary photographic practice, Goldblatt has consistently returned to the same set of subjects. Born in 1930 in the Johannesburg gold-mining suburb of Randfontein, his childhood was shaped by a society divided by the laws and values of apartheid. In the early 1950s, as the formation of apartheid began to emerge from Nationalist rule, Goldblatt attempted to document the events surrounding the imposition of the system but soon realized that he lacked the necessary skills to negotiate situations of violence. While many photographers at the time utilized their cameras as weapons against the system, Goldblatt fixed his attention on commonplace situations in which nothing and everything seemed to happen. His analytical approach to the medium has resulted in attentive and informed observations of the landscape and the people among whom he has lived. Sixty years on from the institutionalization of apartheid in 1948, Goldblatt’s images continue to offer a profound insight into his country’s past and present.

Reflecting upon the historical relevance of Goldblatt’s career, Paris’s Centre Georges Pompidou has organized a thoughtful retrospective under the scrupulous guidance of the photographer himself. While the repetitious toll of history resonates throughout the displays of old and new work, it is the 87-year-old photographer’s personal reflections, wall texts and anecdotes that are unforgettably potent. In the current age of digital photography and hypermediation, his thoughtful words assert the value of the retinal encounter as intrinsic to the role of photography – what it means to stand still and bear witness. Nowhere else is Goldblatt’s attention to detail more apparent than in his 1975 photographic series, ‘Particulars’. The images portray people in and around the townships and suburbs of Johannesburg, documenting how they behaved and composed themselves for the camera. Their differences are embodied through subtle and sumptuous details: the arrangement of limbs, the placement of hands, the folds of flesh. Intensely conscious of the particularity of human bodies, Goldblatt registers with remarkable exactitude the true character of difference against the backdrop of enforced categorization and racial segregation. 

Goldblatt’s understanding of difference was undoubtedly marked by his childhood, working for his father’s outfitting store in the 1950s. As the son of a Jewish Lithuanian and a Latvian whose families escaped persecution at the end of the 19th century, Goldblatt would come to know white Afrikaner culture only as an outsider. With a great sense of tenderness and compassion, he began rendering visible a world unacknowledged by white communities and all-too-familiar to the marginalized black majority. Randfontein was a town shaped by the social culture and financial success of the mines that surrounded it; Goldblatt was one of many white children who enjoyed the freedom of exploring the local gold mines. In his first photo­graphic series, ‘On the Mines’ (1973), he returned to the human and industrial dynamics of South Africa’s dominant industry. Capturing the sombre and melancholy beauty of the mining environment, the speed-blurred images signal the fatal dangers of shaft sinking, while the sober portraits of the officious administrators and rock-faced labourers underscore the industry’s interdependencies. Cutting to the contemporary South African mining industry, one title reads: At the Lonmin Platinum Mine, Marikana, North-West Province, 11 May 2014. Two years before this image was taken, South African police shot striking miners, killing 34 and wounding 76 within a radius of 350 metres. Returning to the scene of the crime, Goldblatt captures a rocky grey hill overlapping the distant outline of industrial architecture. Scattered among tufts of grass are white crosses representing the murdered miners.

Images such as these suggest that the structures of institutionalized violence are inseparable from South Africa’s legacies of forced removals and exploitative labour practices. In one of Goldblatt’s later photo essays, ‘The Transported of KwaNdebele’ (1989), he highlights the segregation laws that forced black populations to migrate unwillingly into ‘imaginary homelands’ remote from areas of employment. The iconic series draws attention to the state’s mindless wasting of human resources in the name of a dehumanizing system of apartheid, wherein workers had to travel for hours every day to Pretoria in order to make a living. Shot in low light at night on 35mm film, the grainy images mirror the claustrophobic nature of the bus journey itself. Goldblatt returned to KwaNdebele in 2012 to rephotograph the site. His wall text reads: ‘Apartheid has gone, its half-life will continue beyond knowing.’

Apartheid’s systems of legislation and regulation affected every aspect of daily life – including the lives of those who conceived it. This fact becomes starkly visible in the series ‘Some Afrikaners’ (1975) and ‘In Boksburg’ (1982), in which Goldblatt documents the members of white communities, many of whom remained steadfast in their conviction of racial superiority. This incisive study reveals the hypocrisy of an orderly society that perpetuated abhorrent ideologies. Here, the tension between the sharp contours of racial difference and photography’s power to mediate historical realities can’t be underestimated.

From its beginnings as a mining camp in 1886, Johannesburg has been a city defined by its segregated landscape. Yet, although the racial barriers have crumbled since the fall of apartheid, the fragmentary patterns of urban life persist. For example, The Maponya Mall, Soweto, 11 November 2009 captures a sleek vision of capitalist society that remains at odds with the realities of many black South Africans. Yet, the story of its creation is compelling: the mall was built by the entrepreneur and property developer Richard Maponya, who was born in 1921; despite apartheid laws restricting black traders, he managed to build up a substantial business. He bought the land in Soweto on leasehold in 1971, acquired it outright in 1994 and opened his opulent mall – one of the biggest in South Africa – in 2007. Under apartheid, Soweto isolated the black population from the wealthy white districts; Maponya was determined to finally see it prosper.

Over the course of his career, Goldblatt has dedicated much of his time to ‘Structures’, an ongoing series beginning with the book South Africa: The Structures of Things Then (1998), in which he examined the architectural foundations of South Africa. The work offers a fascinating meditation on the ideologies, beliefs and values upon which the lives of many South Africans remain contingent: from the geological accretions of the long era of sustained white domination between 1652 and 1990, to the precarious democratic structures upon which the country’s future hinges.

 The final image of the exhibition depicts the work of another artist: The Thinking Stone, 32 tons of granite sculpted by Willem Boshoff. University of the Free State, Bloemfontein, 14 March 2013. Boshoff’s sculpture was commissioned in 2010 by the University of the Free State to engender greater understanding of cultural differences after a group of Afrikaner students were alleged to have urinated on some black workers’ food. Shaded by a nearby tree, The Thinking Stone’s grounded presence suggests that it may have always been there. Marked with specific figures of speech spoken by diverse South African languages, the stone is a homage to the rock engravings of Driekopseiland, a major South African heritage site where thousands of prehistoric marks are disappearing. In the aftermath of the Rhodes Must Fall campaign – the student protest movement directed against a statue at the University of Cape Town commem­orating Cecil Rhodes, who founded the British colony of Rhodesia in 1895 – Goldblatt’s image finds symbolic significance. The movement fuelled the official removal of 75 works of art from the university’s walls and a series of student actions against objects that perpetuated the legacy of colonial oppression – including the public burning of 23 artworks that had previously been displayed in buildings on the campus. Goldblatt’s fundamental disagreement with the administration’s policy of censorship, which he saw as a threat to the freedom of expression, prompted his contentious decision to move his archive from the University of Cape Town to Yale University, New Haven. He has since suggested that the university either removes all artwork from its campus or holds a series of discussions pertinent to the question of historical representation. Goldblatt’s decision to withdraw his invaluable archive from South Africa sheds a light on the reality of political agency and disempowerment in the country, where the structures of the past continue to linger as an ever-present reminder of colonialism and its afterlives.

This article was originally published by Frieze.com in May, 2018 © Osei Bonsu, 2018.