Lens on Apartheid’s Haunting Legacy

David Goldblatt: A Retrospective

By Donald Weber

Published May 05, 2010.
  • Print
  • Share Share

For more than half a century, South African photographer David Goldblatt has been probing the emotional core of his native land, capturing the human cost, and the haunting legacy, of apartheid.

The Jewish Museum’s new retrospective, “South African Photographs: David Goldblatt,” is the first major overview in New York of Goldblatt’s work in more than a decade. On view until September 19 are 150 black-and-white photographs, including images from the early days of institutionalized racial segregation in 1948 and those from postapartheid South Africa of the 1990s.

What marks Goldblatt’s oeuvre is the tension between indignation and empathy that is embedded in his most provocative photographs. Above all, Goldblatt’s camera reveals the inner contradictions and the sheer oppressive weight of life lived under the heart-coarsening structures of apartheid.

The youngest son of Eli and Olga Goldblatt — both of his parents, fleeing pogroms in Lithuania, immigrated to South Africa at the turn of the 20th century — Goldblatt, now 79, grew up in the small mining town of Randfontein, west of Johannesburg. There, his father ran an upscale clothing store that catered to the Afrikaner community. Goldblatt said that when he was a child, he experienced antisemitism from Afrikaners — some of whom, he said, were Nazi sympathizers. Growing up he witnessed the indignities of dispossession and displacement of the black South Africans who labored in the mines or as servants for Randfontein’s Afrikaner majority.

  • Image 1
  • Image 2
  • Image 3
  • Image 4
  • Image 5
  • Image 6
  • Image 7
  • Image 8
  • Image 9
  • Image 10
  • Image 11
  • Image 12
  • Image 13
  • Image 14
  • Image 15
  • Image 16


Unsettled by what he has described as “the life-denying miasma of Afrikaner nationalism,” Goldblatt rejected the middle-class life that running his father’s clothing business could have provided, in favor of an itinerant career in documentary photography. He later reflected that photography was his way of becoming politically active — a career path that, he said, enabled him “to square one’s conscience with being a white in this country.”

In Goldblatt’s best work his probing eye invites a radical alteration in a complacent viewer. “David’s photographs have an unstated political significance that goes before and grows beyond the obvious images,” said his friend Nadine Gordimer, a South African political activist and Nobel laureate. “He can ring a sudden life never seen or suspected before from what he sees.”

In this respect, Goldblatt’s most unsettling images document, with stunning emotional and aesthetic effect, a notorious history of South African “crime scenes”: sites of violence and dispossession sanctioned by apartheid. His work stirs a nation’s uncomfortable, repressed memories.

The uproar that followed the 1975 publication of his photo essay “Some Afrikaners Photographed” (Struik Publishers) reveals the telling anxiety that Goldblatt’s images can produce. Following the book’s release, Afrikaners accused Goldblatt of portraying them in purposefully unflattering ways.

Many of Goldblatt’s most iconic images are on display at the Jewish Museum. Among them is the image of a now leveled area near Cape Town known as District Six, once home to a multicultural population of blacks, Jews and people of mixed race, people whose homes, schools and workplaces were razed by the government to make room for whites-only housing. Here’s the irony: The government never rebuilt the area, so it remains a wasteland.

Evidence of violence can also be seen in the long white arm casts and unbent stare of a young boy fixing his convicting gaze on us in “Fifteen year old Lawrence Matjee after his assault and detention by the Security Police, 25 October 1985.”

Goldblatt’s eye casts an ironic gaze upon his viewers. “I sought out irony,” he has said of his photographic strategy, “and tried to impregnate pictures with a sense of it, for it often revealed nuances and complexities of our life in South Africa.”

In one absurd image, a mother rests in bed while her child naps at her side. Everything seems normal and in place, but the four walls are missing, removed by the government. A suitcase is off to the left — a symbol, perhaps, of the provisional nature of life for black South Africans living under apartheid. Goldblatt tells us that as soon as the officials left, the woman began rebuilding the walls.

Or consider the image of a black woman and a white woman, members of the same Methodist church, sharing a blanket in the church’s chilly meeting room as they meet, in 1980, “to discuss ways of reducing racial, cultural and class barriers.” Reflecting on the image, Gordimer said, “Is the shared rug a beginning of real sharing to come?”

Or most poignantly, the 1964 image of a young white boy with his black nursemaid — her fingers instinctively wrapped around his heel in a protective, loving gesture, his hands gently placed on her shoulders. What crime is latent, or forecast, here? A half-century later, by Goldblatt’s estimation, the image reveals a tragic future of race relations, for this boy will inevitably grow up under severe taboos on racial mixing, a victim of the tangled legal apparatus of apartheid, discouraged from expressing his recollection of affection.

Since the mid-1990s, Goldblatt has continued to capture on film the layered histories of power, settlement and uprooting in South Africa. In the wake of apartheid’s end, he has focused on landscapes, churches and monuments, in stunning black-and-white clarity.

Most recently, though, he has turned to color photography, creating large, vibrant, exhilarating canvases of contemporary South Africa, where AIDS is prevalent, where enterprising black people hawk their services in freedom as they build their own new structures. The Jewish Museum retrospective does not, alas, include examples of Goldblatt’s color photography.

“I’ve found the venture into colour quite exciting,” he explained during an interview included in “Intersections Intersected,” a 2009 compilation of Goldblatt’s photography. “It has to do with the sense of liberation that came with post-apartheid South Africa.”

When the Forward asked Goldblatt about his hopes for the future, he confessed that he is now profoundly “angry”: angry about the state of education in the new South Africa, angry about the graft among government officials and angry about the fate of newly displaced migrants, as evidenced by the exhibition’s “Zimbabwean refugees given shelter in the Central Methodist Church, March 2009.” He is, above all, angry about the rampant crime that permeates contemporary South Africa. Goldblatt speaks of his desire to begin taking black-and-white photos of convicted criminals forced to return to the scene of their crimes. In the act of revisiting recent crime scenes, postapartheid South Africa will, perhaps, achieve an altered historical and moral consciousness that the country’s social and cultural renovation requires.

“In all of the work I have done,” Goldblatt has reflected,“I have been engaged with the consequences of our actions and of our values.”

Donald Weber is the Lucia, Ruth, and Elizabeth MacGregor professor of English at Mount Holyoke College.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • More than 50 former Israeli soldiers have refused to serve in the current ground operation in #Gaza.
  • "My wife and I are both half-Jewish. Both of us very much felt and feel American first and Jewish second. We are currently debating whether we should send our daughter to a Jewish pre-K and kindergarten program or to a public one. Pros? Give her a Jewish community and identity that she could build on throughout her life. Cons? Costs a lot of money; She will enter school with the idea that being Jewish makes her different somehow instead of something that you do after or in addition to regular school. Maybe a Shabbat sing-along would be enough?"
  • Undeterred by the conflict, 24 Jews participated in the first ever Jewish National Fund— JDate singles trip to Israel. Translation: Jews age 30 to 45 travelled to Israel to get it on in the sun, with a side of hummus.
  • "It pains and shocks me to say this, but here goes: My father was right all along. He always told me, as I spouted liberal talking points at the Shabbos table and challenged his hawkish views on Israel and the Palestinians to his unending chagrin, that I would one day change my tune." Have you had a similar experience?
  • "'What’s this, mommy?' she asked, while pulling at the purple sleeve to unwrap this mysterious little gift mom keeps hidden in the inside pocket of her bag. Oh boy, how do I answer?"
  • "I fear that we are witnessing the end of politics in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I see no possibility for resolution right now. I look into the future and see only a void." What do you think?
  • Not a gazillionaire? Take the "poor door."
  • "We will do what we must to protect our people. We have that right. We are not less deserving of life and quiet than anyone else. No more apologies."
  • "Woody Allen should have quit while he was ahead." Ezra Glinter's review of "Magic in the Moonlight": http://jd.fo/f4Q1Q
  • Jon Stewart responds to his critics: “Look, obviously there are many strong opinions on this. But just merely mentioning Israel or questioning in any way the effectiveness or humanity of Israel’s policies is not the same thing as being pro-Hamas.”
  • "My bat mitzvah party took place in our living room. There were only a few Jewish kids there, and only one from my Sunday school class. She sat in the corner, wearing the right clothes, asking her mom when they could go." The latest in our Promised Lands series — what state should we visit next?
  • Former Israeli National Security Advisor Yaakov Amidror: “A cease-fire will mean that anytime Hamas wants to fight it can. Occupation of Gaza will bring longer-term quiet, but the price will be very high.” What do you think?
  • Should couples sign a pre-pregnancy contract, outlining how caring for the infant will be equally divided between the two parties involved? Just think of it as a ketubah for expectant parents:
  • Many #Israelis can't make it to bomb shelters in time. One of them is Amos Oz.
  • According to Israeli professor Mordechai Kedar, “the only thing that can deter terrorists, like those who kidnapped the children and killed them, is the knowledge that their sister or their mother will be raped."
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.