Photograph by Anne Fischer, Cape Town, c. 1940s. Courtesy Iziko Museums of South Africa’s Social History Collections and University of Cape Town Library special collections
The real background’ is the house, trees, and walls of the house. The ground is littered with packages, bundles of things, bicycles, people walking by, and even a woman waiting to be photographed. The photographer’s huge camera and legs are also visible in the picture. He appears to be dancing with the woman who is waiting, his foot in the air. Her head and one foot are visible above the camera.
Fischer’s photo also provides a glimpse into the history of South African street photography. In the catalog of The Other Camera that he curated and an exhibit that he curated, the photographer Paul Wineberg notes how many people who earned a living through photography during apartheid didn’t have the resources to open their studios but instead worked on the streets. Their work is still largely unknown. He also highlights:
Street photography was the beginning of many established Black photographers’ careers in South Africa. These include Ernest Cole Santu mofokeng Juda ngwenya… and William Matlala.
An emerging history
The history of street photography has only just begun to be researched. Siona O’Connell, a filmmaker and academic, curated a 2015 research project and exhibition based on portraits taken by the famous street photography studio Film Snaps, which operated out of a pavement at the Grand Parade, Cape Town.
Phindi Mnyaka, a historian from South Africa, has written about Daniel Morolong. He began his career in street photography. In 1968, Morolong established Morolex Ideal Studios near East London on the Eastern Cape coast. He captured urban Blacks in their homes and at important events, as well as at leisure. He often relaxed on beaches that were segregated just a few years later. A fire destroyed the building where Morolong’s photography studio was located during the coup of 1990 in Ciskei. This is one of the so-called ‘homelands,’ created by the apartheid regime. Morolong’s negatives and equipment were almost destroyed.
Ahmed Timol with Suliman Sujee in Johannesburg, 1960s. Courtesy of the Ahmed Timol Family Trust
An incongruous picture
The images taken by street photographers during apartheid are examples of “incongruous Images,” as Marianne Hirsch, Leo Spitzer, and other academics have described them. These photos “seem to refuse” to reveal the shocking context in which they have been taken.
In this respect, a portrait taken by a street photographer of antiapartheid activist Ahmed Timol and his friend Suliman Sujee walking together is an exemplary example. This photo shows what it was like to be an “Indian” in the apartheid-era state and thus a target of state-sanctioned violent acts. It is not what we would expect when looking at images of violence.
Read more: Reframing women in Namibia’s early history of photography.
Because of this, the photograph instructs us to look more carefully. To consider whether these young men are dressed so immaculately because, in the context in which they find themselves, they must assert their dignity to dress so sharply that it is an insult to those who think themselves superior in every way. It’s a small yet not-so-subtle assertion of their worldliness, of their claim to belonging, that exceeds the narrow confines of racist, retrogressive 1960s South Africa. The photograph was taken not long before Timol was tortured and murdered by the security police, the 22nd person to die in detention.
These photographs remind us of the untold stories that we are only just now discovering. They shed light on not only how apartheid impacted people but also how they saw themselves.