1990s Conflict Photography – The Rwandan Genocide

WARNING: This post contains graphic content and may be upsetting to some people.


In the early days of April 1994 the world was dealing with the shock announcement of Kurt Cobain’s untimely death. The lead singer and guitarist of rock band ‘Nirvana’ was discovered dead in the spare room of his Washington home. News channels filled prime time slots with details surrounding his death, and totally eclipsed all other global events that were happening at the same time.

In the small East African country of Rwanda, a long way from the MTV studios and constant speculation over Cobain’s suicide, tensions over power sharing had been mounting among prominent Hutu and Tutsi Rwandans. The assassination of President Juvénal Habyarimana on April 6 signalled the beginning of intense violence and the mass murder of an estimated 800,000 people over a period of one hundred days. 

Although genocide was taking place, there was confusion and hesitation by western governments over the use of the term ‘genocide’ in press conferences. A contributor to this confusion was the lack of photographic evidence of acts of genocide taking place. The vast majority of photographic images related to the conflict only document the aftermath of the Rwandan genocide, so the question must be asked, “Where were the documentary photographers when genocide was occurring?”

Historical Context

Rwanda’s population comprised three ethnic groups. The earliest known inhabitants of the area were the Twa, a Pygmy tribe of hunters. They now represent 1% of Rwanda’s population. The second largest tribe, representing 14% of the population are the Tutsi, and the majority (85%) of Rwandans are Hutu. During the colonial era, the Germans and Belgians gave special status to the Tutsi believing they were racially superior to the Twa and Hutu tribes due to their height and distinctive appearance. The three tribes had lived together in relative peace before colonisation, but the promotion of Tutsi led to intense hostility and a long history of civil war.

The political timeline of Rwanda is extremely complicated and has seen many changes over the last sixty years. In attempts to stabilise the violence, the UN pressed the ruling Belgian government to abolish the Tutsi monarchy, and in 1962 they granted full independence to Rwanda. The majority political party, the Parmehutu, (Party of the Hutu Emancipation Movement) gained power, making Rwanda a Hutu dominated one party state. 

Some thirty years later, efforts were being made to introduce democratic politics to Rwanda. Tense negotiations were taking place between the Rwandese Patriotic Front (RPF), and the Rwandan government following the signing of the Arusha Peace Agreement in August 1993. The RPF were a rebel movement primarily made up of Tutsi Rwandans and the government was predominately Hutu. The Arusha Peace Agreement attempted to establish a coalition government where Tutsi, Hutu and the lesser populated Twa tribes would be represented. However, after the shooting down of President Juvénal Habyarimana’s plane on April 6, 1994, deep rooted ethnic violence erupted to a scale never seen before. 

It is not clear who is responsible for the assassination of Habyarimana, but one theory which seems plausible suggests a number of Hutu extremists who rejected a power sharing plan recommended by the President may have been involved. The hope that Rwandans might experience peace after the signing of the Arusha Peace Agreement was completely shattered. Instead of peace, Rwanda was propelled into one hundred days of murder. Under the provocation of RTLM, a propaganda radio station, and the leadership of the Interahamwe, a 30,000 strong Hutu extremist member militia group, ordinary Hutus rampaged their densely populated country, killing 800,000 moderate Hutus and their Tutsi neighbours.(1)

Conflict Photography

The unfolding events in Rwanda began during the same month which saw South Africa mark the end of apartheid by holding a democratic general election. Years of ethnic separation was legally ended on April 27, 1994, when the African National Congress (ANC), led by Nelson Mandela, won 63% of the people’s vote. April 27 has since been designated a public holiday to enable South Africans to gather in celebration of ‘Freedom Day.’

When considering the incredible breakthrough in South Africa when freedom was being celebrated, the terrifying plight of thousands of Rwandans at the same time casts a very dark shadow over the African continent. The Rwandan genocide in April 1994 initially received comparatively little international media attention, and was only given featured coverage on headline news stations towards the end of June. Even when the news finally broke, the developed world was slow to respond. Global media was focussed on the death of Kurt Cobain, the South African elections and the upcoming World Cup. Rwanda was being neglected. This sluggish reaction to the horrific events that were spreading quickly across Rwanda eventually caused outrage across the world. Some commentators believe the media silence added to the suffering of many Rwandans. In his book, ‘The Media and the Rwanda Genocide’ Allan Thompson states, “Through their absence and a failure to adequately observe and record events, journalists contributed to the behaviour of the perpetrators of the genocide who were encouraged by the world’s apathy and acted with impunity.”(2)

This strong view is held by many, including leading journalists and photographers who, with respectful regret, arrived in the landlocked country too late to record acts of genocide actually taking place in front of their cameras. A debate into how the attempted annihilation of an ethnicity failed to be covered fully by the media is ongoing, but the lack of photographic evidence tells the heartbreaking story of a forgotten people. 

In South Africa, documentary photographers were putting themselves in positions of great risk, some even to the point of death(3), capturing images of the violence in South African townships that led up to and continued after the election of April 1994. The bravery of the photographers was rewarded by the global response to the images they took. Documentary photography played a significant role in ending apartheid by educating the international community about the racist regime that oppressed a population. When the graphic images of violence and racist cruelty came out of South Africa and were shown to the world in newspapers and at exhibitions, people were empowered to act. Sadly, the majority of images that documented the genocide in Rwanda were taken only after hundreds of thousands of lives had already been lost. Rwandan genocide images are documents of an aftermath, not an actual event, and they were recorded much too late to empower the world to act. No one will ever know if the killings could have been stopped had photographs of machete yielding militia been taken and shown to the world. It would undoubtedly have been difficult for newspaper editors to publish such graphic images, but not telling the story of Rwanda while history was being made was a censorship of the truth, denying the world of information regarding an attack on humanity.

While people were being murdered at a horrific rate in Rwanda, American government officials were debating over terminology. They hesitated to use the term ‘genocide’ in press conferences, preferring to use the phrase ‘acts of genocide’ because of their legal and moral obligation to respond to genocide. On 10 June 1994 at a State Department briefing, spokesperson Christine Shelley was asked by reporters to define the difference between ‘acts of genocide’ and ‘genocide.’ Shelley responded, “As to the distinctions between the words, we’re trying to call what we have seen so far as best we can; and based again on the evidence, we have every reason to believe that acts of genocide have occurred.”(4)

Reuters reporter Alan Elsner pressed Christine Shelley further asking, “How many acts of genocide does it take to make genocide?”(5) Shelly replied, “Alan, that’s just not a question I’m prepared to answer.”(6)

It could be argued that reportage and documentary photographs revealing the true nature of events in Rwanda would have given the western world conclusive evidence, ensuring an immediate response, which could have saved many innocent lives. Although it was too late to end the killings, the number of documentary photographers arriving in Rwanda to cover a story that had been ongoing for months was a positive step forward. Some of the images taken in the aftermath of the Rwandan genocide have provided necessary accounts leading to the imprisonment of some of the perpetrators, whilst all of the images serve as a reminder of both the importance of recording events as they happen and the power of documentary photography. 

Gilles Peress

Gilles Peress was among the first influx of international documentary photographers arriving in Rwanda post genocide. It is no surprise that Peress travelled to Rwanda to see the results of conflict for himself; he studied political science and philosophy in Paris, where he grew up, and was passionate about finding the truth in complicated situations. Peress strongly disliked making quick conclusions and had a natural desire to question simple explanations. In his attempt to understand the connection between language and reality, he became frustrated and disillusioned by the huge gap he saw between the two. Speaking in an interview with Harry Kreisler from the University of California, Berkeley, Peress commented, “I needed a tool and a vehicle to understand and formalise what was out there in the world.”(7) He didn’t set out to become a documentary photographer, but photography became his unique relationship with reality.

Peress grew incredibly frustrated by the ongoing debate surrounding the terminology of genocide and lack of evidence. He used his camera to try to make sense of the situation facing him. He is known for trusting pictures over words, which explains his determination to seek out the truth through photographic imagery. In an interview with writer Pete Hossli, Peress described his experiences of working in a country that had been ravaged by evil, hinting at the eerie peacefulness of his surroundings; “When I was travelling through Rwanda there was not a single sound. Not only were all the people dead, but all the animals too, everything.”(8) This statement also confirms the fact that the majority of international photographers had arrived in the country after the killers had fled, leaving their victims and weapons behind. 

In a place where evil reigned for one hundred days, the lifeless bodies were now at rest. It was now the job of Gilles Peress, and others like him, to photograph the crime scenes, gathering photographic evidence for the world. Commenting on his images at a later stage of his career, Peress stated, “I work much more like a forensic photographer in a certain way, collecting evidence. I’ve started to take more still lifes, like a police photographer, collecting evidence as a witness.”(9)

One of the iconic images used to depict the genocide is that of the machete. It was the weapon of choice for many of the killers who were familiar with the blade as a farming tool in a country known as the Land of a Thousand Hills for its lush green landscape. In an evidence style image taken near the Rwandan border at Goma, Zaire, (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo), Peress displays a pile of machetes dumped by fleeing genocidaires. The sun casts harsh shadows on the weapons used to kill thousands of innocent people, partially obscuring the machetes from view. The layers of machetes and primitive looking clubs are a graphic reminder of the intensity suffered by the victims, and this small section of a scene which was repeated along the border of Rwanda demonstrates the huge scale of the conflict. 

Zaire, 1994. Goma, near the border of Rwanda © Gilles Peress

There are no lifeless bodies in the image of discarded weapons, and no obvious blood stains on the metal, but it is an image full of death. The perpetrators are long gone having fled to refugee camps and neighbouring countries, but the chaos they caused is close by. The machetes have been thrown down by the extremists who, in efforts to avoid capture, pretended to be Tutsi survivors and refugees. The stillness in this photograph stirs emotions of anger as it so clearly points to the active violence that had hurriedly taken place, followed by the fear and cowardice of the killers. 

Although a lot of his images were of the objects of war, Peress didn’t shy away from the graphic humanistic scenes in front of him. Everywhere he looked were the horrendous sights of decaying bodies, and he captured what he saw in revealing detail. He photographed men, women and children in varying states of decomposition, putting them in the context of their surroundings. The most devastating image Peress took, in my opinion, shows the decaying body of a man laying out in front of a church. The Nyarubuye Roman Catholic Church in Kibungo Province was a place of refuge for an estimated 20,000 Tutsi and moderate Hutu civilians on 15 April 1994. By the following day they had all been indiscriminately slaughtered.

The Silence, Chapter 1: The Sin; Nyarubuye, Rwanda (April 1994) © Gilles Peress

The identity of the man photographed by Peress is unknown. We don’t know if he was a Tutsi or a moderate Hutu, but we do know he was a man who was seeking refuge in a church, but ultimately all he found was suffering. The fact this man was murdered along with 20,000 others in the same location shows just how calculated and violent the genocide was.

For Peress, this was not an exercise in creating visually pleasing images, it was about documenting history. The brutality is not hidden in the composition of the images but screams out for attention. Peress comments, “I don’t care that much anymore about “good photography.” I’m gathering evidence for history, so that we remember.”(10)

The photographs taken by Peress in Rwanda are so graphic and disturbing that we become drawn in to the horror of the victims’ experiences. We are confronted with what they must have gone through in their last hours, and then we are faced with our own failings, that we in the West were so slow to respond in their hour of need.

Gilles Peress’ stark monochrome photographs taken during 1994 were published in his book, The Silence. This is a book full of brutal imagery and a powerful concept. The Silence begins with these words;

“Rwanda, Kabuga 27 May 1994, 16h:15.

A prisoner, a killer is presented to us,

It is a moment of confusion, of fear,

Of prepared stories.

He has a moment to himself.”(11)

The first image contained in the book is of a man, presumably the killer mentioned in the opening words. He stares blankly ahead avoiding the camera. The following pages in the book represent the memories of the man as he reflects on his participation in the genocide. The three chapters each tackle a different theme, Chapter one, The Sin reveals the weaponry used and the locations of some of the fiercest massacres. Chapter two, Purgatory, is a documentation of the fleeing of Rwanda into neighbouring countries by survivors and killers alike, and chapter three reveals the struggle of life in the refugee camps affected by a cholera epidemic.

On the last page of the book we see the prisoner again, and the text shows the passage of time;

“Rwanda, Kabuga, 27 May 1994, 16h:18.

As I look at him he looks at me.”(12)

It is this haunting last comment that cuts through the disturbing imagery and gets to the core issue; this is a tragic story about real people who affected humanity in a devastating way. The title of Peress book points to his deep understanding of the situation faced by Rwandans. The world was silent. We didn’t speak up for the people in Rwanda who had no voice. I believe The Silence is intended to speak for them now by giving voice to their terrible suffering. 

James Nachtwey

Gilles Peress wasn’t the only documentary photographer working in Rwanda after the genocide; One of the worlds most respected conflict photographers was present, carefully and respectfully capturing the dreadful scenes of death. American war photographer James Nachtwey had been covering the South African elections in 1994 and was no stranger to witnessing extreme violence having photographed township clashes alongside members of the infamous Bang Bang Club. Nachtwey approaches his work in conflict areas as a negotiator for peace. Many of the places he has worked, including Rwanda, are locations few people from the Western world would travel to during such volatile times, yet Nachtwey accepts his responsibility to take those people there through his images. 

It is Nachtwey’s view that, “If everyone could be there to see for themselves the fear and the grief, just one time, then they would understand that nothing is worth letting things get to the point where that happens to even one person, let alone thousands.”(13)

Nachtwey uses photography to document and reveal the truth, presenting it to the world with integrity. He has said, “I have been a witness, and these pictures are my testimony. The events I have recorded should not be forgotten and must not be repeated.”(14)

Both Peress and Nachtwey used the ambiguity of identity within their images to portray the complexity of the issue. ‘Who is Tutsi within this image? Is that person Hutu?’ The photographers often left those questions unanswered in their publications, but they still invited the viewer to wonder about the guilt or innocence of the people being photographed. 

Rwanda, 1994 – Survivor of Hutu death camp © James Nachtwey

It would be understandable to assume the man photographed by Nachtwey was a Tutsi survivor, but he was in fact a moderate Hutu who sympathised with the plight of his Tutsi neighbours. To some extent, the ethnicity and innocence of the man was not Nachtwey’s concern. He uses the universal language of imagery to convey a message, and in this case I believe he intended to reveal the sheer brutality and unnecessary suffering of the Rwandan people in 1994. It was not a simple African tribal war. The complexities running through the conflict meant, although Hutu extremists were attempting to eliminate the Tutsi, Hutus were also killed and wounded by fellow Hutus during the one hundred days of violence.
Nachtwey speaks into the deeper issues surrounding photographing conflicts, “For me, the strength of photography lies in its ability to evoke a sense of humanity. If war is an attempt to negate humanity, then photography can be perceived as the opposite of war and if it is used well it can be a powerful ingredient in the antidote to war.”(15)

Robert Lyons

In a rare image from Rwanda where the subject is named, Robert Lyons reveals the deeper truth behind the identity of this man by naming the location where the photograph was taken. On first appearances Anastase Ntabareshya could be a survivor, a husband, the father of a child murdered in front of his own eyes. However, the fact this image was taken at Remera Prison would suggest this man was not a survivor but someone who participated in the genocide and is now imprisoned for his crimes against humanity. 

Anastase Ntabareshya, Remera Prison, 1998 © Robert Lyons.

Lyons’ image sits the viewer opposite a man who has potentially committed some of the worst crimes imaginable, yet the way in which he has been photographed almost stirs a compassion to rise within us. There is brokenness in the man’s eyes. We come face to face with the reality that human beings, not invisible monsters, were responsible for carrying out deliberate actions which caused the deaths of 800,000 people. 


There are many unanswered questions about the role of documentary photography concerning the Rwandan genocide. The fact that so few images were taken during the early days of the conflict is part of the bigger debate into why the Western world wasn’t interested in the lives of Rwandans until it was too late. 

The aftermath images of decaying bodies, piles of discarded weapons and portraits of perpertrators all serve as evidential documents that between April and June 1994, 800,000 Rwandans were systematically murdered in an attempt to annihilate an ethnicity. These images must be used to educate future generations as they aim to avoid such devastating conflicts from happening again. 

The sad reality of course is that genocide has happened since Rwanda, just like it happened again after the Holocaust. The challenge facing documentary photographers is to be present during all stages of conflicts to ensure the world is never again denied the oportunity to know what crimes are being committed against humanity. 

“James Nachtwey acknowledges that recording grief, injury, death, and distress is potentially a form of exploitation, but he makes it clear that the alternative – allowing man-made misery to remain invisible beyond the reach of those whose consciences should be shocked by it – is worse.”(16)


1 Dallaire, Roméo., 2004. Shake Hands With the Devil. Arrow Books.

2 Thompson, Allan., 2007. The Media and the Rwanda Genocide. Fountain Publishers.

3 Marinovich, Greg. & Silva, Joao., 2001. The Bang Bang Club: Snapshots From a Hidden War. Basic Books

4 Christine Shelly, State Department spokesperson, 10 June 1994

5 Alan Elsner, Reuters reporter, 10 June 1994

6 Christine Shelly, State Department spokesperson, 10 June 1994

7 Kreisler, Harry., 10 April 1997. Interview with Gilles Peress: Images, Reality and the Curse of History. UC Berkeley. [Online] Available at: http://www.americansuburbx.com/2009/02/theory-interview-with-gilles-peress.html [Accessed 1 October 2009].

8 Hossli, Peter., 1 September 2007. Capturing the Heat of the Moment. Suisse Bulletin. [Online] Available at: http://www.hossli.com/articles/2007/09/01/capturing-the-heat-of-the-moment/ [Accessed 1 October 2009].

9 Peress, Gilles., 6 October 1997. U.S. News. [Online] Available at: http://www.artsmia.org/get-the-picture/peress/index.html [Accessed 20 October 2009].

10 Peress, Gilles., date unknown. Luminous Lint. [Online] Available at: http://www.luminous-lint.com/app/photographer/Gilles__Peress/ABCDEF/ [Accessed 12 November 2009]

11 Peress, Gilles., 1995. The Silence. Illustrated Edition. Scalo Publishers.

12 Peress, Gilles., 1995. The Silence. Illustrated Edition. Scalo Publishers.

13, 14 & 15 Nachtwey, James., 1 October 2002. The Fahey/Klein Gallery Press Release. [Online]
Available at: http://www.faheykleingallery.com/featured_artists/nachtwey/nachtwey_e1_frames.htm [Accessed 10 December 2009]

16 Scott, A. O., 19 June 2002. War Photographer (2001) Film Review; Witnessing the Witness: Looking Over a Shoulder at War’s Deprivation. [Online] Available at: http://movies.nytimes.com/movie/review?res=9905EEDA113BF93AA25755C0A9649C8B63 [Accessed 12 December 2009]



Thompson, Allan., 2007. The Media and the Rwanda Genocide. Fountain Publishers. 

Keane, Fergal., 1996. Season of Blood a Rwandan Journey. The Penguin Group.

Gourevitch, Philip., 2000. We Wish To Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families. Picador.

Dallaire, Roméo., 2004. Shake Hands With the Devil. Arrow Books.

Peress, Gilles., 1995. The Silence. Illustrated Edition. Scalo Publishers.

Marinovich, Greg. & Silva, Joao., 2001. The Bang Bang Club: Snapshots From a Hidden War. Basic Books


Hotel Rwanda, 2004. [Film] Directed by Terry George. United Artists.

Shooting Dogs, 2005. [Film] Directed by Michael Caton-Jones. Cross Day Productions Ltd.

Sometimes in April, 2005. [Film] Directed by Raoul Peck. Cinefacto.
War Photographer, 2001. [Film] Directed by Christian Frei. Christian Frei Film Productions.


Kreisler, Harry., 10 April 1997. Interview with Gilles Peress: Images, Reality and the Curse of History. UC Berkeley. [Online] Available at: http://www.americansuburbx.com/2009/02/theory-interview-with-gilles-peress.html [Accessed 1 October 2009].

Hossli, Peter., 1 September 2007. Capturing the Heat of the Moment. Suisse Bulletin. [Online] Available at: http://www.hossli.com/articles/2007/09/01/capturing-the-heat-of-the-moment/ [Accessed 1 October 2009].

Peress, Gilles., 6 October 1997. U.S. News. [Online] Available at: http://www.artsmia.org/get-the-picture/peress/index.html [Accessed 20 October 2009].

Peress, Gilles., date unknown. Luminous Lint. [Online] Available at: http://www.luminous-lint.com/app/photographer/Gilles__Peress/ABCDEF/ [Accessed 12 November 2009]

Nachtwey, James., 1 October 2002. The Fahey/Klein Gallery Press Release. [Online] Available at: http://www.faheykleingallery.com/featured_artists/nachtwey/nachtwey_e1_frames.htm [Accessed 10 December 2009]

Scott, A. O., 19 June 2002. War Photographer (2001) Film Review; Witnessing the Witness: Looking Over a Shoulder at War’s Deprivation. [Online] Available at: http://movies.nytimes.com/movie/review?res=9905EEDA113BF93AA25755C0A9649C8B63 [Accessed 12 December 2009]

Nachtwey, James., 1994. Rwanda, 1994 – Survivor of Hutu Death Camp. [Photograph] Available at: http://www.ascmag.com/blog/wp-content/uploads/2009/10/nachtwey-photo-one3.jpg [Accessed 4 October 2009].

Peress, Gilles., 1994. Zaire, 1994. Goma, near the border of Rwanda. [Photograph] Available at: http://3.bp.blogspot.com/_MuWNJtJ8XS4/Sdy1v3DN0PI/AAAAAAAAEZc/n6-EC9S4hNU/s1600-h/Peress.Machetes.Rwanda.94.jpg [Accessed 4 October 2009].

Peress, Gilles., 1994. The Silence, Chapter 1: The Sin; Nyarubuye, Rwanda (April 1994). [Photograph]
Available at: http://www.americansuburbx.com/2009/02/theory-interview-with-gilles-peress.html [Accessed 1 October 2009].

Peress, Gilles., 1994. Nyarubuye, Rwanda (April 1994). [Photograph]
Available at: http://blog.lib.umn.edu/clyne003/1601fall2008/copyrightGilles%20Peress.jpg [Accessed 5 October 2009]

Lyons, Robert., 1998. Anastase Ntabareshya, Remera Prison. [Photograph]Available at: http://1.bp.blogspot.com/_MuWNJtJ8XS4/Sdy3HVe9Q0I/AAAAAAAAEZk/Nf_vwwEAGdY/s400/robert_ruanda_01.jpg [Accessed 4 October 2009]

South African Social Documentary Photography

Sam Nzima, 1976

WARNING: This post contains graphic content and may be upsetting to some people.

The image of a dying Hector Pieterson became the symbol of the Soweto Uprising and provoked international outrage

Social documentary photographers are driven by the desire to record significant historical moments. Even greater is their desire for their images to be recognised all over the world as icons that symbolise a particular period in time. In 1976, South African photographer Sam Nzima took such an image. It is my contention that Nzima’s photograph of a dying Hector Pieterson played a significant role in shaping the face of South African social documentary photography, and in many ways contributed to the mounting pressure to end apartheid. 

Apartheid, meaning ‘separateness’, was a system of racial segregation legalised and enforced by the National Party government in 1948 following a general election. A string of laws were passed which became known as ‘petty apartheid’. There was a ban of racially mixed marriages, black people were not permitted to live or work in designated white areas unless they had a pass, and they were not allowed to cast a vote, which motivated Nelson Mandela’s ‘One Man, One Vote’ slogan. These restrictions and countless more rules that were put in place served to devalue the majority black population.

In 1974 The National Party used the 1909 Constitution (a policy that recognised only Afrikaans and English as official languages) as justification to initiate the Afrikaans Medium Decree. (1) 

This policy forced all black children and students to be taught exclusively in a mix of Afrikaans and English. This led to anger and frustration amongst students who felt their language and identity were being sidelined and ultimately led to student protests. The most famous of these protests began on the 16th June 1976, and is now known as the Soweto Uprising. More than 15,000 students gathered for a non-violent march in Soweto, but were very quickly surrounded by a police patrol. Some students began provoking the police and a minority set fire to a police dog. The police attempted to calm the students verbally, and then resorted to using tear gas to disperse the crowd. Eventually, the commanding officer, “Colonel Kleingdel, drew his handgun and fired a shot, causing panic and chaos.” (2) 

Shots of ‘sharp ammunition’ (live rounds) were fired into the crowd made up mainly of children and young adults. The original death toll released by the government was 23 people, but it is believed as many as 600 may have been killed. (3)

The media named Hector Pieterson as the first of the children to die. Interestingly, it was a boy named Hastings Ndlovu who was actually the first victim. Nzima had photographed Pieterson, whereas Ndlovu’s death was not captured on film. His name ultimately became lost compared to those who were immortalised in the horrific images captured by photographers who arrived at the scene of the shootings shortly after Ndlovu’s death. 

Twelve year old Hector Pieterson was shot by police shortly after the firing began. A fellow student, Mbuyisa Makhubo, picked him up and carried his lifeless body to a car and he was driven to a nearby clinic. He was later pronounced dead. 

Photojournalist Sam Nzima who was working for The World Newspaper at the time of the uprising, and was one of the first photographers to arrive at the scene said, “I picked up my camera and was shooting him while I was running backwards. I took this picture under the shower of bullets, of course.” (4)

 Sam Nzima, 1976

The emotional terror of this impossible situation is most prominent on the face of Hector Pieterson’s seventeen year old sister, Antoinette. As they run away from the gunfire, Makhubo’s distress is also visible and he is seen holding onto Pieterson incredibly tightly, as if to keep him alive with his strong grip. The image is an echo of Ian Berry’s photographs of a similar incident in Sharpeville sixteen years earlier, but it is the fact that this war-like scene focuses on three children that adds to the sheer horror of what started out as a peaceful protest and ended in many being killed. 

The World Newspaper published the image alongside an article of the day’s events leading people all over the world to be deeply outraged by what had taken place the previous day. Former South African Ambassador to the UN, Pik Botha, stated, “I vividly remember that photograph went right across the world, and immediately there was reaction” (5)

The international community had been relatively passive about the system of apartheid, but when Sam Nzima’s image was released and more news of events emerged, they began the process of standing up against it, putting tremendous pressure on South Africa’s National Party to disband the apartheid regime. Much of this pressure came in the form of economic sanctions. As Sophie Tema, Journalist from The World Newspaper commented, “That picture actually caused the change that eventually came in South Africa.” (6)

As well as the national and international response to the photograph, the image also had personal repercussions. Sam Nzima and Mbuyisa Makhubo, the boy who carried Hector Pieterson’s body, both feared they would be killed by security police and were forced into hiding. “The police started to hunt for me, they wanted to arrest me. They claimed that I had destroyed the image of the country of South Africa.” (7) The irony is, that the false image of South Africa needed to be destroyed. The publication of one image exposed what was really happening in South Africa.

Following the Soweto uprising of 1976, the South African government recognised how damaging the image had been to their hold on power over the majority black people. Out of fear of international sanctions they increased their control over photographic imagery. Strict enforcement laws became commonplace, but documentary photography continued as images of a struggling South Africa became increasingly sought after by the international media. 

In reaction to the new enforcement laws, photographer Omar Badsha determinedly commented, “Photographs are so powerful that the state makes sure that no cameramen are allowed on the streets…but we are going to tape this whole meeting right until the end because this stuff has to be documented” (8)

Another photographer, who chose to remain anonymous, made his frustrations known when he said, “I am not a writer; I am a photographer. My work is about creating images for the news and other media. I feel compelled to communicate what I see, in written form, because the general media restrictions have intervened in our work to the extent that it is almost impossible to operate.” (9)

The face of documentary photography had changed in South Africa. The international reaction to Sam Nzima’s image of Hector Pieterson and the controlling response from The National Party helped a new breed of image making rise to the surface and despite the restrictions, social documentary photography flourished. These images, which often had to be smuggled out of South Africa secretly, were playing a crucial role in relaying to the international community evidence of the injustice of apartheid.

In a conversation with Omar Badsha, photographer Paul Weinberg said, “You are looking at times when a single picture, or a bit of information can actually sway public opinion and world opinion. It is incredible to be aware of the power that one has as a photographer.” (10)

As a response to the new working conditions documentary photographers faced, Omar Badsha and Paul Weinberg founded Afrapix in 1981. Afrapix existed as a ‘photographic collective dedicated to the editorial control of resistance photography’. (11) Young black and white photographers were trained and supported through various workshops, and the agency provided an outlet for images of struggle. The founding of Afrapix came at a time when documentary photography was experiencing yet more changes. The focus became much more subtle and looked at themes of sadness, strength and dignity. The photographers who recorded these emotions were known as ‘Struggle and Resistance’ photographers because they showed through imagery how the majority blacks were resisting the effects of apartheid. Afrapix was not the first collective of resistance photographers, but it was the first to call itself an agency. 

Another vital source of information was Drum Magazine, which started in 1951 as ‘African Drum’. The importance of Drum cannot be underestimated. It was a magazine aimed at black South Africans which “linked and shared ideologies, beliefs and abilities [and] was influential and entertaining, bringing voice to an at-times voiceless people.” Peter Magubane, now one of the country’s most famous photographers, started working with Drum Magazine in 1954. He too was in Soweto on 16th June 1976, and during the era of apartheid also ran into problems as a result of the photographic restrictions. He was shot at, detained, and imprisoned. Speaking about the risk of being caught by police, he said, “On occasion I hid my camera in a hollowed-out Bible, firing with a cable release in my pocket.” (12)

According to Magubane, “Drum was a different home; it did not have apartheid. There was no discrimination in the offices of Drum magazine. It was only when you left Drum and entered the world outside of the main door that you knew you were in apartheid land.” (13)

While Drum Magazine and Afrapix continued recruiting resistance photographers, prominent South African documentary photographer David Goldblatt praised them for being ‘talented and courageous’ but disagreed with their approach. Goldblatt had a very different style to many of the other photographers working in South Africa during the era of apartheid. At an African National Congress conference concerning the arts and liberation, Goldblatt said, “The camera is not a machine gun and photographers shouldn’t confuse their response to the politics of the country with their role as photographers.” (14)

Afrapix took the view that photographers should boldly expose a story as positive or negative with a subjective approach, whereas Goldblatt exercised a certain degree of dispassion and objectivity. He was criticised for this, but defended his stance by commenting, “I tried to avoid easy judgements. This resulted in a photography that appeared to be disengaged and apolitical, but which was in fact the opposite.” (15)

Goldblatt took his documentation further than the violence of apartheid and illuminated the structures and values surrounding every day life in South Africa. Goldblatt allowed the images themselves to inform a political viewpoint. The ANC, however, did not appreciate much of Goldblatt’s work as they felt it wasn’t sufficiently ‘weapon-like’ to further the struggle against apartheid. He remained consistent with his view that his camera was not a machine gun to be used to forcefully make statements. 

Sam Nzima and Paul Magubane were very responsive photographers, reacting to the situations that surrounded them, but David Goldblatt was much more considered in his methodology. Many of the Afrapix and Drum Magazine images were immediately visually impacting due to the violent nature compared to the independent Goldblatt’s layered subtleties of every day life. The violent images made the headlines, but in my opinion, the images that have aged well and remain appreciated and exhibited are those of David Goldblatt. Goldblatt did not shy away from violence, but managed to capture such scenes with a sense of normality. His commitment to a social documentary approach served him well as the political climate started to change. 

Early in 1989, South African President Botha suffered a stroke and resigned. F.W. de Klerk succeeded him later in the year. De Klerk was determined to move towards negotiations that would ultimately end the political stalemate and made a public commitment releasing Nelson Mandela from prison in 1990. A year later, the government abolished apartheid laws. Mandela went on to be the first elected President of South Africa in a fully representative democratic election in 1994.

After the Soweto Uprising, photography had impacted politics in a way that no one could have predicted. Now it was the turn of politics to affect photography; the subject matter for ‘struggle and resistance’ photographers changed dramatically as strides were made towards democracy. The international community that was stirred into action by the Nzima image had become tired of such graphic images of conflict and violence, they were satisfied that the new appointment of F.W. de Klerk would adequately resolve any remaining concerns.

Many of the Afrapix Agency photographers had to find new themes to document, and several moved comfortably into areas within the fine art market. It is important to note that many of today’s great South African photographers can trace their photographic roots all the way back to the Afrapix legacy. The agency helped establish a South African tradition of social documentary photography through training and supporting a new generation of photographers. Possibly the most celebrated of the former Afrapix photographers is Guy Tillim. Tillim started photographing professionally with Afrapix in 1986 and has since received the DaimlerChrysler Award for South African Photography. His images, which cross over genres such as portrait photography, African social documentary and urban landscapes, are exhibited worldwide and have definitely benefitted from his years of experience as a ‘struggle and resistance photographer’. Tillim’s images of various African conflicts show that he has purposefully adapted his depiction of violence to soften the aesthetic of a genre that became over saturated during the era of apartheid.

It is this ability to adapt to changing circumstances that marks out the South African documentary photographers as exceptional. They developed their skills when the government imposed laws preventing them from working, they risked their lives documenting the effects of apartheid, and now apartheid has ended, they continually adapt to document the rebirth of a country. 

I would contend that without the international community joining the struggle against apartheid, events in South Africa could have been very different. The contribution of imagery from social documentary photographers brought South Africa to a world that hadn’t been paying much attention. When they saw the images they began to act. The economic sanctions, exclusion from international committees, images in the print media and exhibitions of resistance photography in the UK and USA all helped ensure the National Party government allow an inclusive election in 1994.

Obviously, although the dramatic changes in South African politics cannot be attributed to a single photograph, and it would be foolish to suggest otherwise, I believe photographic imagery was significant in informing the world that they needed to confront an oppressive regime, and Nzima’s image from Soweto, 1976 opened a door to this process. 

Whether used as a ‘machine gun’ or a tool for documentation, “The camera has played a special role in these times. It has been there to record inhumanity, injustice, and exploitation. It searches for peace and hope and is beckoned by history to take sides.” (16)
(1) Hermann Giliomee “The Rise and Possible Demise of Afrikaans as a Public Language” PRAESA Occasional Papers No. 14. University of Cape Town
(2) “The 1976 Students’ Revolt”. South African History Online. http://www.sahistory.org.za/pages/governence-projects/june16/struggle.htm
(3) Harrison, David (1987). The White Tribe of Africa.
(4) Sam Nzima interview. Soweto Uprising documentary. BBC/SABC 2006
(5) Former South African Ambassador to the UN, Pik Botha interview. Soweto Uprising documentary. BBC/SABC 2006
(6) Sophie Tema interview. Soweto Uprising documentary. BBC/SABC 2006
(7) Sam Nzima interview. Soweto Uprising documentary. BBC/SABC 2006
(8) Transcript of various conversations with Omar Badsha 9/1985-11/1985

(9) Brochure for South Africa: The Cordoned Heart exhibition

(10) Transcript of conversation between Omar Badsha and Paul Weinberg while driving from Durban to Cape Town

(11) http://www.sahistory.org.za/pages/library-esources/thesis/photography-liberation/chapter-three.htm#7
(12) reactivate.wordpress.com (Source URL removed 2013)
(13) Paul Magubane, http://www.sahistory.org.za/pages/artsmediaculture/arts/media/drum.htm
(14) David Goldblatt, ‘Interview with Obwui Enwezor’, in David Goldblatt, Fifty-One Years, Barcelona: Museu d’Art Contemporani de Barcelona 2001
(15) David Goldblatt, South Africa: The Structure of Things Then, New York: Monacelli Press 1998
(16) Andre Odendaal, Beyond the Barricades: South Africa in the 1980s

Aperture Foundation, 1989

Afrapix Photography

By Nicolaas Vergunst, Gayle Shifrin 
Art and the End of Apartheid

By John Peffer

Published by U of Minnesota Press, 2009 
The Bang-Bang Club

By Greg Marinovich, João Silva

Published by Heinemann, 2000 
Beyond the Barricades: South Africa in the 1980s

By Andre Odendaal

Published by Aperture Foundation, Incorporated, 1989
Drum Book: 1976 – 1980

Sponsored by Total SA
Full Frame: South African Documentary Photography

Published by Afrapix 
Letter to Daniel: Despatches from the Heart

By Fergal Keane, Tony Grant

Published by Penguin, 1996 
Long Walk to Freedom: The Autobiography of Nelson Mandela

By Nelson Mandela

Published by Back Bay Books, 1995
Photography: A Cultural History

By Mary Warner Marien

Published by Laurence King Publishing, 2006 
Politics and Photography in

Apartheid South Africa

David L. Krantz
South Africa, The Cordoned Heart

By Francis Wilson, Omar Badsha, Center for Documentary Photography, Southern Africa Labour and Development Research Unit, Duke University, University of Cape Town

Published by W.W. Norton, 1986 
South Africa: No Easy Path To Peace

By Graham Leach

Edition: illustrated

Published by Routledge, 1986 
South Africa Through The Lens: Social Documentary Photography

By Paul Alberts

Published by Ravan Press, 1983
South Africa: The Structure of Things Then

By David Goldblatt, Neville Dubow

Published by Monacelli Press, 1998
The Transported of Kwandebele: A South African Odyssey

By David Goldblatt

Contributor Brenda Goldblatt, Alex Harris

Published by Aperture Foundation, Incorporated, 1989 
Unfinished Business: South Africa, Apartheid, and Truth

By Terry Bell, Dumisa Buhle Ntsebeza 

Published by Verso, 2003

Intersections Intersected, David Goldblatt, Open Eye Gallery, Liverpool



Guy Tillim – http://photography-now.net/listings/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=592&Itemid=334

Paul Weinberg – http://www.paulweinberg.co.za/aboutpaul.html

Then & Now – http://www.southern-art-exchange.com/index.php?option=com_content&task=blogcategory&id=58&Itemid=74

Peter Mckenzie – http://links.org.au/node/449