A photographer’s diverse, complex portrait of apartheid-era South Africa

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Photo courtesy of The Walther Collection. Copyright, S.J. Moodley Family

S.J. “Kitty” Moodley’s photographs show a portrait of apartheid-era South Africa. Photo courtesy of The Walther Collection. Copyright, S.J. Moodley Family

Pictures of violence, protests, anger and divisiveness — or of signs that say “whites only” — are perhaps the most well-known images from the apartheid era in South Africa.

But this summer, a photo exhibit at the Walther Collection Project Space in New York shows another side to the era through the photographs of S.J. “Kitty” Moodley, who died in 1987. Moodley takes a closer view, showcasing the private lives people carved out amid an environment where the white minority ruled.

After Moodley was fired from a shoe factory in 1957, he opened a photography studio in Pietermaritzburg, South Africa — a working-class area about an hour’s drive north of Durban — to serve mostly non-whites like himself.

Photo courtesy of The Walther Collection. Copyright, S.J. Moodley Family

Photo courtesy of The Walther Collection. Copyright, S.J. Moodley Family

During extreme segregation in the 1970s and 80s, the studio became a safe spot for anti-apartheid activists. The curator told the PBS NewsHour Weekend that the Moodley studio reminds him of African American barbershops.

Photo courtesy of The Walther Collection. Copyright, S.J. Moodley Family

Photo courtesy of The Walther Collection. Copyright, S.J. Moodley Family

“People can come, they can get news, they can share news, they can talk about ideas,” he said. “Kitty’s studio, you know, served the same function.”

Photo courtesy of The Walther Collection. Copyright, S.J. Moodley Family

Photo courtesy of The Walther Collection. Copyright, S.J. Moodley Family

And while most photographers during that era documented the hardship of life under apartheid, Moodley’s photos on exhibit often show playful self-expression. In one photo, three men appear to dance in sync. In another, a woman wears a lampshade on her head.

Photo courtesy of The Walther Collection. Copyright, S.J. Moodley Family

Photo courtesy of The Walther Collection. Copyright, S.J. Moodley Family

Photo courtesy of The Walther Collection. Copyright, S.J. Moodley Family

Photo courtesy of The Walther Collection. Copyright, S.J. Moodley Family

Connie Kargbo contributed reporting. “Who I Am: Rediscovered Portraits from Apartheid South Africa,” is on display at The Walther Collection Project Space through September 3rd. For more, watch the PBS NewsHour Weekend tonight.

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