The Power of a Photograph


Among images charting the contours of collective struggle and protest, victory and loss, a man lies in black and white on a carpet of parched grass. I’m looking at his picture in Peter Mugabane’s photograph, ‘Dead bodies covered by newspaper filled streets of the Soweto during the June 1976 riots,’ taken that same month and year, featured in the International Center of Photography’s exhibition, ‘Rise and Fall of Apartheid: Photography and the Bureaucracy of Everyday Life.’

Inside Mugabane’s frame, the man’s forearm juts out from beneath a page of the newspaper covering him: “This I believe, by a South African,” the headline reads and in a jagged textbox, the surprising words, “What would you die for?” His sleeve is rolled up (he’s been fighting) and his prominent hand, plummy and pink-nailed, rests on the ground, his thumb limp, fingers curled in an unclenched fist that reminds the spectator of its opposite: the clenched fist, the symbol of power and resistance. Less visible but still there is the outline of his head, paper crumpled around it and weighed down by a brick. Below, a broad slope of chest appears in the shadow of the same newspaper, flapping in the wind. The man is dead.

Though we can’t know that this man chose to die, we do know what he died for. The Soweto uprising was a fight for language, as students revolted the decree ruling that English and Afrikaans would be the “official languages of instruction” in African schools. As Sifiso Mxolisi Ndlovu writes in his essay, ‘Soweto,’ from the 2006 book, The Road to Democracy in South Africa, quoted above, the majority of students in Soweto were multilingual and “were fourth or fifth language speakers of both English and Afrikaans.” The man of Mugabane’s photo is probably a student fighting for the right to an education that would reclaim his mother tongue.

Of course, the only language Mugabane’s photograph can tell us about is the language of the news, here in English. Oddly, the newspaper is more surprising than the dead man in the picture. Or perhaps it’s the combination of the printed news with this real news underneath that’s most startling; we are accustomed to images in the news, but not to the news embedded in the reality of those images. There’s something offensive, blasphemous even, about the news covering the body. The newspaper, sitting starkly on top of this fallen body, assumes the idea that such an inexplicable murder, and the larger massacre this dead man represents, can be erased or hidden. Nevertheless, Mugabane’s photograph undoes this offense by preserving this “mess” so that it becomes a hallmark of apartheid’s visual history.

As the news physically and linguistically covers the body in Mugabane’s photo, the relationship between the news and body is most profane. This man has responded to the news (it has also put him in Mugabane’s frame), and by protesting, he has made the news. Yet the refrain “yesterday’s news” comes to mind. Though this man isn’t yesterday’s news here, he will be in tomorrow’s paper where he’ll no doubt be a statistic, one of hundreds of casualties. According to Ndlovu’s essay, 575 deaths were reported in February 1977; the toll included students protesting in other cities throughout South Africa, where the Soweto uprising had “spread.”

The singleness of Mugabane’s photo is surprising: why photograph one body when you could photograph a hundred? By zooming in on the individual, however, Mugabane gives a clearer, more permanent image of the atrocities of apartheid. Once seen, it cannot be forgotten. The news thus becomes three-dimensional; the news on the page replicated in the visceral horror of the reality. The photograph even deploys a news style–the black and white of the newspaper continue into the black and white of the photo–so that it’s both news and art. But Mugabane’s photo does something even more shocking: precisely by doing the opposite of what the news in the picture is trying to do–to cover, and cover up, this death–it breaks the news, all the while breaking it up.

Another surprise is that this photograph has been taken at all. There is, after all, no one to speak for the dead man, to endorse his participation in the photo; the violence of the image in part rests in this vulnerability. Yet he’s strangely protected by the same news that has put him under paper as it conceals his body, enabling him to retain dignity through anonymity. Meanwhile, it tells a story–like the news–with the impact of that unclenched fist, of an individual’s plight. Unlike the news, it doesn’t give the facts as we see only snippets of body: forearm, hand, chest, a sliver of gray trouser leg. While the newspaper, meant to conceal the horrors of this murder, protects the body, it also provocatively censors it for public viewing, so that we’re forced to imagine what’s underneath the newspaper and–crucially–the terror of the reality that is beneath the news itself, the real subtext that we can never reconcile with its image in the papers and even, despite its power, in this picture. This unbridgeable gap persists between news subject and victim and yet, as we’re invited to look at this semi-concealed body, the picture, a product of a specific time and place, shows us more than it gives us. As John Berger argues in his 1968 essay, ‘Understanding a Photograph,’ the photographer’s “apparent limitation” in choosing to isolate a particular moment when taking a picture, is essentially what “gives the photograph its unique power. What it shows invokes what is not shown.” The same can be said of Mugabane’s focus on the individual, while more newspaper–more bodies, more death–can be seen in the distance. An advertisement for a cabinet medicine in the newspaper promises “The end of nervous tension”–but the photo surprises us: it tells us we’re nowhere near.

One Response to “The Power of a Photograph”
  1. They say a picture tells a thousand works but in this case its only 988.

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