MARGARET BOURKE-WHITE AND THE DAWN OF APARTHEID
In 1949, Margaret Bourke-White, one of the most famous photojournalists in America, travelled to South Africa on assignment for Life magazine.
She had begun her career two decades before as an industrial photographer documenting turbines, dams, mines, bridges, steel mills, and other wonders of the mechanical age, in the U.S., in Germany, and in the Soviet Union. Hired by Henry Luce as the first photographer for Fortune magazine in 1929, by the mid-1930s she became one of four staff photographers at Luce’s renowned illustrated news magazine, Life.
As the shuttered factories and bread lines of the Great Depression undermined the nation’s faith in industry, Bourke-White turned her lens to more social subjects. During the 1930s, many of her contemporaries—Dorothea Lange, Arthur Rothstein, Walker Evans—took photographs for the government’s Farm Security Administration, creating a visual record of the impact of the economic collapse on American life. Although she remained a successful commercial photographer, like the FSA photographers Bourke-White documented the crushing poverty of the era. She showed Life readers the ravages of the drought and storms in the Dust Bowl; the desperation of victims displaced when rivers overflowed their banks; and the plight of poor blacks and poor whites in the rural South. Her trip South, resulting in the photo essay, You Have Seen Their Faces (1937), confirmed Bourke-White’s determination to turn her camera “in the direction of something that might have some social significance.”
Her South African travels came at the end of a series of foreign adventures as Life’s star photographer. She travelled to Czechoslovakia after Hitler’s annexation of 1938; to Moscow in 1941; to defeated Germany in 1945; and to India during independence and Partition.
Bourke-White’s experience as a combat photographer profoundly shaped her vision of the postwar world. She witnessed the horrors of World War II in its most brutal theaters: the Eastern Front in 1941-42; the stalled Allied invasion of Italy in the winter of 1943; and of course, the final assault on Nazi Germany and the liberation of the concentration camps. “What is the use of all this bloodshed unless we insure the future for civilization and for peace,” she concluded. The hardening of white supremacy in South Africa after 1948 came as a rebuke to this hope.
These experiences, driven by what she called her “insatiable desire to be on the scene while history is being made,” made Bourke-White an expert witness to the unfolding story of South Africa. Elected to power by whites in 1948, the Afrikaner nationalist government embarked on an ambitious program of total segregation known as “Apartheid.” In a country of 10 million Blacks and only 2.5 million whites, the latter retained all political power, controlled all the fertile land, and attempted to reduce Blacks to the status of an impoverished servile class. As Bourke-White wrote a friend at the end of her four month stay, South Africa “left me very angry, the complete assumption of white superiority and the total focusing of the whole country around the schemes of keeping black labor cheap, and segregated, and uneducated, and without freedom of movement.”
Bourke-White’s intentions after this assignment were clear: As she told her editors at Life, “It’s the most unbelievable system. It’s vicious, and it’s got to be exposed.”