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

Horta, Paula. 2011. Portrait and documentary photography in post-apartheid South Africa: (hi)stories of past and present. Doctoral thesis, Goldsmiths, University of London [Thesis]

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Abstract or Description

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.

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”.

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.

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.
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.

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”.

Item Type:

Thesis (Doctoral)


south africa, post-apartheid, photography, portrait, documentary, ethics, emmanuel levinas, mikhail bakhtin

Departments, Centres and Research Units:

Centre for Cultural Studies (1998-2017)


30 June 2011

Item ID:


Date Deposited:

30 Jan 2012 17:17

Last Modified:

08 Sep 2022 10:31



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