The Brooklyn Quarterly reflects on Nelson Mandela’s legacy as we say goodbye to a true hero who died yesterday at ninety-five years old. “Empathy Without a Face” is an essay that examines the horrific events that took place during Apartheid in South Africa through David Goldblatt’s untitled photograph.
“Overcoming poverty is not a task of charity, it is an act of justice. Like Slavery and Apartheid, poverty is not natural. It is man-made and it can be overcome and eradicated by the actions of human beings. Sometimes it falls on a generation to be great. YOU can be that great generation. Let your greatness blossom.” – Nelson Mandela
Empathy Without A Face
Tired eyes and swarming masses, politicians posturing and civilians being killed in hideous ways—these are the images that the world has come to associate with apartheid through South African photojournalism and art photography.
In many photographs taken in South Africa from the forties and fifties on, a subject’s face, particularly the eyes, documented (and later came to symbolize) a subjugated people’s longing for dignity. Margaret Bourke-White’s photograph for LIFE Magazine, entitled “Gold Miners” (1950), for example, shows two stoic gold miners down in the pit, their tired bodies adorned by poetic streams of sweat and their eyes betraying their silenced dreams. In contrast, Peter Magubane and the struggle photographers of the eighties imbued their pictures with a sense of urgent motion that clamored for the viewer to wake up to the atrocities occurring in the country. The cover of the August 5th, 1985 issue of Time Magazine featured an untitled photograph, taken by photojournalist Kevin Carter, of a black protester of apartheid. Fists hoisted in the air triumphantly, he is running away from an overturned car enveloped in swirling, bright-orange flames.
David Goldblatt’s untitled photograph, taken in 1980, of a group of white suburbanite gawkers watching a kwela kwela, or black prisoners’ bus, pass through Boksburg’s town center, approaches apartheid in a completely different way from its contemporary counterparts. The photo shows people but no faces, and its every element seems meant to create a sense of stillness, yet it strikes at apartheid’s racist heart with full force.
Goldblatt’s photograph was part of a photo essay, entitled “Boksburg”, that explored the moral ambiguities surrounding the lives of white suburbanites who, while perhaps not actively contributing to the perpetuation of apartheid, ignored the atrocities that were taking place right under their noses. In the written accompaniment to the photo essay, Goldblatt describes this community under apartheid: “There was no standing outside the system: to draw breath here, was to be in it.” No photo captures this situation more clearly than his shot of the kwela kwela and bystanders.
The photograph shows a deceptively simple scene. It is late afternoon in the town center of a white suburb, and four people stop on a sidewalk corner to stare at a black prisoner bus roll past on the street. Three visual markers bring the eye immediately to the foreground: a stocky woman with ramrod-straight posture in a stiff, boxy suit, stockings and sandals; a flaxen-haired boy in crisply-ironed ankle-length pants; and a thick, solid telephone pole that cuts through the picture’s entire frame and has the visual weightiness of a thousand-pound anvil. The boy, who looks about six or seven years old, is leaning slightly back, his head tilted towards the prisoner bus, as if hoping to catch a glimpse of the poor prisoners slumped in the back row. But neither he nor the viewer can see the prisoners: the metal fencing on the bus’s windows obscures everything except their basic black forms.
Because Goldblatt took the photo from behind the spectators, the viewer sees the onlookers’ backs and then the object of their gaze—the prisoner bus. Looking at the scene from this perspective, the viewer slips into the bystanders’ shoes. The prisoner bus seems to fascinate the onlookers: they seem stopped in their tracks by the idea of a black invasion of their community (if only for a moment). The viewer is similarly captivated by the glimpse into the everyday life of a society that may seem similar to her own but, as she knows from the photo’s historical context, rests on the edge of a dangerous precipice. Yet just as the bystanders in the photo cannot see the black prisoners’ faces, the faces of the white onlookers are similarly denied to the viewer as she searches for meaning in the photograph. The viewer is, in effect, stuck in the same shallow voyeuristic place as bystanders—both are blinded to the humanity of the object of their gaze. Both are relegated to the unenlightened place in which a certain group of people become a homogenous, foreign whole and stop being individuals with unique expressions, longings, dreams and burdens—and isn’t this at the psychological base of racism?
The viewer may not think that he is in the mind or heart of a racist but he feels viscerally how a system of institutionalized racism, like apartheid, traps people on both sides of the divide. Goldblatt is not a lecturer in this photograph; he’s not Magubane; he doesn’t show the horrific manifestations of apartheid or tell the viewer anything. He uses the power of a first-hand perspective, which takes root in the viewer’s own psychological make-up, to cultivate a gut understanding of the conflict.
The photo not only sucks the viewer into the white South African worldview, but dramatizes, through visual elements, the stifling atmosphere of the white suburb that created and perpetuated it. Vertical lines—from the seam on the woman’s skirt, to the windowpanes on the prisoner bus, to the white pole that cuts through the background sky—permeate the photograph’s visual field and pull the eye downward, creating a feeling of heaviness and stagnation. The oppressive mid-afternoon sunlight adds to this, drawing out shadows and seemingly cementing the bystanders in their stance for all of eternity. The effect: an absolute, binding, and inescapable stillness. Nothing can move forward here, nothing changes.
The photograph’s power emerges from the visual elements and artistic manipulations that, rather than announcing themselves, subtly creep into the viewer’s consciousness. Goldblatt doesn’t want to knock the viewer over the head to get her to grapple with apartheid’s thorny issues; he wants the conflict’s force to well up from the belly. When its full impact comes to fruition, it’s as formidable as that of any Magubane photograph or Pulitzer Prize-winning shot.
Additional Note by David Goldblatt: Thank you Alexia Nader for your understanding of this photograph. May I say though, that it’s somewhat more complex than you have assumed. The woman in the foreground with handbag tucked under her arm, is Black. And beyond her, just visible is another woman, White. ALL OF US (including me) transfixed for a moment by the passing of the kwela kwela. I think most South Africans would know that the foreground woman is Black, perhaps by her stance. Perhaps by the combination of attire. In a large print you would just see some of her neck. But add her looking to that of the others and ponder what might have been going through her head.
Alexia Nader is a senior editor at The Brooklyn Quarterly and a freelance writer. She has contributed to the Los Angeles Review of Books, The Nation, and Oxford American, among other publications. She lives in Fort Greene, Brooklyn.