Apathied: a white perspective,
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This review is from: People Apart: 1950s Cape Town Revisited (Paperback)
Bryan Heseltine’s photographs of the South African townships of the 50’s do not have the audience or reputation as to those of the likes of Goldblatt and Cole. Heseltine was there in the late 40’s and early fifties to record the urbanization of Cape Town and the subsequent introduction of segregated townships. One can only speculate, that along with other white South African, Heseltine was severely disturbed by the callousness of apartheid and its implementation by the National Party, to ensure an extreme stratification of South Africans. These early days of apartheid inspired Joe Slovo, who attended school with Nelson Mandela and later to become joint leader of the (MK) with Abongz Mbede, the military wing of the ANC.
to unite through the banned communist party and be fiercely resistant to the National party. With his wife Ruth First, who wrote the book 117 days, and who was later assassinated by letter bomb were the white minority who fought for change, literally with their lives.
It is important to contextualize the South Africa of the 40’s and 50’s whilst looking at Heseltine’s archive and realizing, that while Heseltine was know doubt disturbed by the politics and extreme actions of the National Party, we have to acknowledge Heseltine was a white South African, who had a certain freedom that the Cape ‘coloureds’ could not entertain. Heseltine through his documentary photographs was seeking to inform and effect change, of this there is know doubt. However, it is therefore equally important to look at Heseltine’s images alongside those of Goldblatt, another white South African and from a different perspective, and also the photographs of Ernest Cole, a Cape coloured, whose book ‘House of Bondage’ is more of the insiders view. This to me is one of the main considerations of Heseltine’s ‘People Apart’ for while Heseltine has had the access and has been able to photograph ‘scenes’ within the townships, we can not ignore Heseltine’s ethnic origin, which ironically, sets him apart from his subjects.
The images from the township of Windermere are wonderfully crafted, the difficulty of lighting has been handled skilfully. There are exterior and interiors, reminiscent of Evans pictures from the FSA covering life from the simple interiors to the impoverished exteriors. From a pictorial perspective, all bases have been covered. I do not believe Hesteltine could have done anything different to record the life and hardships of life within Wndermere. And the other townships. However, there is a distance. The photographs are definitely the result of an observer, an observer at a distance At times the subject are in the middle distance and photographed, either with their backs towards the camera as in page 54 or as in page 55 again photographed at middle distance ‘as a fly on the wall’ offering the viewer the scene, but without the engagement. It is therefore important to reference Cole, who not only pictorially represents the scene, but also take us into this world of “People Apart”
If anything, Heseltine’s People Apart poses the question of how the photographer/observer can really enter into and understand circumstances, which they can never be part of, unlike Cole. One can not fault Heseltine’s motives or sentiments, which are honourable and sincere. I would surmise this might be one of the reasons, why this archive has not been ‘out there’ for the past fifty years.
The book is beautifully printed, giving the black and white images an exhibition quality,
The dimensions 222 x 280mm,
People Apart :1950's Cape Town Revisited. Photographs by Bryan Heseltine. Newbeury D, Forward by Amanda Hopkinson, Essay Vivian Bickford-Smith and Sean Field (eds) (2013)
black dog publishing,191pp, ISBN 978-1-907317-85-9. UK £19.95. Reviewed bt Ben Edwards. University of Westminster. London. January 2014.