Between emptiness and superfluity: funeral photography and necropolitics in late-apartheid South Africa

Louise Bethlehem*, Norma Musih

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

1 Scopus citations


Documentary photography has undergone a process of devaluation in post-apartheid South Africa. In response, Patricia Hayes has introduced the term “empty photographs” into the scholarly conversation, using it to designate images that have been derided as “‘bad,’ ‘boring,’ or repetitious” in post-apartheid settings (“The Uneven Citizenry,” 189). This article revisits a subset of such images to contest their seeming emptiness—pallbearers escorting dead activists to their graves during political funerals in late-apartheid South Africa. Focusing specifically on Afrapix photographer, Gille de Vlieg’s images of Themba Dlamini’s funeral in Driefontein in 1990, the paper restores their local history to view and unpacks the visual cultural and material cultural circuits of militant mourning in which they were embedded. It then uses various orders of metonymy in the visual field to comment on the “necropolitics” of the apartheid regime (Achille Mbembe, “Necropolitics”). The paper concludes with a reflection on Ariella Azoulay’s notion of the “civil gaze” (Civil Imagination) and considers what unfolds when a reckoning with the differential distribution of death that characterizes necropower reorients this faculty away from the individual photograph towards series, genre or corpus.

Original languageAmerican English
Pages (from-to)57-77
Number of pages21
Issue number1
StatePublished - 2022

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
The research leading to these results has received funding from the European Research Council under the European Union’s Seventh Framework Programme [FP/2007-2013]/ERC Grant Agreement no. [615564]. We want to express our sincere gratitude to Gille de Vlieg and to the South African History Archive (SAHA) for permission to use her images, and to Gille de Vlieg and Diane Stuart for generously sharing their memories of Afrapix with us. We are grateful to the staff of SAHA for their invaluable assistance with the photographs and to Mark Turpin who graciously discussed Gisèle Wulfson’s involvement in Afrapix with us. An earlier version of this paper was presented at the conference: “Activist Images and the Dissemination of Dissent” held at Tel Aviv University in June 2019. We thank the organizers, Vered Maimon and Siona Wilson, as well as the conference participants for their comments and suggestions.

Publisher Copyright:
© 2021 The Author(s). Published by Informa UK Limited, trading as Taylor & Francis Group.


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