African Writers Series, Apartheid, District Six, Exıle, George Hallett, Nelson Mandela, Obituary, Openaccess, Photography, Rashid Lombard, South Africa (Country), Truth And Reconciliation Commission

African Writers Series, Apartheid

George Hallett: Nomad, raconteur and photographer who ‘became the camera’ - The Mail & Guardian

The renowned South African photographer understood how to look for the tucked-away spaces that were the sources of both light and dark

2020-07-09 07:23:00 AM

The renowned South African photographer understood how to look for the tucked-away spaces that were the sources of both light and dark

The renowned South African photographer understood how to look for the tucked-away spaces that were the sources of both light and dark

,that Hallett brought “a sea change to the overall aesthetic of the AWS … Under Currey,  photography dominated the AWS covers in a wide range of uses, with Hallett and others moving from powerful arranged scenes (see the cover of DM Zwelonke’sRobben Island

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) and photomontage (Kofi Awoonor’sThis Earth, My Brother…) to abstraction (AW Kayper-Mensah’sThe Drummer in Our Time).”He photographed many authors, and sometimes these images were used as inset images on back covers, which, according to MacPhee, “became a powerful statement in and of themselves, [redefining] diversity on bookshelves across the English-speaking world”. Hallett’s connections with writers also led to a rich collection of portraits, which he later published in

(2006).Birds in Signal Street, 1996.Hallett lived as an itinerant exile for 24 years. In 1974, he moved to France. As he recounted to Mason, he decided to leave London after an inspector at Scotland Yard phoned him, accusing him of being a part of a terrorist organisation that was planning to kill South African spies. He lived in a small village, Boule d’Amont, near Perpignan, with his partner of many years, Lilli. His daughter, Mymoena, was born on the farm — Mas Domingo — where they lived. 

Mymoena remembers many South African exiles came through, and George, whom she calls “Papa G”, made great, performative feats of cooking, preparing feasts of curries and tandoori. For Mymoena, laughter, a little bit of Papa G’s chaos, and photography surrounded her life. Her mother photographed, too, and many of the youngsters around them were, inspired and — unintentionally, perhaps — mentored by her father.

Hallett began making brief returns to South Africa — first, between 1980 and 1981, when he worked in the newly independent Zimbabwe teaching photojournalism — as a way of being closer to his ailing father, and to be present at his father’s eventual death. In 1990, he was commissioned by a news agency in France to photograph the violence stirred up by

Mangosuthu Butheleziand the Inkatha Freedom Party, using well-trained, armed militias. Hallett found it unbearable to photograph this level of violence day to day, and returned to France. But then he had a prophetic dream. In a 2012 email, he told me: “I had a dream in Paris in early 1994 that I was going to meet Mandela and have lunch with him. The strange thing about the dream was that we were all sitting on chairs that were balanced precariously on the hind legs. When I consulted a dream interpreter in Paris at the time, she told me that I will be meeting Madiba and the reason that the chairs were so precariously balanced on their hind legs was because of the unsteady state of the nation caused by third-force violence. Three weeks later Pallo Jordan [at the time, a key advisor to Mandela; and later elected as MP and the minister of communications, telecommunications and postal services] called me to [ask me] to come and photograph the election process for the ANC. [He said] that I must make my way to [Johannesburg].”

Hallett left for Johannesburg soon after, to take his position as the official photographer of the ANC, commissioned to document Mandela, the electoral process and, eventually, the first democratic government. He got to have that predestined lunch with Mandela, just as his dream had foretold. And just as his dream interpreter had announced, there were shadowy forces conspiring to use violence to roadblock Mandela from fulfilling his destiny.

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The Wedding (George Hallett)Hallett’s images — under the auspices of the ANC’s direction — filled the empty image spaces created by a 27-year ban on Mandela’s image. Although much of the iconography around Mandela reduced his visual biography to hagiography — manufacturing Mandela into a smiling, unidimensional commodity in the global marketplace, “beguil[ing] the outside world into trumpeting the ‘miracle’ of the South African transition”, as Adam Habib contends (in 

Myth of the Rainbow Nation, 1996) — Hallett’s body of work during this period presents a multifaceted figure, a complex nation and a fluid, amorphous political process that had unclear outcomes. Although it is the ANC’s “royalty” he was commissioned to photograph, Hallett’s work during this period and others often focuses on domestic workers. In

FirstEncounter, Johannesburg, 1994, three women — two of them wearing the iconic uniforms of “tea ladies”, and, in many ways, figures as iconic as Mandela in apartheid history — run open-armed towards a receptive, welcoming Mandela. His face is not visible to the photograph’s audience: we only recognise him from his height, slim physique, the greying hair, the impeccable — if loose-fitting — dark suit. The women, their joy so nakedly expressed, are the public who waited decades for the promise of liberation — an impossibility now embodied as possibility by the stately man now in front of them.

Hallett’s memory of this moment characterises his deft hand as a photographer: “That picture with the women running towards Mandela, which I call ‘First Encounter’ — this was the first time they had actually seen him close up. And it was an incredible experience, because for the first time I saw the whole country, and the joy and the hope that people had.”

Hallett’s photographs were later published in a book, titled Images of Change, by Nolwazi Educational Publishers in Braamfontein, Johannesburg, under the auspices of the ANC’s department of information and publicity. The book appeared in landscape format, with 140 pages of captioned, black and white photographs, and an introduction by Pallo Jordan. On the cover of the book is a photograph of Mandela, deep in conversation on a cellphone — his face turned away from the camera — as an aproned woman, instantly recognisable in the landscape of domestic labour in South Africa, walks past him nonchalantly on her way to one of her many daily tasks: to put a full toilet roll in a bathroom.

Mandela speaking on a cellphone with then president FW de Klerk discussing the violence in the country just before the elections, Johannesburg, 1994. (Photo: George Hallett) Read more: Mail & Guardian »

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