Recording Angel on the Street
Pain, Power and Play
George Hallett began his career as a street photographer in Cape Town. In 1970, he left apartheid South Africa and moved to London, continuing to document the lives of ordinary people, including the Afro-Caribbean community in Birmingham, UK. He has also documented some of the key events in the twentieth century, including Nelson Mandela’s landslide victory in South Africa in 1994. He has lived in several countries and has worked as a farmer, a lecturer and a designer as well as a photographer.
‘I’m beginning to loosen up to the possibilities that photography has … infinite possibilities that we must begin to explore. I think the exploration begins in your mind’s eye. If you loosen that up and go out of the frame, out of that physical confinement, you’re on the right track.’
It is not as though George Hallett has ever kept his photography within narrow confines. Ordinary people are the constant subjects of his work – young patients of a Red Cross Children´s Hospital, Muslim families in Cape Town or Afro-Caribbeans in Birmingham, UK. Yet, Hallett has also documented key international political events: in 1994, the African National Congress commissioned him to photograph the movement´s coming to power and his series of Nelson Mandela taken during the elections in South Africa that year won him the Golden Eye Award.
Hallett was born in Cape Town in 1942 but lived an unsettled existence for many years, living and working in a variety of capacities abroad in different cities in the UK, France, Holland and the United States before finally re-settling in his hometown in 1995. As well as working as a documentary photographer, he has practised small-scale farming near Perpignan in France, designed book covers in London, UK and has lectured and exhibited widely in other parts of Europe and the USA.
Before leaving apartheid South Africa in 1970 and going into self-imposed exile, Hallett was persuaded by the author James Matthews to photograph District Six, an area that the apartheid regime declared as white, forcing all black inhabitants to be evacuated and their property destroyed. Hallett’s poignant documentation was donated to the District Six Museum.
Recalling early experiences as a street photographer in South Africa, Hallett remarks upon the performative behaviour of his subjects: ‘They know how they want to see themselves so they will wear a certain kind of clothes. If they want to show the shoes, they’ll strike a pose accordingly, if it’s the shirt they’ll open the jacket …’
The process of image-making then is less a one-sided decision on the part of the photographer than a dynamic negotiation between two people. ‘There’s this rapport between photographer and sitter that creates the magic,’ Hallett says. ‘A lot of my earlier pictures were like that – I’d meet somebody in the street he’ll say "fak my photo" – "take my picture" – and if it’s a street sweeper he’ll put the broom behind him and pose; if it’s a gangster he’ll pose like Humphrey Bogart with the smoke curling over his eyes, you know? The pose would come out because this is the way they want to be seen – it’s all there and as a photographer growing up in that environment it’s natural. People walking by are not gonna stop and say "oh look at him posing" – that’s all part of the game.’
Placing this awareness of the represented self in the context of South Africa’s recent history, Hallett explains, ‘South Africans are not only politically very aware because of this long struggle against Apartheid, they are conscious of photographers, because photographers from all over the world came there during the Apartheid years to photograph what is now known as The Struggle …’
For many then, Hallett’s position as an artist was a refreshing contrast. He recalls meeting a woman who told him she preferred his photographs to those taken by ‘newspaper photographers’ because ‘they stand me not in front of my part of the house, they put me in front of those shanties and I ask them why they say, "well it looks real"´. ‘I’m not going to put \my subjects in front of corrugated iron to make my picture look better,’ Hallett remarks.
In 1970, Hallett moved to London where he made contact with other South African exiles such as Alex La Guma, Pallo Jordan, Dudu Pukwana and Dumile. Working as a freelance photographer, he was sent by ‘The Times Educational Supplement’ to Handsworth, Birmingham, where he took pictures of all aspects of life there.
Recounting his experience of arriving in the UK, Hallett recalls the shock he felt at how integrated British society seemed: ‘I remember at the time I was walking up and down the streets and people come out and they sweep in front of their houses and chat, and the first thing I notice, of course, coming from South Africa – black and white neighbours actually talking to each other.’
The impact was so great that thirty years later, the picture is still fresh in his mind. ‘I think that’s the difference in being born in a situation where you take things like that for granted’, he explains. ‘When I came here it was a revelation, it was stimulating, it was new, it was fantastic; it was the way for our country to go.’ Dramatic progress has, of course, taken place in South Africa yet Hallett remains deeply disappointed that neighbourhoods are still very much divided.
Though an outsider in Britain, Hallett found himself welcomed by the locals. ‘I was accepted by the black community very easily because the sympathies they showed towards my South African-ness,’ he says. ‘They knew what was going on in South Africa, and when it came to about six at the night they asked me "where are you staying tonight?" I said "I’m supposed to stay in a hotel". They said "if you don’t mind you can stay here" and I said "I’d love that", so I was immediately accepted into the Caribbean community, the Caribbean-based culture … my South African-ness gave me that entrée.’
One of Hallett’s most recent exhibitions, ‘Handsworth Through Southern Eyes’ at the Soho House Museum Birmingham in 2002 to 2003 revisited his early years in the UK. The show was the first in a series organised by The Exchange Project, which is partly funded by Visiting Arts and which seeks to encourage dialogue between the UK and South Africa by bringing together communities and cultural institutions in the twinned cities of Birmingham and Johannesburg.
Sources include transcripts of the artist in conversation www.photoexchange.org/
Born in 1942, in Cape Town, South Africa, George Hallett is a self-taught artist, who began his career as a street photographer. After establishing close associations with a circle of writers and artists he gave up his clerical job and became a staff photographer on a local newspaper. In 1970 he left South Africa for Britain to work for The Times Educational Supplement and as a freelance book cover designer. He has also lived in Catalonia, France, where he worked as a photographer and designer, Amsterdam, Holland and Paris. Hallett has taught in Europe, America and Africa. He returned permanently to South Africa in 1995. In 1997 he was jury member of the World Press Awards. He is the official photographer of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission chaired by Archbishop Desmond Tutu.
SELECTED GROUP EXHIBITIONS
Exhibition / Installation,
2000 ‘Rhizomes of Memory’, with David Goldblatt and Santu Mofokeng, Henie Onstad, Oslo
1999 ´Eye Africa Expo’, The Castle, Cape Town,
1999 ‘Recontres de la Photographie Africaine de Bamako’, Bamako
1999 ‘Lines of Sight: Perspectives on South African Photography’, The National Gallery, Cape Town
1999 ‘Cape Times One City Many Cultures’, Blue Route Shopping Centre, Cape Town,
1999 ‘Black Perspectives’, SANLAM Gallery, Cape Town
1998 ´South African Architecture and Structures, portraits of survivors from District Six´, The Netherlands, South African Museum, SANLAM Gallery, Civic Centre
1997 Piazza Maggiore, ‘La Cultura Diversita’, with Oliviero Toscani, Bologna,
1997 ‘La Cultura Diversita’, with Jan Saudek, Museo Ken Damy, Drescia
SELECTED SOLO EXHIBITIONS
Exhibition / Installation,
2002–2003 ´Handsworth Through Southern Eyes´, Soho House Museum, UK
2001 ´IVè Rencontres de la Photographie Africaine de Bamako´
2000 ‘Dance for All’, Cultural Centre, UK
1999 Metropolitan Life Headquarters, Cape Town
1999 ‘The Face of Bo-Kaap’, Bo-Kaap Museum, Cape Town, Maidenhead
Website on Hallett´s ´Handsworth Through Southern Eyes´, 2002/2003