David Goldblatt’s photo of a farmer’s son with his nursemaid in 1964 immediately struck me for several reasons, both compositionally and sociologically. The boy is clearly in position of power as he is standing behind his black caretaker, who hunches down in front of him as if she were the child. He’s probably about five years old and most likely spends the majority of his time with this woman instead of his own parents. While she is older, he is white and male which gives him a paradoxical upper hand.
The bond between the two is visible as he holds onto her back and she holds his foot with her left hand, suggesting he relies on her and she protects him. She looks slightly skeptical of Goldblatt, as if she distrusts his motives or she simply doesn’t like being photographed, or perhaps she is hesitant of his investigation of their relationship.
Compositionally, the photo is broken perfectly in the rule of thirds between the soil, grass, and sky. The eye draws immediately to the boys bright white shirt then his face, then hers. His hat perfectly contrasts the sky, and while the hill in the background slices his face horizontally which isn’t ideal, the subtleness between the grays isn’t as harsh as if it were in color. The trees add deeper color contrast and also offer textural elements that counter the subjects’ smooth skin. The shallow depth of field allows them to remain as the central focus of the photograph amidst a somewhat busy background which is assumedly the family farm.
Knowing that 1964 was a period in Goldblatt’s life where everything had just shifted from being responsible for his fathers and family business to focusing solely on photography and then being commissioned to shoot for Optima shows the intention of this image. His exploration of the race relations in South Africa are apparent in his photos as he explores the everyday lives of those who are privileged and those who are not (as in the other four images).
This particular image shows somewhat of a contradiction because there is a warm feeling between the two, yet it was during the heart of the apartheid, which adds a strange tension of authority roles. It evokes questions of what really was happening with race in South Africa during that time which is something I tend not to think about as often as race matters in the U.S. since at the time we were at the end of the civil rights movement.
The photograph feels far more dated than the mid 60’s which makes it successful. The boys clothing makes him look like he is in the early 20th century but the womens clothing could be current today. It makes me wonder if this particular community was still riddled with racism or moving forward, which is hard to tell from this photo. I would be really interested to know more about the story behind the image from Goldblatt’s perspective and more about how it played a role in his larger look at the farming communities of Transvaal.