Interview with David Goldblatt

Finally it is here, the third edition of Some Afrikaners Photographed by David Goldblatt. Originally published by Murray Crawford in 1975 in a signed edition of 1000. In 2006 Umuzi reissued the book as Some Afrikaners Revisited. Both as a softcover and limited edition signed hardcover. Never understood how they could publish that edition in such a horrible design…though all photographs were showed uncropped. Now in 2020 Steidl finally published a new, better printed edition based on the one by Umuzi. Same photographs, same texts. Only one new text by David Goldblatt’s daughter.
Though I like the fact that Steidl is reissuing Goldblatt’s work I hope someone will also republish the book based on two maquettes Sam Haskins made. As I once interviewed Goldblatt on this book I found out he had very specific ideas of publishing this book, so I wonder if he would have approved the book to be published as Haskins version.

Back in 2009 the Dutch photo-museum Huis Marseille had plans to do an exhibition on the book Some Afrikaners Photographed and the ‘re-issue’ Some Afrikaners Revisited by my favourite photographer David Goldblatt. Because of this I thought it would be interesting to write an article on those publication. After hesitating for long I decided to ask David Goldblatt, which I always held in high esteem to agree with an interview. We decided to do the questions by email. In the end the exhibition didn’t happen, other things happened and the interview never saw the light of day.

I knew the work of David Goldblatt, and had received a copy of Some Afrikaners Photographed as a gift when I was doing research on the photographs the academic Ernest Malherbe being part of the Carnegie Commission of Investigation on the Poor White Question in South Africa. The investigation resulted in the publication of five volume series, of which three volumes contained photographs. Before I saw the original photographs by Malherbe I already finished a thesis titled Poor but no longer white (2009). The thesis dealt with the way the so called ‘Poor Whites’ had been depicted in South African media and photographic books. One chapter was devoted to Some Afrikaners Photographed, a book I knew was not specifically dealing with poor Afrikaners, although some of the photographs definitely could have been studied within the range of this subject matter. In that context I send David Goldblatt the questions, which were, according to him, the questions were ‘searching and detailed’. Certainly the questions were too much defined through the research on the photography of the ‘Poor Whites’. Goldblatt sent me the answers, but I never finished the work, partly because I felt the questions were not good enough, even irrelevant. I felt slightly embarrassed about it, but didn’t feel comfortable enough to tell him.

Since I love his work so much I decided to rework the old interview now into some kind of an essay for Africa in the Photobook. The book Some Afrikaners photographed was originally published in 1975, although the body of work had been produced even before Goldblatt published his better known first book On the Mines (1973). The story of Some Afrikaners Photographed has been told in many monographs, but the introduction of Some Afrikaners Revistited seemed to be the most extensive study on the book at that time.

Questions for David Goldblatt concerning Some Afrikaners Photographed/Revisited and ‘The Afrikaners’ – October 17th 2009

BK: Who were the main audience you were aiming at when you started to think about the publication of the book Some Afrikaners Photographed and what was the main reason for publishing the book?

DG: The audience I addressed was my compatriots. Reasons for publishing should be clear from my introduction in Some Afrikaners Revisited.



BK: What was the content of the early essays you published (‘the people on the plots’) in the glossy magazine Tatler? Did these publications, in spite of the fact it was a magazine mostly read by English speaking people, also provoke responses from the Afrikaner community?

DG: I don’t remember the content and I don’t recall any response from the Afrikaner community.



BK: To what extent were you conscious of the fact that you also photographed those Afrikaners who formerly belonged to the category of `poor whites’?

DG: I was conscious that many of the people on the plots were what previously know as ‘Poor Whites’ or the descendants of them.

BK: To what extent were you then familiar with the pictures made by Ernest Malherbe who portrayed ‘poor whites’ in the report of the Carnegie Commission, The Poor White Problem (1932)? Did this influenced the way you edited Some Afrikaners Photographed?
DG: I didn’t and still don’t know the work of Malherbe.

BK: Do you think the nationalist government wanted to get rid of the imagery of Afrikaners as poor and ‘backward’? (as has been done by the Carnegie Commission).
DG: Throughout these questions you seem to assume that I had knowledge of what Afrikaners and nationalist Afrikaners and government and politicians were thinking. I had no such knowledge.

BK: In this book (The Poor White Problem) the impact marriages within the family was subtly mentioned. Roger Ballen showed this later very explicitly, and according to many, in a grotesque way in Platteland (1995) and his later work. Have you ever seen or photographed the way marriages within the family affected the lives of some Afrikaners in a more explicit way.
DG: I avoided photographing people who were mentally challenged, whether their challenge arose from interbreeding or had any other cause. In Gamma’s Kloof (Die Hel) where a few families had lived a very isolated life for more than 100 years, I met only one person who was obviously of less than average intelligence. I photographed him with his nephew in the kitchen of his brother’s house, but you would not know of his disability from the photograph. I found the children in the Kloof bright and seemingly perfectly normal and the adults energetic, warm and kind.

BK: How was the public response to the portfolio `The Afrikaners’. Did you get many reactions or was the discussion (mentioned in Some Afrikaners Revisited) on a smaller scale?
DG: As far as I can recall the only public response was the article in Dagbreek en Sondag Nuus.

BK: Do you think that the negative response to the portfolio ‘The Afrikaners’ and the book Some Afrikaners Photographed can be attributed to the fact that because of your English speaking and Jewish background Afrikaners saw you as an outsider who photographed them in a way they didn’t want to be represented?
DG: That I was English speaking, Jewish and liberal was probably a factor in the response to my work by some Afrikaners.

BK: Was the negative response to `The Afrikaners’ and Some Afrikaners Photographed provoked by the text, rather then the photographs themselves? In `The Afrikaners’ the text seems more explicit than in Some Afrikaners Photographed (in the portfolio you write expilicitely that the Afrikaners were descendents of Africans and Hottentots).
DG: The text of the article in ‘Camera Magazine’ was very explicit and no doubt irritated some of the few who saw it (very few of those magazines came into the country). But I cannot asses whether text or pictures were the stronger factor in the overall responses.

BK: Do you think the nationalist politicians were ashamed of the Afrikaners you have photographs for your book?
DG: See my disclaimer above.

BK: Was the purpose of the selection and sequences in the book, with for example the two photographs at the end of the book which showed two young families, (partly) to show the distinction between modern and traditional families? Do you therefore think the nationalist government would have had a preference for the (modern) family in Johannesburg?
DG: The selection and sequencing of work is the very essence of photographic bookmaking. It is far too complex to put into the simplistic terms that you suggest. The young family in the Hillbrow apartment was, for me, eloquent of the modern urban living with its hopes and tensions and into which many Afrikaners were moving. The family at lunch was, for me, eloquent of the tightly circumscribed and tough life faced by this family and, indeed, by many working class Afrikaners at that time.

BK: Did politicians ever tried to ban your book or take legal actions against you because of this work? When I studied in South Africa the university had a cabinet filled with banned books which as a student you were not allowed to read. Even here in Amsterdam there is a organization, you might have heard of, called the ‘Zuid-Afrika Huis’ which have an original copy of Some Afrikaners Photographed which people weren’t allowed to borrow.
DG: No, my work was never banned nor was legal action taken against me because of it.

BK: What was according to you the main cause for criticism on your book and how do you explain that even now (with the new edition Some Afrikaners Revisted) there still are people (such as Breyten Breytenbach) who label the book as Afrikaner-bashing. When looking at the photographs and reading the texts, to me it’s hard to believe that in 2007 there were still negative reactions. Many Afrikaner friends of mine think your work is beautiful and thought provoking.How did you feel then and now about negative reactions on the book? Do you think critics do not understand the work and (still) misinterpret it.
DG: I don’t know what the main cause of criticism was or is. Many thought I had been extremely harsh and over-critical and didn’t see that there was much affection in the work. Breyteqbach’s response surprised me since he was by far the most vitriolic critic of Afrikaners that I’m aware of. I was disappointed that some verligtes that I knew of were also critical of the book, but I had no regrets about what I did.

BK: In 1975 Andre Brink wrote a review concerning your book in which he was very positive. Were there more well-known Afrikaners who defended your work in 1975?
DG: I don’t know. Paul Alberts, who was a journalist of Die Burger, wrote a warm review/interview.

BK: I’ve read you were influenced by the photographers of the FSA and Walker Evans. Since the portfolio `The Afrikaners’ was published in the Swiss magazine Camera, which published that same year `The Americans’ by Evans’ protegee Robert Frank, I wondered if you were then familiar with this work and if it influenced `The Afrikaners’ and Some Afrikaners Photographed. Or is the obvious comparison in the title just by chance?
DG: Certainly I was influenced by the FSA photography. Probably too by Frank’s work, some of which I had seen during the sixties. My title was very carefully arrived at after a lot of thought. It had nothing to do with Frank’s title.

BK: To what extent you think the photographs in Some Afrikaners Photographed have evolved since Some Afrikaners Photographed. The photographs in this book have been made over a long period so even from the first photographs made in the sixties till the publication of 1975 we can see a difference in photographic approach (also because of different photographic equipment).

The most recent photographs in the book remind me of In Boksburg. Can this book be seen as a logical, but more critical continuation on Some afrikaners Photographed? How was the response to In Boksburg compared to the response on Some Afrikaners Photographed. Did the nationalists see the underlying criticism in that book or did they think it was a correct record of the white population in South-Africa?
DG: The Photography for Some Afrikaners was completed in 1969. It was only published in 1975 because of the difficulty in finding a publisher. I don’t think there is much ‘evolution’ of the photography from beginning to end, in the sense that almost all of my personal work has been concerned with values in South Africa. The Boksburg essay is a further development of what I began in Some Afrikaners. But essentially its intentions are more tightly focussed and photographically different. Here I was concerned to convey the quality of life in a middleclass white community. I disappeared; I became a fly on the wall. There are no portraits in which the subject and I are engaged with each other.

BK: In Antjie Krog’s  essay (in Some Afrikaners Revisited)  she divided the Afrikaners, which you photographed, in three groups. She calls the group of `poor whites’ `the most haunting’. Do you agree with Krog about this division? I think you have photographed all the people in your book (except the politicians and some of the policemen) in a very humane way (I know Krog also thinks this way). How did the people who have been photographed react to your book, or working method? Or didn’t they know on the moment you made the pictures, the context in which the photographs were going te be used?

DG: I don’t particularly like Antjie’s categorization of Afrikaners. I don’t know how my subjects reacted to the book when it came out. Very few of them would have seen it. Some bookshops refused to stock it and few were sold. But I have had warm praise and responses to ‘Revisited’, some from people who appeared in the book.

Since I didn’t know the exact context in which pictures would appear, I doubt that many of my subjects did. A lot of the photography I did and still do, rests on trust. I try to give people an idea of what I’m doing and try not to abuse their trust in allowing me access. But whether in the end they like what I have done, I don’t know.



BK: In many portraits you made interiors play a big role especially when the connotation with the political context is there. When I now look at the book Intersections/intersected (in which even on one of the photographs shows a poster of of Some Afrikaners Revisited?) these details play a large role. When you showed an interior with a poster of Verwoerd, were those details then already important for you to use? In the work of Malherbe and Ballen the details which refer to politics seem not to exist?

DG: I am very aware of the significance of details and obviously the political details in Afrikaner homes were of great interest to me.



BK: In your work the agrarian background of the Afrikaners, the struggle for land and the relation between Afrikaners and the black population play a large role. Was the presence of blacks together with whites in Some Afrikaners Photographed (something which happening in magazines such as Die Huisgenoot or the Carnegie report) also a reason for negative responses? Obviously you wanted to include this topic in your book, but what did you think you could tell readers?

DG: The presence of black people in some of my photographs was a reflection of life among Afrikaners. Whether this contributed to the negative response I cannot say.

BK: In the past you have defined your work as ‘critical observation’ instead of ‘documentary photography’. To which genre we should count Some Afrikaners Photographed according to you. I ask to because I assume your (old) work has always evolved. The context of the photographs of Afrikaners in Some Afrikaners Photographed differs from the same photographs which were included in Lifetimes under Apartheid or Intersections/Intersected. How you think about the possible evolution of your work?
DG: I do not find the breakdown of photography into ‘documentary’ and so on very useful. I am a photographer and I take photographs. How people choose to categorise them is their business and is of little interest to me. I don’t think there is much ‘evolution’ in my work. It’s a horizontal straight line graph with a bump here and there.    !!!!!!

  • I. Economic report: Rural impoverishment and rural exodus, by J. F.W. Grosskopf.
  • II. Psychological report: The poor white, by R.W. Wilcocks.
  • III. Educational report: Education and the poor white, by E.G. Malherbe.
  • IV. Health report: Health factors in the poor white problem, by W.A. Murray.
  • V. Sociological report: The poor white and society, by J.R. Albertyn. The mother and daughter of the poor family, by M.E. Rothmann.Limburgsch Dagblad, 3-9-1980

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