Beneath the Surface: South Africa in the 1970s, photography exhibit by Steve Bloom

By Rebecca Smith

Image courtesy of Steve Bloom Photos

Currently, the Beaney Gallery is showcasing the photography of Steve Bloom as he captured the political climate of South Africa in the seventies. The photography exhibit will run until the 19th January and is free to enter, so I would highly recommend it for those interested in history or politics, or those who just want to know more about the apartheid and its effects on people.

The photography displayed by Bloom was taken in his early twenties and helps to reflect the political unrest of the country within the apartheid. The photos are displayed in black and white, which may be an artistic choice by Bloom to highlight the racial divide of white people and people of colour. The photos act as portraits for people, where they are close-up to show the emotions of anger, sadness and joy. A couple of the photos have been expanded to fill large areas of the wall, forcing the visitors to really see these people hurt by the apartheid, as you can see the smallest details of their wrinkles and scars that give these people a detailed identity.

Each photo has a description next to it, written by Bloom, which gives context to who is in the photo and their relationship to him. These descriptions give names to the people in the photographs, predominantly people of colour, whose identity had often been taken away from them by South Africa’s history, and so for Bloom, to name them and give them back this identity is an important act. Without doing any further research, we may only know what the English media has portrayed about the apartheid and so this exhibition gives an insight on how ordinary people’s lives were affected by acts like the ‘Group areas act’.

Image courtesy of Canterbury Museums and Galleries

The exhibition also includes physical parts of the apartheid history, including a bench in the middle of the room labelled ‘Europeans only’, which serves as a reminder that this history is still very current and we cannot easily move away from it, because the bench is placed in a way it cannot be unseen by visitors. There are also posters from the early eighties from London displayed that show the effect of the apartheid in England as well as South Africa, as they call for protest marches from the Anti-Apartheid movement. There are ‘boycott the apartheid’ stickers displayed as well, reflecting how other countries were pressuring South Africa to abolish the apartheid and showing the political climate in both England and South Africa.

The photography exhibition is important because it shows history cannot be reduced to facts and dates, but it is the ordinary people’s lives that we need to see as well. Bloom’s depiction of South Africa in the seventies is broad as he celebrates different cultures in the photographs and doesn’t reduce the people of colour affected by the apartheid to objects of pity, rather he brings out their identity and is able to share their stories with us.