The images of ordinary Soweto that captured apartheid’s injustice

The images of ordinary Soweto that captured apartheid's injustice

The photographer David Goldblatt, the great chronicler of the apartheid era in South Africa, is to be celebrated by one of the first London art galleries to re‑open this month.

Goldblatt, who died in 2018, has not been the subject of a major London show for more than 30 years. The new exhibition, David Goldblatt: Johannesburg 1948-2018, at the Goodman Gallery in Mayfair, will focus on a particularly moving photo essay, Soweto, from 1972. The photographs in the series were taken over six months in a febrile atmosphere that would lead to an uprising in this impoverished area of Johannesburg four years later.

“I was drawn not to the events of the time, but to the quiet and commonplace where nothing ‘happened’ and yet all was contained and imminent,” the photographer said in his last interview, published in 2019. This was a period in which Goldblatt took solely black and white images as “colour seemed too sweet a medium to express the anger, disgust and fear that apartheid inspired”.

Goldblatt, who was born in the small mining town of Randfontein in 1930, would hitchhike into the city from the age of 17, talking to nightwatchmen and sex workers and photographing them. He would explain: “I’m learning the city and trying to take photographs.”

Jo Stella-Sawicka, senior director at the Goodman Gallery, said: “We felt it especially important to exhibit this remarkable body of work at a time where we are seeing ongoing social injustices and racial inequality.

“It brings into clear focus how little has changed; in South Africa, economic disparity now divides communities, and here in the UK and the US we are seeing the effects of social division and inequality.”

Goldblatt lived in or near Johannesburg for 70 years but had an ambivalent feeling about the city. It was, he wrote, “not an easy city to love”. “From its beginnings as a mining camp in 1886, whites did not want brown and black people living among or near them and over the years pushed them further and further from the city and its white suburbs. Like the city itself, my thoughts and feelings about Joburg are fragmented”.

Butchering a coal merchant’s horse for its meat after it had been condemned and shot by a municipal inspector, Tladi, Soweto, November 1972.
Butchering a coal merchant’s horse for its meat after it had been condemned and shot by a municipal inspector, Tladi, Soweto, November 1972. Photograph: Courtesy of The David Goldblatt Legacy Trust and Goodman Gallery.

When Goldblatt’s father died in 1962 the family’s mining concession store was sold and the young photographer began to support his family with a series of commissions and regular magazine work.

In 1989 he founded the Market Photography Workshop in Johannesburg, where a generation of aspiring photographers were trained and a decade later he became the first South African to have a solo exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

Among Goldblatt’s many accolades were the 2006 Hasselblad award and the 2009 Henri Cartier-Bresson award. In 2016 the French government made him a commander of the Order of Arts and Letters.

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