A Divided Nation: The Work of David Goldblatt

Throughout his career, David Goldblatt focused on the events and social make-up of his native South Africa. At the time of his death in June 2018, David Goldblatt had become one of the most important photographers in South Africa, who influenced later generations of the country’s photographers including Zanele Muholi and Adam Broomberg.

Goldblatt’s vast archive reads as one of the most extensive records of South Africa’s turbulent decades in the second half of the twentieth century. By the time he began his career as a photographer in the 1940s, apartheid was an established aspect of South Africa’s social fabric. The segregation laws that were in place led to racial separation both geographically and socially, with the minority white population given numerous social and financial benefits.

Despite the highly politicised and polemical environment, Goldblatt didn’t want his work to be used for propaganda purposes, and refused to have his work used in a journalistic context. Though this photograph was taken in 1974, during some of the most violent and fraught years of the apartheid era, Goldblatt elected to concentrate on more ordinary moments in the lives of the divided populations of South Africa. In doing so, Goldblatt sought to question the banality of the loaded political and social contexts and the consequences of even the most pedestrian events that occurred in South Africa. Photographed in a tightly cropped frame, it is not possible to place the two women that Goldblatt captures within a specific social context. Significantly, Goldblatt does not photograph his subjects as racial caricatures, rather his straightforward approach subtly alludes to the conditions of racial inequity in South Africa. Goldblatt sought to show the essential lack of difference between the black and white communities in the country, and the therefore exposed the unfounded belief in the black race’s inferiority.

During the years of apartheid Goldblatt photographed in black and white, stating, ‘colour seemed too sweet a medium to express the anger, disgust and fear that apartheid inspired.’ After apartheid had ended in 1991, Goldblatt began introducing colour photography into his work, continuing to focus on the social and political context of his native country and the marks that apartheid left behind.

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