First appearing in 1936, Henry Luce’s Life magazine pioneered the photojournalistic essay as an important part of the news media. Luce hired Bourke-White as one of four original staff photographers. Her photograph of Fort Peck Dam in Montana graced the cover of the magazine’s first issue on November 23, 1936.
In the era before television or internet, with 24 million readers, Life represented the most widely circulated form of visual information in the world. In 1950, half of all Americans over age ten saw a copy. The photographs in its pages quite literally allowed the public to imagine what the news looked like.
Bourke-White’s assignment in South Africa resulted in two stories on apartheid. The first focused on Afrikaner nationalism, while the second looked at the plight of Black South Africans.
This was deliberate. As her editors noted, “She got there just in time for the Voortrekker celebration, which made them feel quite friendly, especially after they saw the story in the magazine. Their pleasure at LIFE’s interest gave her the entree she needed for the rest of her work. But she knew that if they realized how her story would finally appear in LIFE, they wouldn’t be so cooperative.”
The second, more critical story on “South Africa and Its Problem” prompted a variety of responses. One reader wrote to the magazine that he was pleased that they “had shown Africans that not only Communists are concerned about their problems.” Another, however, insisted that miners were recruited “on a purely voluntary basis” and complained that the magazine neglected “many extenuating circumstances…not brought out in the articles or pictures.”