George Hallett, a veteran South African photographer, died in Cape Town aged 78.
His daughter, Maymoena Hallett confirmed his passing on Facebook saying, “Nobody can doubt his artistry in capturing beauty and joy in everything he saw… nor his contribution to photography, particularly South African photography.”
Born in Cape Town, Hallett has called District Six, Grassy Park and Hout Bay home. After being introduced to ideas of projection, light work and composition through cinema in high school, Hallett taught himself how to work a camera. With cinema taking care of his aesthetic, his political outlook was framed by the influence of his high school English literature teacher Richard Moore Rive: the novelist and poet behind the poem Where the Rainbow Ends.
While he worked as a street photographer and freelancer for Drum, the Group Areas Act declared District Six a whites-only suburb. By the time it was demolished, author James Matthews and artist Peter E Clarke convinced Hallett to capture the suburb. Once the removals were concluded Hallett had assembled a vibrant, celebratory archive of life before the removals. The photographs, which were later donated to the District Six Museum, remain a fundamental reference.
In 1970 he left apartheid South Africa for London where he met exiled Africans Alex La Duma, Dumile Feni, Pallo Jordan, Gerard Sekoto, Louis Maurice and Dudu Pukwana before meeting writers Wole Soyinka and Ahmadou Kourouma in Berlin. While in London, he worked for the Times’ higher education supplement and shot memorable book covers for the Heinemann African Writers Series.
Years later, his relationship with the writers resulted in the publication of Portraits of African Writers (2006). With over 100 images, the collection looks to visualise the conditions and roles of writers from the 1960s to the early 2000s.
If not for his photographs of District Six or portraiture of exiled Africans, Hallett is best known for his visual documentation of the onset of democracy in South Africa. In 1994, he memorialised South Africa’s first democratic elections through a series of photographs documenting how the event panned out for Nelson Mandela. The collection of over 140 black-and-white images, was later published as the book Images of Change. In 1997 he was the official photographer for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
With a career spanning five decades, Hallett has worked, exhibited and lived across the world. In addition to being a photographer, he was a teacher here at home as well as in London, Harare, and the United States at the University of Illinois, Michigan State University, Emory University and Howard University.
His works can be found across the world in permanent collections at the New York Public Library’s Schomburg Centre for research in Black Culture, the South African National Gallery, the Anne Frank Foundation in Amsterdam as well as the Sonja Henie-Niels Onstad Collection based in Norway.
As South Africa goes through another cycle of addressing the legacies left by colonialism, Hallett’s ability to capture pockets of pride and joy in the midst of perpetual turmoil continues to serve as a pertinent part of the country’s visual archive.