Like so many fine photographers, Mikhael Subotzky drifted into photography in 2000 as an eighteen-year-old backpacker intending simply to document his travels, and got the bug. Aware of the great tradition of documentary photography, and particularly inspired by David Goldblatt’s In Boksburg (1982), he set out to make a portrait of a small, post-apartheid town that would address marginalization and incarceration, two facets of the violence wracking the country.
Beaufort West was his choice, a hardscrabble place located roughly equidistant between Cape Town and Johannesburg.
In the best tradition of the extended photo essay (happily the work has been published as a book), Subotzky gives us a balanced picture of the place and its people, the drunks, prostitutes and prisoners at the bottom of the heap; the grim-faced whites holding onto their privileges at the top.
Most wrenching is a picture of a dazed young girl with the words ‘Fuck Me’ written on her forehead – the idea of a joke, the photographer tells us, of her drunken parents. It’s a depressing reminder that the ghosts of apartheid have yet to be laid to rest.
Text by William A Ewing
*Mikhael Subotzky, Beaufort West, with essay by Jonny Steinberg, Chris Boot, London, 2008.