Re-Presenting Self: Reading Some Van Kalker Studio Photographs

  • NJ Nwafor


The photographic implement, from the earliest days of its invention in Europe, in 1839, has been used to document events considered as real. However, notions of ‘reality’ could be ambiguous as objects or sceneries intended to be photographed are sometimes constructed to represent an imagined stereotypical reality. In South Africa, as well as in other parts of Africa, earliest documented photographs of indigenous peoples, by many Europeans, usually depicted cultures that were ancient and, in their opinion, needed to be studied. Photography however, was subsequently used by the apartheid government in South Africa to control movement of blacks through identity (passport) photographs that classified people based on race. It eroded the dignity of blacks by presenting them in public media as being inferior, poor and violent. Nonetheless, photography has equally been appropriated by the people to project their dignity in contrast to the images widely represented. These photographs of how the indigenes saw themselves were often kept in private collections, such as family albums. This essay attempts to look at how photography was employed by the Van Kalker Photo Studio in Cape Town to depict the Blacks and ‘Coloured’ peoples in South Africa as responsible and enlightened people whose image of self representation deconstructs that upheld by the apartheid state.

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eISSN: 1597-474X