A contact sheet from Bourke-White’s visit to the Moroka shantytown makes clear that she carefully composed this photograph, gradually coaxing her subjects to stand framed against the barbed wire in order to convey their entrapment under apartheid. Life editors, however, chose to publish a photo that showed only the young girl in the front lower left of the frame.
The striking similarity between the composition of this photograph and the one below, taken by Bourke-White of a German concentration camp almost exactly five years before, is hard to miss. In April 1945, Bourke-White accompanied Patton’s Third Army during the liberation of Buchenwald, near Weimar. What she witnessed there, she wrote after the war, “made me ashamed to be a member of the human race.” Although many of her photographs of Buchenwald appeared in Life in 1945, this one was not published until 1960.
There is no direct evidence that Bourke-White thought of the horrors of what she witnessed at Buchenwald in April 1945 when she photographed the residents of Moroka framed by barbed wire five years later. Nevertheless, although by no means a concentration camp, Moroka likely reminded Bourke-White of what she had seen in defeated Nazi Germany. Many of the Afrikaner nationalist leaders she met had been open admirers of the Nazis during the 1930s and 1940s. There is no doubt that Bourke-White’s reaction to the racial state being built in South Africa reflected a hatred of racism that had been confirmed by her direct knowledge of the Holocaust. In an interview done later in life, she said of her documentation of the horror of the destruction of European Jewry that “It seemed to me this was a sacred mission, that we photographers must get pictures of this because it was the ultimate in race hatred.”