Photography On South African Apartheid Research Paper Samples
Type of paper: Research Paper
Topic: Tension, Photography, Apartheid, Racism, City, Space, South Africa, Africa
Resistance photography is a term used to describe photographic documentation of the conflict between an oppressor and the oppressed from the subjugated’s perspective (Krantz 290). This genre is best expressed in the context of apartheid South Africa throughout the 1980s. The photographic work of photographers such as Mikhael Subotzky, Patrick Waterhouse, and David Goldblatt is critical to the field of resistance/ protest photography. This observation is consistent with the inclusion of these photographers in the ICP Triennial of Photography and Video as documented by Lehan, Lubben, Phillips and Squiers (23). The intention of their work was not only to create widespread awareness of the ills that were being perpetrated by the oppressors, but also to persuade and elicit support to eliminate the oppression. The work of these photographers appeared in magazines, photo essays, newspapers, public exhibition spaces as well as commercial galleries and museums. This photographic work further highlighted a long-standing relationship between photography and politics. According to Simbao (604), struggle photography records, translates and interprets the emergence and decline of apartheid. It highlights the tension between the madness of violence and the mundaneness of daily actions that illustrate humanity. Photographs of figures raise significant questions of identity in terms of how the camera’s, photographer’s and viewer’s gaze is reciprocated by the subject, and the balance of power illustrated by this interaction. Exhibitions on apartheid photography point to the enigmatic link with the real world. Because of the significance of their work, Mikhael Subotzky, Patrick Waterhouse, and David Goldblatt employ tension in their work. Tension is a type of energy that may have a profound impact on photographic meaning. The tension helps to improve the overall intended effect of a photographic composition. There are various methods through which tension may be introduced into photography. This essay provides an analysis of the works of Mikhael Subotzky, Patrick Waterhouse, and David Goldblatt achieves tension in their photography.
Perhaps the easiest approach to creating tension within a photographic composition is by the use of diagonal lines. The interplay between the diagonal lines and the rectangular frame creates a dynamic movement. Although the diagonal lines have their independent direction and movement, when they are referenced to the frame edges, tension is created in the picture.
Figure 1: Passengers wait to board local buses at Marabastad terminal in Pretoria en route to work for the day. (David Goldblatt) (Source: McCarthy and Said-Moorhouse 1)
Goldblatt makes use of this technique in his apartheid photographs to great effect. As shown in figure 1, the use of diagonal lines creates tension in the photograph. The photographer positioned himself in front of the rows of African passengers waiting to board a bus at Marabastad terminal, Pretoria (Goldblatt, Hayworth-Booth, and Danelzik-Brüggemann, n.p). The edge of the roof forms a slightly diagonal line that interacts with the rectangular edges of the image to create tension. The diagonal lines on the side of the bus also create a tension and division between the two sides of the image. The effect of tension in this image is that it combines with the muted look of the African pedestrians to highlight the theme of discontent, struggle, sadness, fear etc.
In similar fashion, Mikhael Subotzky and Patrick Waterhouse, in their project Ponte City take a look at the monstrosity that is Ponte City. Ponte City is perhaps the largest symbolic presentation of the changing fortunes of black South Africans during and after Apartheid.
Figure 2: Mikhael Subotzky and Patrick Waterhouse’s Ponte City, (Source: http://www.subotzkystudio.com/ponte-city/)
Another effective strategy that helps develop tension within a photograph is the control of the amount of negative space within the composition. Lao Tzu once said that emptiness gives purpose to things. In the same vein, negative space does not only create tension between an object and the background, but also gives relevance to the subject in the image. Negative space is the space left between subjects, as well as the space between the subjects and the edges of the picture. Tension is achieved through negative space because of the development of point/counterpoint that contributes to the dramatic effect of the image. The result of this dynamic tension is appeal and intrigue for the viewer. For example, in figure 1, the well-defined negative space between the rows of black Africans and the local bus creates palpable tension within the image. It exudes an openness that invites the spectator/ audience to position themselves within that space (Erickson 59). It is like Goldblatt is asking the viewers to contemplate their identity and position in relation to the community and the practice of apartheid in South Africa. Similarly, in figure 2 of Mikhael Subotzky and Patrick Waterhouse’s Ponte City, the void of negative space is equally significant. One notable difference between this image and Goldblatt’s image is that the negative space is realized through a three-dimensional representation. The curved walls encapsulate a negative space. This creates a tension between the walls, highlighting the majestic nature of Ponte City. The overall effect is that Ponte city viewed as a monstrosity that represents the flawed ideology of apartheid in South Africa. The tension created by Goldblatt’s image, however, is considerably higher than that achieved in Mikhael Subotzky and Patrick Waterhouse’s Ponte City. This is probably because Goldblatt’s image included human subjects and was taken during the height of Apartheid while the Subotzky and Waterhouse image does not comprise of human subjects.
Contrast also creates tension in photographic images. Contrast is the use of conflicting light and darks areas, big and small objects or curved and straight lines. Angular lines carry more tension than straight ones because they create a sense of instability. In the two photographs, there is evidence of contrast. In Goldblatt’s image (figure 1), the most apparent use of contrast is that of light and dark areas. The image seems to be divided into half. The right side of the image is predominantly white while the left side is predominantly black. On the left side, there are several black Africans waiting for the local bus. Their faces look forlorn and defeated. These two halves create a tension that reflects the status of South Africa during apartheid. The right side represents development and progress while the left side represents the bitter stagnation and exclusion of black South Africans. In the Subotzky and Waterhouse image of Ponte City (figure 2), there is also the use of light and dark areas. The dark areas are mostly represented by the open or broken windows that provide a view into the dark interior of the apartments. The interpretation in the context of Ponte City’s history is that this image represents the current status of equal rights and freedoms in South Africa post Apartheid. This building was initially used as a residence for whites only. However, in post-Apartheid South Africa, blacks moved into some of the apartments. Notably, both images use the contrasting dark and light areas to create tension. In addition, the use of light and dark is not only artistic but also is symbolic of black and white South Africans. This tension further advances the themes of this photography beyond esthetics. The difference between the tensions is that while Goldblatt’s image provides tension in Apartheid South Africa, Subotzky and Waterhouse's image is a modern day interpretation of a landmark representation of Apartheid.
The photographic work of photographers such as Mikhael Subotzky, Patrick Waterhouse, and David Goldblatt is critical to the field of resistance/ protest photography. The intention of their work was not only to create widespread awareness of the ills that were being perpetrated by the oppressors, but also to persuade and elicit support to eliminate the oppression. It further highlights a long-standing relationship between photography and politics. The works of Mikhael Subotzky, Patrick Waterhouse, and David Goldblatt achieve tension through various strategies. The first approach to creating tension within a photographic composition is by the use of diagonal lines. The interplay between the diagonal lines and the rectangular frame creates a dynamic movement. In figure 1 by Goldblatt, the edge of the roof forms a slightly diagonal line that interacts with the rectangular edges of the image to create tension. The resulting tension combines with the muted look of the African pedestrians to highlight the theme of discontent, struggle, sadness, fear, etc. In Mikhael Subotzky and Patrick Waterhouse’s Ponte City project photographs, there is the similar use of diagonal lines. The diagonal lines create a tension based on the illusion of significant weight of the building, which represents the enormity of the social evil that this once whites-only building stands for. The use of negative space is another effective strategy of developing tension within a photographic image. The effect of this dynamic tension within an image is increased the appeal and intrigue for the viewer. The photographers also employ tension through contrast to highlight the evils of Apartheid in South Africa. Undoubtedly, the use of tension is important because it strengthens the messages, symbolisms and themes of the photography.
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