Review: Beaufort West by Mikhael Subotzky


Book Reviews, Photobooks

It is now not quite twenty years since the end of apartheid in South Africa, and things have not exactly played out as people had hoped. The country now has one of the highest rates of income inequality in the world, a staggering AIDS/HIV rate, and an enormous problem with crime (the reasons for all of this of course are too complex to discuss them here). Add to that what one could call “the usual problems” - those also known from other countries, such as migration from the countryside to big cities - and you end up with a volatile mix, which recently led to pogroms that left scores of migrants dead. Crime has been one of the main focus points Mikhael Subotzky (who in 2007 became a Magnum nominee) decided to look at. After working on prisons, in 2006, he decided to portray issues of incarceration and social marginalisation in a small town. He picked Beaufort West, a town of 37,000, where two-thirds of the adult population are out of work, and the homicide rate is ten times that of New York City. Most South Africans know Beaufort West only from driving through - one of the main highways cuts right through town. In fact, there’s a traffic circle, right in the center of town, in the center of which the prison is located. Most people don’t even notice while driving through.

An aerial view of that prison opens Beaufort West, the book with Mikhael Subotzky’s images from the small town. With the subject matter so grim and many of the images so raw, there is some resistance in me to heap praise on the photography: Maybe I feel a bit guilty about finding many of the images so beautiful despite their portrayal of misery. But the photography is beautiful, and it shows a photographer at work who cares deeply about his work and about the people whose lives he is portraying.

I keep coming back to page 48, a truly wonderful portrait of a young woman named Michelle, who elsewhere is portrayed providing some of her family’s income at a truck stop, inside the cabin of a truck driver. I can’t find the image on Mikhael’s website, and Magnum’s doesn’t have it either. For me, that image, placed about in the middle of the book, is the true center of this work - you’ll have to buy the book to see it. It’s an amazing portrait of the human spirit.

I recently commented on the photographic language of photojournalism: I asked whether what I called “classic photojournalism” (b/w, grainy, crooked) has become a blunt tool, and the more I think about it, the more I am convinced that indeed it has. For me, it’s great to see photographers such as Mikhael Subotzky now being part of Magnum, and I think Beaufort West can serve as a wonderful example of a more contemporary photojournalism (as can be Jonas Bendiksen’s The Places We Live btw). But regardless of how you like your photography, I don’t think you’ll find it easy not to be affected by Beaufort West, a true must for every photography-book collection.