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After Apartheid: Famed ‘Struggle Photographer’ at U.Va. to Show a Nation Reborn

Sep 15, 2015 |

Thirty years ago, South African photographer Cedric Nunn and his fellow “Struggle Photographers” shared the cruelties of apartheid with the world. Now, he is traveling to the University of Virginia to share images of a nation reborn, carrying lessons from past conflicts into a more democratic future.

In a public talk on September 17, Nunn will present his latest photography series: “Unsettled: One Hundred Years War of Resistance by Xhosa Against Boer and British.” In it, he endeavors to capture a war that raged well before photography even existed: the resistance of the Xhosa people to Dutch and British colonialism from 1779 to 1879.

Photos courtesy David Krut Projects, New York / Copyright Cedric Nunn)

His photo essay reveals the current state of those long-ago battlefields, showing the descendants of the Xhosa people alongside the sites where their ancestors fought for the democratic freedoms they now enjoy.

“This essay looks at the land, which was occupied, desired, defended, lost and won,” Nunn said in a media release. “In it we see both the uses and states it is to be found in today. We are able to imagine the heroism and the misery it inflicted on its actors, as they either defended or attacked. We see the beauty, which stirred the souls of the inhabitants and the lust of the invaders.”

“His work is very powerful, but very subtle,” said John Edwin Mason, a professor in the Corcoran Department of History and a longtime friend of the photographer. “There is a lyricism in his photography, a real gentleness and quietness. It does not shout; it asks you to linger and find meaning for yourself.”

Photo of South African church elder by Cedric Nunn
Steve Bantu Biko, a 1970s struggle hero who died in police detention in 1977, is buried and memorialized in this graveyard in King Williams Town.

At the height of South Africa’s apartheid, the power of Nunn’s images, coupled with those of other so-called “Struggle Photographers,” brought international attention to the country’s systematic segregation. Nunn and his colleagues did not claim to be objective – they were very much on the side of South Africa’s freedom fighters – but their work was nonetheless a primary source for photojournalism in America and significantly moved the needle of public opinion. Eventually, outcry from American citizens contributed to U.S. government sanctions against South Africa in the mid-1980s.

Today, Mason hopes that Nunn’s work will contribute to an understanding of Africa far beyond civil war and other hardships commonly depicted in Western media. Nunn, he said, never defined his work solely by the country’s struggle. He has worked on many other subjects, ranging from portraits of the country’s preeminent jazz musicians to series showing his own extended family.

“Many of my students have never been to Africa and their images of the continent are very much defined by what they see in popular media,” Mason said. “Too often, that is either ‘The Lion King’ or horrible news of war and disaster. Simple exposure to ordinary African people is really important.

“Cedric is also a great artist and we want our students to be exposed to people who are extraordinarily accomplished at what they do, so that our students can get a sense of what it takes to achieve at a very high level,” Mason said.

Nunn will present his work on Thursday, September 17 at 5:30 p.m. in the Nau Hall Auditorium. The talk is free and open to the public. It was made possible with support from the Vice Provost for the Arts, the Center for Global Inquiry & Innovation, the Global Development Studies program, the Studio Art program and the history department.