Accepted paper:

"Picture perfect": performance of identity and connection in airbrushed photographic portraiture in Apartheid South Africa in the 20th Century


Ruth Sack (University of the Witwatersrand)
Lisa Espi

Paper short abstract:

This paper explores hand-coloured photographic portraiture, a widely popular practice in apartheid South Africa.The exchange and transformation of images allowed the construction of identity and re-presentation of relationships in the context of the systematic separation of families and communities.

Paper long abstract:

This paper explores disruption and affect in photographic images created in contexts of human absence and loss. The paper was instigated by the discovery of an unsorted collection of materials, left behind after the closing of a Johannesburg studio which had specialised in hand-coloured photographic portraiture, through the second half of the 20th century. The portraits were based on small personal photos, often taken from "passbooks" (apartheid documents of rigid control, carried by all black South Africans).  The genre allowed subjects to re-present themselves through imagined attire or constructed juxtapositions, to perform personae that subverted the original coercive purpose. Framed on walls, these images became proxies for absent heads of families, evidence of kinship, or of ownership of property. The routes of portrait "salesmen" between Johannesburg and distant rural areas of South Africa, reveal the constant movement of images beneath the radar of officialdom. In light of the vast scale of this practice, what deep-seated needs did it appear to address? How were its (fairly fixed) conventions assigned meanings? Migrant labour and "homelands" policies, entailing the forced dismantling of families and communities and exacerbating the loss of women's agency and rights, emerge as vital in understanding the genre. How was this system of social engineering privately disrupted and alternative imaginaries posited? In attempting to analyse the specific contribution of these portraits to the construction, re-construction, and resilience entailed in asserting identity under apartheid, we interrogate, too, the original source photographs, their physical/material nature, use, meaning and circulation.

panel Anth53
Photographs as objects of affective connection and disruption