Photographer George Hallett Captures the ‘Dignity’ of Apartheid

A retrospective of the South African’s work, “The Nomad’s Harvest,” is now on display at the National Gallery of Cape Town.

Pleading With Debt Collector, 1968
Pleading With Debt Collector, 1968 George Hallett

Beauty, humanity and dignity are, sadly, not the first words that spring to mind when you think of apartheid-era South Africa, with its pernicious brutality and the callous, systematic dehumanization of its nonwhite citizens. And yet the joyful, aesthetically sensitive and uplifting images taken by George Hallett—a Coloured Capetonian and arguably the most talented photographer South Africa has ever produced—are thankfully imbued with all three elements in equal measure.

Currently on display at the South African National Gallery in Cape Town and entitled “A Nomad’s Harvesta testament to his myriad wanderings over many decades, including sojourns in London, Paris, Amsterdam and Tokyo as well as Italy, Cameroon, Morocco and the U.S.—this gloriously expansive retrospective exhibition, curated with aplomb by Pam Warne and Joe Dolby looks back graciously on Hallett’s memorable life and his astonishingly varied body of work.

Like Baudelaire, the French 19th-century poet-alchemist who transmuted the banal, the sordid and the prosaic of quotidian street life in Paris into a thing of rare lyrical beauty in his collection Les Fleurs du Mal, Hallett is the street photographer par excellence who captures beauty, joy and resilience in his predominantly working-class, Coloured Cape Town subjects.

Born in 1942 in Cape Town’s infamous District 6 but raised in Hout Bay, Hallett began his illustrious artistic career in the area of his birth. Capturing formidably evocative street scenes of the Coloured community in the late 1960s, before District 6 was designated a whites-only area and bulldozed, Hallett strove to enshrine the nobility of the human spirit in his compositions, at a time when politics had conspired to divest these people of their dignity, let alone their homes and their rights.

Be it a street sweeper, an old woman, kids in Godfrey Street, men playing cards or a man remonstrating with a debt collector, these early images are a powerful critique of the manifold injustices of apartheid whilst capturing the dignity, worth and vivacity of his subjects. They are images of unapologetic, proud recalcitrance and stark defiance against an unjust system, but they focus unsentimentally on the business of living. Amid the political turbulence of the era, this is raw, spontaneous, untrammeled life. Sometimes playful, often intense, but always redolent of existential freedom, Hallett’s subjects are cloaked in a warm, tender humanity.

Leaving for London in 1970, where he worked for the Times newspapers and designed book covers for Heinemann Educational Books, Hallett had an equally rewarding exilic phase. His pictures of South African exiles in London—whether jazz musician Dudu Pakwana, artist Dumile Feni or writer Alex La Guma—provide us with invaluable snapshots of the tribulations of artistic creativity when employed in the service of “the struggle,” as well as the sense of pain, frustration and dislocation evident at being involved from afar.

Subsequently moving to France in 1974, Hallett worked as a freelance photographer and designer. Over the next 10 years, he lived and worked in Zimbabwe, Amsterdam and Paris and taught at the University of Illinois, with lectures and exhibitions at Emory University, the Tuskegee Institute and Howard University.