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George Hallett | Photographing South Africa’s Greatest Son

George Hallett | Photographing South Africa’s Greatest Son
The life and work of South African photographer George Hallett is deeply connected to the Apartheid regime. Widely known for his portraits of Nelson Mandela, Hallett helped shape Madiba’s public image and captured some of the most iconic moments in his life.
© George Hallett, Image courtesy of the South African National Gallery 

The name of Nelson Mandela conjures up the iconic portrait of a black, smiling man, with grey hair and a seemingly holy aura. Nelson Mandela, the man who liberated the Republic of South Africa from the atrocities of the Apartheid regime, is consistently presented, in the subtle realm of visual communication, as a godsend savior, and all the more so in the present day: his recent death in December 2013 consecrated his public image of a benevolent man with a constant smile on his face (as a quick Google Image search reveals).

© George Hallett, Image courtesy of the South African National Gallery 

Madiba certainly deserves such iconography. The magnitude of his contribution to the history of South Africa and the world is outstanding, and represents a cultural heritage that only a smattering of individuals have left behind since the dawn of humanity. And yet, there was more to Nelson Mandela than the cheerful, spirited man. George Hallett’s photographs reveal these other faces. A Cape Town native, George Hallett was appointed as the official photographer for South Africa’s first democratic elections by the African National Congress, the political party led by Mandela at the time. It was 1994, and from the ballot boxes came ANC’s sweeping but unsurprising victory: South Africa’s citizens wanted Madiba in charge of their nation. In the images shot by Hallett during the presidential campaign, a multi-layered portraiture of Mandela emerges that goes beyond the cult of his personality. Mandela is often seen looking pensive and thoughtful as he watches the news on TV, reads newspapers, speaks on the phone, and more generally works on his campaign: he is depicted not as a godsend savior, but a fully-fledged statesman dealing with the mundane strategies and circumstances of politics. Even a seemingly secondary detail like the usually rigorous outfit – a suit, a shirt and a tie – he has on in Hallett’s images, bolsters his representation as a political leader. In those days, Hallett’s photographs were published in the most important international newspapers, and helped transfer at least some of the weight of Nelson Mandela’s impressive and decades-long history of resistance on to the African National Congress, whose past was, on the contrary, dotted with more than a few controversial episodes.

© George Hallett, Image courtesy of the South African National Gallery 

In 1995, the images of Mandela’s campaign earned Hallett the prestigious World Press Photo Award. That body of work adds greater depth to the figure of Nelson Mandela, showing him at his most human: a man, brilliant and unflinching, but still a man, coping with the heavy burden of the destiny of an entire nation, his own. However, Hallett’s documentation of Mandela’s campaign doesn’t lack more joyful moments. In many images, he warm-heartedly salutes the cheering crowds of supporters around him. And yet, the shot that best represents Mandela as a source of hope and inspiration only features four figures. One of them is Mandela himself. As is frequently the case in Hallett’s photographs, Madiba is not seen full front; in fact, he has his back altogether turned on the camera. The other three figures are three black women running towards him with big smiles on their faces and their arms wide open, about to hug him. Mandela extends his arms in turn, happy to receive their embrace. Although little of Mandela’s profile is visible, we can guess that he’s returning the smiles. Significantly, two of the three women are wearing the typical uniform worn by South Africa’s tea ladies (tea-making was one of the few jobs reserved for black women during apartheid): once again, a clothing item adds important meaning to the image, making of these three women a symbol of the entire discriminated South African population that put its trust in Nelson Mandela.

© George Hallett, Image courtesy of the South African National Gallery 

The 1994 elections in South Africa were the last, definitive step in a process to abolish Apartheid that had commenced in 1990. For George Hallett, covering those elections was the pinnacle of a life marked by the hateful racial discrimination that, for too many years, tainted the history of South Africa. Hallett was born in 1942 in Cape Town’s District 6, but was raised in Hout Bay, a fishing village near Cape Town. He would return to District 6 in his twenties, and this time with a camera: in 1966, the National Party that then governed the country declared District 6 a white area, and established that the largely black population of this neighborhood, not too distant from Cape Town’s iconic Table Mountain, be forcibly removed and their houses bulldozed to make space for the city’s whites. Taking the suggestions of writer James Matthews, Hallett visited District 6 once a week, on Saturdays, for many weeks. The pictures he took present a unique archive of daily life in the area before the dislodgement of its original inhabitants to another neighborhood about 25 kilometres further away, and offer sharp evidence of what was considered one of the most despicable acts perpetrated against black people in South Africa during Apartheid. In this early work, Hallett’s now-coveted approach to photography is already entirely present. George Hallett is a humanist photographer: he photographs people, their stories, their feelings. He’s particularly interested in documenting the life of disadvantaged or marginalised communities, and does so with the utmost sympathy and respect, in the best tradition of the so-called concerned photographers. The clean aesthetics, eye for composition and narrative content of his photography, moreover, clearly follow the steps of the decisive moment approach, as theorised by French master photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson.

© George Hallett, Image courtesy of the South African National Gallery 

In 1970, Hallett, a non-white himself, chose to leave South Africa for London. And yet, despite the physical distance, the photographer always retained ties with his hometown and Africa at large. His first assignment in London was to take the portraits of a number of African writers, which were to appear on the book covers of publisher Heinemann’s African Writer Series; and, in London as well as during his subsequent stays in Paris, Berlin, Amsterdam and the United States, he met and became friends with many South African artists and intellectuals that, like him, lived in exile. Among others, he knew novelists Alex La Guma and Ahmadou Kourouma, jazz musician Dudu Pukwana and artist Gerard Sekoto; but fundamental was his encounter with activist and scholar Pallo Jordan: it was Jordan, a close collaborator of Mandela’s, that put forward his name as the official photographer for the 1994 elections. The following year, Jordan wrote the introduction for Images of Change, the book of Hallett’s photographs of the electoral campaign.

© George Hallett, Image courtesy of the South African National Gallery 

When Hallett received Jordan’s call, he was in Paris. The photographer recounts that, a few months earlier, he had dreamed of having lunch with Nelson Mandela. Of course, Hallett did end up having lunch with Mandela, but he also did much more for him: with his images, he contributed to shaping his public image and reinforcing his charisma with authority. Hallett collaborated with Mandela’s government beyond the elections: he was also the official photographer of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, a special institution established by Mandela to monitor and act on all reported cases of crime, violations and abuse against the blacks. Hallett’s body of work represents an invaluable and possibly underrated archive of a moment in South Africa’s history that should be unearthed and confronted, especially now that Madiba is no longer here to show the way for the Rainbow Nation.

A Nomad’s Harvest, an exhibition of George Hallett’s iconic works, was on display at the South African National Gallery in Cape Town from March 5th until July 9th 2014.