Photographing for Democracy

by Claire Monneraye


From 30 August to 26 October 2014, ACP presents the works of photojournalists Robert Knoth & Antoinette de Jong, Ashley Gilbertson and Jodi Bieber. Their work shows the many ways of documenting the real and of telling the story of today. But above all, they are contributing to make us aware of the world’s current situation and to understand its multi-layered complexities. 

Between Darkness and Light: Selected works from South Africa 1994 – 2011 is curated from two series of works by South African award-winning photographer Jodi Bieber. It coincides with the 20th anniversary of democracy in South Africa.

While many events and exhibitions have been organised across the globe to mark this anniversary, the exhibition Rise and Fall of Apartheid: Photography and the Bureaucracy of Everyday Life is undoubtedly one of the landmarks. Organised by the International Center for Photography in New York and curated by Okwui Enwezor and Rory Bester, it gathered more than 500 photographs, newspapers, books and magazines providing a whole new light on the Apartheid period as well as the crucial role played by photography in the establishment of democracy in South Africa. 

The exhibition argues that modern South African photography began in 1948 when the white-led National Party legalised an institutionalised segregation system - Apartheid. During this period, photographers made a vital contribution to raising awareness not only in South Africa but also beyond. 

Reflecting the diversity of Black urban cultures, Drum magazine was one of the key political platforms where photographers such as Jürgen Schadeberg, Bob Gosani, Peter Magubane and Ernest Cole found a supportive place to develop their photojournalistic skills and expose the harsh political and social realities of the discriminatory system. 

From the young photographer who documented the Zeerust trial in 1956 with his Leica hidden within a loaf of bread to the “concerned photographer” who saw [him]self as a liberator of [his] people and [his] country, Magubane recognised the importance of the camera as witness when he affirmed, during the 1976 Soweto riots, “whether you win or lose, a struggle without documentation is not a struggle.”

Ernest Cole joined Drum in 1958 and soon set himself the risky challenge to produce a book that could communicate to the world the oppressive and brutal policy of Apartheid. In 1966, Cole was arrested and forced into exile. Published in New York in 1967 but banned in South Africa, his book of clandestine photographs House of Bondage had major repercussions and received great critical acclaim in the United States and in Europe.

As it rapidly spread across newspapers, the image taken by Sam Nzima of Hector Pieterson, a 13-year old boy killed by the police in the black township of Soweto in 1976, rapidly became a powerful symbol of the atrocities that Black communities endured. But after The World published his iconic image, Nzima was confined by the police to his home for a few months.

Those photographers have given part of their life, if not all, to make the world aware of what was going on in their country. Between 1969 and 1971, Magubane was detained and kept in solitary confinement. In 1970, he was banned from public life and from following his photojournalist career for 5 years. After spending 24 years in exile, Cole never returned to South Africa and died in poverty in New York in February 1990, a few weeks after Nelson Mandela was freed.

These engaged photographers who fought for democracy between the 1950s and 1970s have opened the ways for social documentary photographers who emerged at the dawn of democracy. Organised in 2011 by the Victoria & Albert Museum in London the exhibition Figures & Fictions: Contemporary South African Photography highlighted 17 contemporary South African photographers dealing with the many intricacies of post-apartheid society. It showcased the work of Jodi Bieber, Kudzanai Chiurai, Husain and Hasan Essop, David Goldblatt, Pieter Hugo, Terry Kurgan, Sabelo Mlangeni, Zanele Muholi, Santu Mofokeng, Zwelethu Mthethwa, Guy Tillim, Berni Searle, Mikhael Subotzky, Jo Ractliffe, Roelof Petrus Van Wyk, Nonsikelelo Veleko and Graeme Williams.


Check out:

The exhibition Rise and Fall of Apartheid is now showing at Museum Africa, Newtown, Johannesburg South Africa until 30 April 2015.

The exhibition Figures & Fictions: Contemporary South African Photography was presented in 2011 hosts a video project about photography and democracy in South Africa, made by photographer Eva-Lotta Jansson and sponsored by the Open Society for South Africa.





1. Bob Gosani, The Tauza Dance in The Fort, Johannesburg prison, 1954 [This dance was a humiliating way of ensuring that the prisoners were not smuggling any weapons or contraband into their cells] © Bob Gosani

2. Peter Magubane, Sharpeville Shooting, 21st March 1960. Courtesy and © International Center of Photography, gift of Dr. Peter Magubane

3. Peter Magubane, Sharpeville Funeral: More than 5,000 people were at the graveyard, May 1960. Courtesy Baileys African History Archive

4. Sam Nzima, Hector Pieterson being carried by Mbuyisa Makhubo after being shot by South African police. His sister, Antoinette Sithole, runs beside them, Soweto, 1976. © Sam Nzima

5.Alf Kumalo, Cover of DRUM magazine, January 1966

6. The DRUM office, March 1955 © Jürgen Schadeberg

7. Ernest Cole, “All stand packed together on the floors and seats.” [Caption from House of Bondage, 1967] © The Ernest Cole Family Trust, Courtesy of the Hasselblad Foundation

8. Ernest Cole, “Which black train to take is matter of guesswork. They have no destination signs and no announcement of arrivals is made. Head car may be numbered to show its route, but number is often wrong. In confusion, passengers sometimes jump across track, and some are killed by express trains.” [Caption from House of Bondage, 1967] © The Ernest Cole Family Trust, Courtesy of the Hasselblad Foundation