5 South African Photo Books to Check Out

5 South African Photo Books to Check Out
Photography by Andile Buka.

Here are some South African photo books on apartheid, jazz and Black life to familiarise yourself with.

While image-making, along with image archiving, have taken different forms over the years — advancing in tandem with photography's multiple technological advancements particularly in recent times — the idea of a compilation of images is one that is hard not to romanticise.

Photo books are cool. They look dope on the coffee table, they inspire curiosity, and they are reliable records of memory. They also make for great collector's items; and this is why we wiped the flimsy dust setting on some of our favourite photo books to get you started — should you be interested in finding and/or adding more.

This is but a cursory list of photo books from my own collection, directed mainly at the curious. For a thorough rundown of the history of photobooks in South Africa, have a look at the SAHO website's

Timeline of South African Photographic Books and Exhibitions


"The Rise And Fall of Apartheid" Edited by Okwui Enwezor and Rory Bester

(International Centre for Photography, 2013)

This collection is a fitting primer for anyone who intends to understand the recent political history of South Africa, along with how it was portrayed visually. The Rise And Fall of Apartheid features the work of Alf Khumalo, Paul Alberts, Colin Richards, and Giesele Wulfsohn, and is dedicated to their memory. Alongside their contributions are Ernest Cole's images from his House of Bondage book; Peter Magubane's rousing images of the Sharpeville massacre; George Hallet's bittersweet images of District Six and its inhabitants; the work of the Afrapix collective and the Bang Bang Club — plus way more.

Essayatic contributions by the late Okwui Enwezor, Achille Mbembe, Khwezi Gule, among others, contextualise the images, which are grouped and arranged in chronological order. They cover the period between 1948 — when Apartheid policies were enacted — through to 1995, a year after the great Rainbow Nation temporarily lulled a nation that is still at war with itself.

Buy The Rise And Fall of Apartheid on Penguin Random House.

"Footprints" by Andrew Tshabangu (Edited by Thembinkosi Goniwe) 

(Gallery MOMO/ Standard Bank, 2017)Andrew Tshabangu's monochrome images, comprising work selected from a photography career spanning 20-plus years, are laid out over six distinct themes under the editorial guidance of Thembinkosi Goniwe. Goniwe also served as the curator during the exhibition's run in 2017. In the series called Bridges, Tshabangu's lense explores religiosity and spirituality as practiced by Black people. It's tremendous commentary that dislodges the viewer and places them in alternate dimensions. Emakhaya features images of life in rural South Africa, while City in Transition, Hostel Interiors and Hostel Exteriors focus on Black life in urban settings. Water Is Ours rounds off the book, and in a way, speaks to notions of water as a purifying medium, and of sustenance for humankind and marine life alike.

Preview Footprints on Fourthwall Books and buy it on Amazon.

"Somnyama Ngonyama: Hail the Dark Lioness" by Zanele Muholi

(Aperture, 2018)

Somnyama Ngonyama is photographer Zanele Muholi's on-going series of self-portraits. It marks a departure from the work that brought her acclaim, that of documenting the LGBTQI communities she came across during her various travels.

The show initially opened at Stevenson Gallery in 2017. Viewed together, the images are striking for a number of reasons. They strike literal fear in the observer, confront the logic of a regressive society, and in doing so question who belongs. The images also strike the resonant edge of technical brilliance, a testament to Muholi's growth as a photographer over the years. Associate professors Hlonipha Mokoena and Neelika Jayawardane are among the contributors who share the thousand words to language the feelings we can't, while curator Renée Mussai's interview frees up Zanele to clarify her intentions. She chose self-portraiture to remind people that our Black faces are important, she explains. "I am producing this photographic document to encourage individuals in my community to be brave enough to occupy spaces – brave enough to create without fear of being vilified."

Buy Somnyama Ngonyama: Hail the Dark Lioness on Amazon.

"Crossing Strangers" by Andile Buka

(Andile Buka, Hideko G. Ono)

(MNK press, 2015)

"Walking the streets of Johannesburg plays a central role in this project. Through these walks, I'm presented with spaces that are unfamiliar and unnoticed," writes Orange Farm-born artist Andile Buka in the foreword to his debut. Viewed with the clarity offered by hindsight, Crossing Strangers isn't the most manicured of photobooks, something Andile has admitted to on his episode of the ThisAudio Is Visual podcast.

"Do it scared, that's what we did. Like, I'm not even gonna lie, the book is amazing, we have an essay from Rangoato [Hlasane] from Keleketla! Library; [but] it's not perfect. That's what I'm trying to say. When you look at published books, they're very polished, retouch heavy – and that shows you the finance back-end. We did it with our own money."

But the medium format images of unfamiliar faces and places where multitudes gather forewarned anyone who cared to look, and re-directed their eyes towards the current generation of working photographers. This, in turn, puts Andile somewhere towards the front of a movement in flux, and secures his place among a generation of lens-people still trying to figure it out.

Buy Crossing Strangers on Self Publish, Be Happy.

"Jazz: A Female Perspective" by George Hallett, Rashid Lombard

(Highbury Safika Media/ESP Afrika)

"Photography is an essential and powerful tool in the media and entertainment industry, and it takes an insightful individual to capture those rare moments of music in motion and take you on a visual journey," writes Zaheida van der Fort in the prelude to this wonderful collection that features the work of greats such as Neo Ntsoma, Tina Smith, Ingrid Masondo, and Francine Winham. While most of the images were made at one of the many stages of the Cape Town International Jazz Festival and its ancillary events, others were culled from the photographers' vast archives, and cover performances at venues locally and overseas. Francine Winham's images of Newport jazz festival '65 find comfort alongside Ingrid Masondo's renditions of Busi Mhlongo, Philip Tabane, and Lebo Mathosa; while Tina Smith's portraits of live music performances in people's homes and at community centres drives home the notion that jazz is for everyone's enjoyment. The book is also a reminder of the scarcity of music photography-related books in Mzansi, as well as the perennial oversight of women and gender non-conforming artists who make images.