Tuesday, 7 September 2021

Eve Arnold (II): Photographing Black Bourgeoisie and Apartheid

In the 1950s, in segregated New York, Eve Arnold ventured to Harlem to capture the world of shows where she hardly went unnoticed. The audiences were all-black and reacted with surprise to her, mostly smiling. Her approach was new, instead of fashion per se she documented skin whitening and hair straightening, recorded social history, as she said. But what was even more new was showing black models.

In 1961, she photographed Malcolm X for the first time; the two developed a strong friendship. When she followed him to rallies and meetings, people spat at her and shouted: "Kill the white bitch". She was escorted from her hotel every day to stay unharmed, every morning started with a phone call from someone with a Southern accent telling her to get "the hell out of town before it was too late". But she stayed two weeks during which she also photographed a rally organised by the American Nazi Party. The moment she raised her camera to shoot George Lincoln Rockwell, the founder of the party, one Nazi said: "I'll make a bar of soap out of you." Arnold answered: "As long as it isn't a lampshade". She continued taking photographs.

In 1964, she documented the life of privileged black US-Americans "The Black Bourgeoisie", a segment that had been hardly explored.

"I spent the last weekend in Philadelphia doing my negro story, and am just beginning to see dayllight and focus - those who made it in spite of the fact that they are negro, and those who are making it now because they are negro - the whole climate has changed in this country, and now they are accepted because of the spending power (20 billions (sic)) - as great as that of Canada - and it is a hell of an interesting story. I am getting a huge charge out of it."

In 1973, the editor of the Sunday Times asked her if she could capture the "tragic and explosive" situation in South Africa and illustrate what it was like to be black in the apartheid system. Eve Arnold anticipated resistance and when applying for a visa told the consul at the embassy that she wanted to photograph animals and people. It took her only two days to get the visa. In South Africa she had to apply for permission to enter the "homelands" of the blacks segregated from where whites were living. It was certainly one way to discourage photographers and journalists. Arnold, however, waited it out and travelled the country waiting for the permission. Once in the homelands, she had to check in with the police every day, or rather, was supposed to do so. Arnold worked outside police hours and by doing so could take photographs that would not have been possible under their surveillance: starving children, malnourished pregnant women receiving very limited and primitive medical care. She witnessed systematic cruelty she had never seen before, families that were split apart, men sent away thousands of miles to work in mines getting a salary of 46 cents a month and the possibility to return home to see their families only once a year. Men worked in terrible conditions, women were often unskilled and illiterate, both doomed to poverty. Her plan was to document the life of a black family living under apartheid. Due to the distances and bureaucratic barriers, documenting one family's life was not possible. Instead, she made two stories, one about men working in a gold mine and one about women and children in a homeland. After three months she returned home (de Giovanni, 2015).

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- de Giovanni, J. (2015). Eve Arnold. Magnum Legacy. Prestel.
- photograph (South Africa) via