Published after 50 years: Enig

Published after 50 years: Enigmatic SA lensman’s Cape Town photos

Little known late South African photographer Brian Heseltine’s photos of people in neighbourhoods such as District Six have been published for the first time in a new book ‘People Apart: 1950s Cape Town Revisited’

Published after 50 years: Enig

people Apart 2People Apart: 1950s Cape Town Revisited — Photographs by Brian Heseltine

This book of black and white photographs taken by the late South African photographer Brian Heseltine shows a lost world of locations in Cape Town taken before he left for the UK in 1952. There is something cinematic about these well-lit pictures, as Heseltine employs a documentary style to tell the story of some of those at the sharp end of the apartheid system and the Group Areas Act.

Heseltine’s work displays a deep sense of empathy with his subjects, the so-called coloured and black people living in the Cape and he captures a lost world of locations such as Windermere and District Six.

Windermere, ironically named after an English beauty spot, was a rat-infested slum set around a pool of water, which was shut down in the 1950s and its residents forcibly removed.

In Windermere graffiti adorns the makeshift corrugated iron shacks known as pondokkies. Some are completely surrounded by water, the residents lived in insanitary conditions, with no running water, or electricity, this makeshift township was home to the newest arrivals in Cape Town and the poorest in society.

Windermere was an industrious place, where people carried out their trades despite the basic conditions and the sand that blew everywhere when there was the slightest wind. A man carefully carves meat from two cow’s heads, outdoors on a piece of cardboard. Men fix watches and barbers shave heads.

A woman teaches children, apparently out in the open, a doctor writes out a prescription, or maybe he is a pharmacist, behind him different brands of cigarettes on the shelf. One man makes belts, another takes photographs with an ancient camera

people apartOther photos show people relaxing inside their small shacks, often with improvised decorations — in one case wallpaper is made from Rembrandt Van Rijn cigarette packets, another appears to be decorated by Lucky Star Pilchards wrappers. People are playing instruments, drinking beer or tea.

Through his own research Professor Darren Newbury of Birmingham City University has tried to piece together some of the narrative that was lost when Heseltine died in 2008. As is so often the case, a photo may tell a hundred stories, but of the hundreds of people he photographed little is known.

Heseltine photographs people with no apparent explanation, here are men with beards and others smoking pipes. An old Malay woman with cataract eyes appears to look at something in the middle distance…there is nothing more we can say about these subjects, they are enigmas. Heseltine an archetypal white liberal captures only their images…as to the subjects themselves we are left guessing.

Heseltine also documents District Six and the Bo-Kaap areas of central Cape Town, from card games to sitting on the stoep, here is South African life over half a century ago. Here we can anchor the past firmly to the present — some of the buildings of the Bo-Kaap appear almost as timeless as the backdrop of the mountains. An elderly Malay resident wearing a fez stands outside his property with what appear to be his small grandchildren, who are now probably grandparents themselves.

The photos were exhibited more than half a century ago by the South African Institute of Race Relations and various church organisations in the UK, under the title ‘A People Apart — Colour conflict in South Africa.’  But like his subjects, little is known of Heseltine both in South Africa and the UK. As Professor Darren Newbury notes “I could find no-one who knew of him or his work.” That may be about to change with this new book.

Jeremy Kuper 2013

Black Dog Publishing UK £19.95