Skip to main content
Article thumbnail
Location of Repository

Portrait and documentary photography in post-apartheid South Africa: (hi)stories of past and present

By Paula Horta


This thesis will explore how South African portrait and documentary photography produced between 1994 and 2004 has contributed to a wider understanding of the country’s painful past and, for some, hopeful, for others, bleak present. In particular, it will examine two South African photographic works which are paradigmatic of the political and social changes that marked the first decade after the fall of apartheid, focusing on the empowerment of both photographers and subjects. The first, Jillian Edelstein’s (2001) Truth & Lies: Stories from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa, captures the faces and records the stories of perpetrators and victims who gave their testimonies to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa from 1996 to 2000. The second, Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin’s (2004a) Mr. Mkhize’s Portrait & Other Stories from the New South Africa, documents the changed/ unchanged realities of a democratic country ten years after apartheid.\ud \ud The work of these photographers is showcased for its specificity, historicity and uniqueness. In both works the images are charged with emotion. Viewed on their own — uncaptioned — the photographs have the capacity to unsettle the viewer, but in both cases a compelling intermeshing of image and text heightens their resonance and enables further possibilities for interpretation. In their contributions to the critical theory of photography Roland Barthes, Victor Burgin and Max Kozloff underscore the centrality of the interplay between image and text in the meaning-making process anchoring a critical engagement with photography. Burgin (1982) states that “Even the uncaptioned photograph, framed and isolated on a gallery, is invaded by language when it is looked at”, and Kozloff (1987) claims that “However they are perceived, images have to be mediated by words”.\ud \ud This thesis singles out emotionally charged and forceful photographs in Edelstein, Broomberg and Chanarin’s repertoire to consider both the complex process of the construction and interpretation of photographic meaning and question if/when photographs do, in fact, depend on language. Central to the architecture of photography is the layering of the representations, firstly through the specific photographic language and form of address which characterises the portrait genre, and secondly through the verbal text accompanying the images. I argue that the viewer’s experience of the photograph unfolds at two distinct moments of viewing. The first moment is defined by the “raw” encounter with the photograph — mediated by an affective response to its emotional or symbolic content — and the second moment encompasses the response to the photograph’s compositional elements, or signifying units, in articulation with the text/narrative accompanying it. \ud \ud This analysis brings to the fore the relation and exchange between photographer and subject and, ultimately, between photographer, subject and viewer. Emmanuel Levinas and Hannah Arendt’s theoretical insights provide a platform for exploring the lived, concrete experience of ethical choice and action at the core of the photographer–subject-viewer humanistic triangulated relationship. Germane to this discussion, Ariella Azoulay’s (2008) conception of “the civil contract of photography” extends the possibility of questioning and/or examining, firstly, the complex intertwining roles of the several participants in the photographic act/encounter and, secondly, the photographic image as an intercultural nexus wherein photographer, subject and viewer meet.\ud The triangulation of photographer-subject-viewer, which constitutes the guiding thread of this study, is further explored and illuminated from the perspective of Mikhail Bakhtin’s conceptualisation of the “utterance”, enabling me to engage with the dialogical dimension of photographic practice. The affinities between Levinas and Bakhtin — two philosophers of alterity — revealed through a common language of responsibility in the relation with the other, inform my reading and discussion of the ethical project of photography in post-apartheid South Africa. \ud \ud Phenomenology, narrative theory and social semiotic visual analysis guide the methodology adopted in this study, creating a synergy between a reflective/dialogical, a discursive/sociological and a more semiological/aesthetic approach. From this perspective, my concern will be in establishing the interdisciplinarity between Visual Culture and Cultural Studies and, in so doing, I will explore the relationship between the photograph, documentary practice, social processes, modes of representation and/or visual testimony, confirming Irit Rogoff’s (1998) claim that “[I]mages do not stay within discrete disciplinary fields (…), since neither the eye nor the psyche operates along or recognizes such divisions. Instead they provide the opportunity for a mode of new cultural writing existing at the intersections of both objectivities and subjectivities”

OAI identifier:

Suggested articles


  1. (2004b) (Dir) Mr. Mkhize Portrait, A raw TV Production for Channel Four, Running time: 30 min,
  2. (2008). (n.d.) ―Pre-post: A trajectory in South African photography‖, Links, Available at [last accessed
  3. (n.d.) ―The day the truth hit home‖, Sunday Times, Available at [last accessed
  4. (1969). [1961] Totality and Infinity: Essays on Exteriority, trans. Alphonso Lingis, Pennsylvania:
  5. (2002). [1965] ―Introduction‖,
  6. (2001). [1979/80] ―Photographs and Narrativity‖, in M. Alvarado et al. (eds) Representation and Photography: A Screen Education Reader,
  7. (2000). [1981] Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography, doi
  8. (1996). [1986] ―History, politics and postmodernism: Stuart Hall and cultural studies‖, in doi
  9. (1960). 56 Killed, 245 Injured In Two Riots‖,
  10. (1960). 8 South African Photographers, Copenhagen: The National Museum of Photography. 308 Anon.
  11. (1994). A Bridge to Where? Introducing the Interim Bill of Rights‖,
  12. (1998). A Commentary on the South African Constitution, Johannesburg: Butterworth Publishers.
  13. (1991). A Democratic South Africa? Constitutional Engineering in a Divided Society, doi
  14. (2003). A Human Being Died That Night, doi
  15. (2004). A Land of Hope‖,
  16. (2004). Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin‖,
  17. (1992). Afrikaner Nationalism, Apartheid and the Conceptualization of ‗Race‘‖, doi
  18. (2008). Age of hope or anxiety? Dynamics of the fear of crime
  19. (2000). Alexandra Township — A History, Lessons for Urban Renewal and some Challenges for Planners‖, Alexandra Renewal Project, Available at [last accessed
  20. (2008). An African Presence in Europe: Portraits of Somali Elders‖, doi
  21. (2006). An Inner Silence: The Portraits of Henri Cartier-Bresson, trans. David H. doi
  22. (1978). Analysing Afrikaner Nationalism: The ‗Christian-National‘ Assault on White Trade Unionism in
  23. (1995). Bakhtin and the Visual Arts, Cambridge: doi
  24. (2004). Between Joyce and Rememberance,
  25. (2008). Beyond Citizenship: Human Rights and Democracy‖, in S. Hassim et al. (eds) Go Home or Die Here: Violence, Xenophobia and the Reinvention of Difference in South Africa,
  26. (2004). bites‖, Time Out London,
  27. (1994). Blood and Belonging: Journeys into the New Nationalism, London: Vintage. doi
  28. (1960). Bodies strewn in location streets‖,
  29. (1999). Challenge to Civilization: A History
  30. (1995). Citizenship and National Identity: Some Reflections on the Future of Europe‖,
  31. (2002). Commissioning the Past: Understanding South Africa‟s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, doi
  32. (2006). Constructing the social policy agenda: conceptual debates around poverty and inequality‖,
  33. (1998). Constructs: Reflections on a Thinking Eye‖, in D. Goldblatt, South Africa: The Structure of Things Then, Cape Town:
  34. (2004). Conversation Pieces: Community and Communication in Modern Art, doi
  35. (1999). Country of My Skull, doi
  36. (1998). Cracked heirlooms: memory and exhibition‖,
  37. (1996). Culture‘s In-Between‖, doi
  38. (2001). David Goldblatt: Fifty-one Years, doi
  39. (2003). David Goldblatt: Fifty-one Years‖,
  40. (2007). David Goldblatt: Galerie Marian Goodman‖,
  41. (1998). David Goldblatt: Photographs from South Africa”, The Museum of Modern Art, Available at 303 [last accessed 24-06-2007]
  42. (2009). Defiant Images: Photography and Apartheid South Africa, doi
  43. (1995). Democratization in South Africa‖, doi
  44. (2002). Dialogism: Bakhtin and his World,( 2 nd edition), doi
  45. (1979). Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, doi
  46. (2007). Do South Africans Exist? Nationalism, Democracy and the Identity of „The People‟,
  47. (2005). Documentary, document, testimony…‖, trans. Michael Gibbs, in F. Gierstberg et al. (eds) Documentary now! Contemporary strategies in photography, film and the visual arts,
  48. (2008). Don‘t rely on Madiba, act like him‖,
  49. (1977). Eichman in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, doi
  50. (2009). Emmanuel Levinas, doi
  51. (2003). Emotions Revealed: Recognizing Faces and Feelings to Improve Communication and Emotional Life, doi
  52. (2005). Empathic Vision: Affect, Trauma, and Contemporary Art, doi
  53. (2002). Empathy and Forgiveness for Apartheid‘s Most Condemned Man: Confronting the Human Side of Evil‖, Occasional Paper 16, Institute for Conflict, Analysis and Resolution.
  54. (1994). Encounters with Nationalism, doi
  55. (1988). Endgame in South Africa? The Changing Structures & Ideology of Apartheid, doi
  56. (2004). Establishing the Truth about the Apartheid Past: Historians and the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission‖,
  57. (2000). Ethics and Dialogue: doi
  58. (1985). Ethics and Infinity: Conversations with Philippe Nemo,
  59. (1994). Ethnic Euphemism and Racial Echoes‖, doi
  60. (1979). Ethnic Power Mobilized: Can South Africa Change?, New Haven and London: doi
  61. (1996). Exhibition Rhetorics: Material speech and utter sense‖, in R. Greenberg et al. (eds) Thinking about Exhibitions, London and
  62. (1995). Explaining the Apartheid City: 20 Years of South African Historiography‖, doi
  63. (1998). Face to Face: Directions in contemporary women‟s portraiture,
  64. (2004). Face to Face: The Art of Portrait Photography, doi
  65. (1977). Faces: A Narrative History of the Portrait in Photography,
  66. (1999). Facing the Truth with Bill Moyers, Public Affairs Television.
  67. (2003). Fifty-One Years‖ [online sound recording]
  68. (1985). Flagship of South Africa‘s liberal press to close‖, The Times,
  69. (1960). Flaming night‖,
  70. (2004). Foreword‖, doi
  71. (1988). Fragile Stability: State and Society in Democratic South Africa‖,
  72. (2009). Frames of War: When Is Life Grievable?, doi
  73. (1989). From Apartheid to Nation-Building: Contemporary South African Debates, Cape Town:
  74. (2004). From the Ruins: The Constitution Hill Project‖, doi
  75. (1972). Generational Conflict and African Nationalism in South Africa: The African National Congress, doi
  76. (1996). Guguletu ambush a Vlakplaas operation, Truth Commission told‖,
  77. (1961). Helmar Lerski‖, in Image: The Bulletin of the George Eastman House of Photography,
  78. (2003). History after Apartheid: Visual Culture and Public Memory in a Democratic South Africa, doi
  79. (1976). Houghton : Mutloatse Arts Heritage Trust.
  80. (1967). House of Bondage,
  81. (2006). Humanism of the Other, trans. Nidra Poller, Urbana and Chicago: doi
  82. (2010). I worry that visitors will ask how successful this democracy is‖, Guardian, Available at [last accessed
  83. (1987). I Write What I Like: A Selection of Writings, doi
  84. (1996). If Truth Be Told, doi
  85. (2007). Image and Imagination: Georgia O‟Keeffe by John Loengard,
  86. (2003). Image and Rememberance: Representation and the Holocaust, Bloomington and Indianapolis:
  87. (1977). Image Music Text, doi
  88. (1991). Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origins and Spread of Nationalism, revised edition, London and
  89. (1982). In doi
  90. (2000). Inside Culture: Re-imagining the Method of Cultural Studies,
  91. (2004). Insider Reflections on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission‖,
  92. (2008). Intersections Intersected, Porto: Civilização Editora.
  93. (2005). Intersections,
  94. (2007). Introduction to Phenomenology, doi
  95. (1990). Introduction: The Architectonics of Answerability‖,
  96. (1996). Introduction: Who Needs Identity?‖, doi
  97. (1996). Introduction‖, doi
  98. (2003). Introduction‖, in American Photography, doi
  99. (2006). Introduction‖, in Reflections on Democracy and Human Rights: A Decade of the South African Constitution (Act
  100. (1992). J.P. Morgan‘s Nose: Photographer and Subject in American Portrait Photography‖,
  101. (2004). Johannesburg: The Making and Shaping of the City, doi
  102. (1996). Killing of Griffiths Mxenge‖ (Part 1), Truth and Reconciliation Commission,
  103. (1996). Large Exhibitions: A sketch of a typology‖,
  104. (1974). Legislation, Ideology and Economy in Post-1948 South Africa‖, doi
  105. (2004). Lens turned on country of colossal change‖,
  106. (2008). Let‘s talk about race‖,
  107. (1991). Life in Quest of Narrative‖, doi
  108. (1986). Lifetimes Under Apartheid, doi
  109. (1995). Listening to Avedon‖, Afterimage,
  110. (2004). Lives in Focus‖,
  111. (2000). Long Night‟s Journey Into Day, California Newsreel, Running time: 94 minutes,
  112. (1995). Long Walk to Freedom, London: Abacus Mandela, doi
  113. (2009). Manipulator or Human Rights Facilitator?‖, Nieman Reports, Available at [last accessed 19-01-2010]
  114. (2006). Memory, History, Forgetting, trans. Kathleen Blamey & David Pellauer, Chicago and London: doi
  115. (2005). Memory, History, Forgiveness: A Dialogue Between Paul Ricoeur and Sorin Antohi‖,
  116. (1998). Memory, metaphor, and the triumph of narrative‖, in S. Nuttall and C. Coetzee (eds) Negotiating the past: The making of memory in South Africa, doi
  117. (2009). Memory, Narrative and Forgiveness: Perspectives on the Unfinished Journeys of the Past, Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing Goldberg,
  118. (1984). Mikhail Bakhtin, doi
  119. (2004). Moving in Time: Images of Life in a Democratic South Africa, Sandton:
  120. (1973). Mr Vorster versus Rand Daily Mail‖, The Times,
  121. (2004). Museums of Tomorrow: A Virtual Discussion,
  122. (1994). Nationalism and Democracy‖, doi
  123. (1983). Nations and Nationalism, doi
  124. (2002). nd edition),
  125. (2000). Negotiating Power‖, in M. Durden and C. Richardson (eds) Face On: Photography as Social Exchange, London: Black Dog
  126. (1998). Negotiating the past: The making of memory in South Africa, doi
  127. (2007). No Caption Needed: Iconic Photographs, Public Culture, and Liberal Democracy, Chicago and London: doi
  128. (2002). Oliver Tambo: His Life and Legacy,
  129. (2001). On Cosmopolitanism and Forgiveness, trans. Mark Dooley and Michael Hughes,
  130. (2007). On Hesitation before the Other‖, doi
  131. (2000). On Narratology (Past, Present, Future)‖, in M. McQuillan (ed) The Narrative Reader,
  132. (1973). On the Mines,
  133. (1998). Otherwise Than Being Or Beyond Essence, trans. Alphonso Lingis, doi
  134. (2008). Our fragile nonracialism is in danger of unravelling‖,
  135. (2009). Pebco Three Families Receive Final Investigation Report‖, 17 April, South African Information, Available at [last accessed
  136. (1982). Photography, Phantasy, Function‖,
  137. (2007). Physiognomy and Ancient Psychology‖,
  138. (1988). Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press. doi
  139. (2000). Place, social relations and fear of crime: a review‖, Progress in Human Geography, doi
  140. (1980). Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings,
  141. (2006). Preface: A Walk Down Memory Lane‖,
  142. (2002). Preface‖, doi
  143. (1984). Problems of Dostoevsky‟s Poetics, trans. Caryl Emerson, Minneapolis and London:
  144. (1983). Promise to keep the Rand Daily Mail open‖,
  145. (2006). Protecting the Right to Equality through the Constitutional Court‖, in Reflections on Democracy and Human Rights: A Decade of the South African Constitution
  146. (2000). Public and private in Hannah Arendt‘s conception of citizenship‖,
  147. (1991). Race, Nation, and Class Based Ideologies of Recent Opposition in South Africa‖, doi
  148. (2004). Racism in three dimensions: South African architecture and the ideology of white supremacy, doi
  149. (1985). Racism‘s Last Word‖, trans. doi
  150. (2003). Reading Politics, Reading Media‖, doi
  151. (2005). Reflective Democracy, US: doi
  152. (1997). Representation: Cultural Representation and Signifying Practices, doi
  153. (2000). Representing Blackness: Steve Biko and the Black Consciousness Movement‖,
  154. (1997). Representing the Social: France and Frenchness in Post-War Humanist Photography‖,
  155. (1993). Rewriting the Self: History,
  156. (1960). Riot Township Natives Stay At Home‖, The Star,
  157. (2002). Ryszard Kapuscinski: The Empathetic Existencialist‖,
  158. (1971). Selections from the Prison Notebooks, trans. Quintin Hoare and Geoffrey Nowell, doi
  159. (1991). Self and Other‖, in The Thought of Mikhail Bakhtin: From Word to Culture, doi
  160. (2002). Site of pain now a symbol of hope‖,
  161. (2004). Snapshot‖, The Big Issue,
  162. (2007). Some Afrikaners Revisited,
  163. (2001). Something Happened, The Guardian,
  164. (2006). South Africa 1994-2004‖, in Reflections on Democracy and Human Rights:
  165. (1999). South Africa in Transition: The Misunderstood Miracle, doi
  166. (2004). South Africa: A Changing Nation‖, The Big Issue in Scotland,
  167. (1986). South Africa: The Cordoned Heart, Newlands: doi
  168. (1998). South Africa: The Structure of Things Then, Cape Town:
  169. (2008). South Africa‘s democracy: from celebration to crisis‖, doi
  170. (2008). South Africa‘s hard truths‖, Guardian, Available at [last accessed
  171. (2001). South Africa‘s Legacy‖, doi
  172. (2001). Soweto: A South African Legend,
  173. (2008). Statement by the South African Institute of Race Relations on causal factors behind the violent unrest in and around Johannesburg‖, South African 294 Institute of Race Relations, Available at [last accessed
  174. (1998). Studying Visual Culture‖,
  175. (2001). Sudden Life, Never Seen or Suspected Before: David Goldblatt‘s Photographs‖, in David Goldblatt: Fifty-one Years,
  176. (1994). Survival in Justice‘: An Afrikaner Debate over Apartheid‖, doi
  177. (2008). Taylor Wessing Portrait Prize: candid cameras‖, The Times,
  178. (2002). Terrestrial Things: Poems,
  179. (1992). Testimony: Crises of Witnessing in Literature, Psychoanalysis, and History, doi
  180. (1973). The Accidental
  181. (1977). The Afrikaner Broederbond 1927-1948: Class Vanguard of Afrikaner nationalism‖, doi
  182. (1995). The Afrikaners: An Historical Interpretation,
  183. (2003). The Anthropology of Space and Place, doi
  184. (2002). The Art of Liberating Voices: Contemporary South African Art doi
  185. (2005). The Bill of Rights Handbook, (5 th edition),
  186. (1990). The Black Consciousness Movement in South Africa‖, doi
  187. (2007). The Cambridge Companion to Narrative, Cambridge: doi
  188. (2008). The Civil Contract of Photography, doi
  189. (1996). The Coming of Nationalism: The Myths of Nation and Class‖, doi
  190. (1997). The Construction of Nationhood: Ethnicity, Religion and Nationalism, Cambridge: doi
  191. (1991). The Continued Impact of Black Consciousness in South Africa‖, doi
  192. (2010). The Cruel Radiance: Photography and Political Violence, doi
  193. (1987). The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays by M.M. Bakhtin, trans. Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist, doi
  194. (1996). The Discourse of the Museum‖, in R. Greenberg et al. (eds) Thinking about Exhibitions, London and
  195. (2005). The George Eastman House Collection:
  196. (1979). The Growth of Afrikaner Identity‖, in Ethnic Power Mobilized: Can South Africa Change? New Haven and London: doi
  197. (2005). The hill is alive‖,
  198. (1988). The Historian and the Icon: Photography and the History of the American People in the 1930s and 1940s‖, in C. Fleischhauer et at. (eds) Documenting America, 1935-1943, London and Los Angeles:
  199. (1998). The Human Condition, (2 nd edition), Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press. doi
  200. (1973). The Interpretation of Cultures, doi
  201. (1998). The Never-Ending Story‖, Track Two,
  202. (1973). The Phenomenology of Aesthetic Experience, doi
  203. (1997). The Photograph, doi
  204. (1994). The Political Philosophy of Hannah Arendt, doi
  205. (1979). The Politics of Passes: Control and Change in South Africa‖, doi
  206. (2002). The Politics of Storytelling: Violence, Transgression and Intersubjectivity, Denmark: doi
  207. (1986). The Problem of Speech Genres‖,
  208. (2004). The Sage Dictionary of Cultural Studies, doi
  209. (2004). The Seductive Vision of Restorative Justice: Right Relation, Reciprocity, Healing, and Repair‖, in Compulsory Compassion: A Critique of Restorative Justice,
  210. (2004). The Singularity of Literature, doi
  211. (2007). The Theatre of the Face: Portrait Photography Since
  212. (1989). The Transported of Kwandebele: a South African Odyssey,
  213. (2006). The TRC‘s unfinished business: healing‖
  214. (2005). The Value of Human Dignity in Interpreting Socio-Economic Rights‖,
  215. (2004). The Winds of Change‖,
  216. (1997). The Witnesses‖, The
  217. (1995). Theorizing Citizenship,
  218. (1996). Thinking about Exhibitions, London and New York: Routledge Posel, doi
  219. (2004). Thinking about photography: debates, historically and now‖,
  220. (2004). This is not photography, this is just boring‖,
  221. (1987). Through the Narrative Portal‖, in The Privileged Eye: Essays on Photography,
  222. (1993). To The Other: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Emmanuel Levinas, doi
  223. (1985). Translator‘s Introduction‖, doi
  224. (2005). Trauma, Testimony and Truth: Contemporary South African Artists Speak‖, African Arts, Autumn doi
  225. (1995). Trauma: Explorations in Memory, doi
  226. (1998). Trespassing through Shadows: Memory, Photography and the Holocaust, Mineapolis: doi
  227. (2001). Truth & Lies, London: Granta Books Godobo-Madikizela, P. (2002a) ―Remorse, Forgiveness, and Rehumanization: Stories from South Africa‖, doi
  228. (2002). Truth and Reconciliation in South Africa: Miracle or Model?, Colorado: Lynne Rienner Publishers. doi
  229. (2002). Truth, Justice, and Reconciliation: Judging the Fairness of Amnesty in South Africa‖, doi
  230. (1996). Unclaimed Experience: Trauma, Narrative, and History, Baltimore and London: The John Hopkins doi
  231. (2004). UNSETTLED: Notes on a Mirror Nation‖, in I. Fischer Jonge et al. (eds) UNSETTLED: 8 South African Photographers, Copenhagen: The National Museum of Photography.
  232. (2001). Upheavals of Thought: The Intelligence of Emotions, doi
  233. (1998). Useless Suffering‖, in Entre Nous: Thinking-of-the-Other, doi
  234. (2010). Viewer or voyeur? The morality of reportage photography‖,
  235. (2006). Visualising Memories: The Hector Pieterson Memorial in Soweto‖, doi
  236. (1972). Ways of Seeing, doi
  237. (2002). We are the Poors: Community Struggles in Post-Apartheid South Africa, doi
  238. (1996). When the truth is too hard to bear‖,
  239. (1998). Where Truth Lies, New Vision Production and Ubuntu Film and TV Productions, Running time: 30 minutes,
  240. (2000). Why Ethics? Signs of Responsibilities,
  241. (2010). Why Voice Matters: Culture and Politics after Neoliberalism, doi
  242. (2007). Working Practice: David Goldblatt‖, Modern Painters,
  243. Writings:

To submit an update or takedown request for this paper, please submit an Update/Correction/Removal Request.