The proliferation of photographers documenting poor whites in South Africa is something to behold. This is significant since poor whites are only a fraction of the total white population — 450,000 out of  4.5 million live below the poverty line and 100,000 are struggling just to survive. We’ll spare you the numbers on black South African poverty. Of the recent ones, Finbarr O’Reilly’s series on Coronation Park is probably the most celebrated. It has been splashed all over mainstream international publications and websites. Less well-known is the work of Kim Ludbrook, Ben Krewinkel’s Toe Witmense Arm WasRiaan Labuschagne, Lisa Skinner, Jordi Burch’s Poor Boers, Dean Saffron’s Poverty has no colour, Susanne Schleyer and Michael Stephan’s Bitter Fruit, Jose Cendon’s Minor Issues: Die Veld and Nadine Hutton’s I have fallen. There are probably some we’ve missed. Not all of them went to Coronation Park.

Further back, there’s the work of David Goldblatt (his “The Afrikaners” and “The Afrikaners: Revisited”) and Roger Ballen.

But every time we see a new project on poor whites we’re taken back to a post done a while ago by John Edwin Mason –he writes one of the best photo blogs— on work made by South African Constance Stuart Larrabee on poor whites in late 1940s Johannesburg. We keep returning to the post because of Mason’s take on Larrabee’s photographs. Her work appeared in an “illustrated magazine” aimed at white readers and is probably still the best and most original series on the subject.

Photographs on poor whites were usually presented as straightforward commentaries on their welfare. But as Mason points out, there are larger issues at stake. He quotes E.G. Malherbe, a rising social scientist at the time (who also took photographs), writing in 1921 that poor whites were

… a menace to the self-preservation and prestige of our White people, living as we do in the midst of the native population that outnumbers us 5 to 1. (…) a skeleton in our cupboard, raising questions about the capacity of the ruling white race to maintain its dominance.

Mason argues that the photographs, especially those with black and white subjects in the same frame, captures too well the anxiety that white South African elites felt when they contemplated the “poor white problem.”

Like these two: in the first, above, a black woman looks down at a white man “with revulsion, pity, or some combination of the two” (in Mason’s words); in the second, a black man brings “aid (…) to whites”:

The original captions for the photographs which appeared in the magazine Libertas in 1947 make no mention of the black subjects. One caption reads: “Homeless man, 1947-48.”

Another photo of the same man reads:

On a bench in the heart of Johannesburg a hobo lies sleeping. Little can be done to make him useful to society. But by influencing the young child and curing his personality defects, social welfare workers can prevent this waste of human material.

The caption for the second photograph reads:

Although food and other assistance are given under poor relief scheme, the poor are helped to help themselves.

As Mason writes:

From the point-of-view of mid-twentieth-century white South Africans, this photo is less fraught –nobody here is physically defenseless, incapacitated by drink– but it would still have been troubling. Black is again positioned above white; a black man is bringing aid and succor to whites. The fact that the man is dressed in laborer’s clothes would have lessened the tension only a bit.

Mason wonders “how aware Larrabee was about making images that captured so precisely the anxieties that poor whites evoked. My guess is that she knew exactly what she was doing.”

Read the whole post, which also discusses Larrabee’s contemporaries and her other work in the Libertas series here.

Further Reading

No more caricatures

Engaging seriously with Winnie Madikizela-Mandela’s life could help us understand how South Africa got where it is and where it’s going.