Picks and Pans Review: Why Are They Weeping?

updated 12/19/1988 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 12/19/1988 AT 01:00 AM EST

Photographs by David C. Turnley; Text by Alan Cowell

The Fort Wayne, Ind.—born Turnley, a staff photographer for the Detroit Free Press since 1980, writes in his preface to this book of photographs of South Africa, "My objective was to document ordinary life, to humanize a situation that people understood only from headlines and news reports." He succeeded in a way that is both heartbreaking and terrifying. The book contains 100 photographs taken from 1985 to 1987, when Turnley's work permit and visa were not renewed by the South African government. It may be impossible at this point to see pictures taken in South Africa without reading into them a geopolitical load of gratuitous messages. These photographs seem, in the instance, to be full of an impossible tension—the black South Africans full of fury and frustration, the whites often grim and stubborn-looking, even in what should be relaxed, convivial surroundings. And, of course, on the rare occasions when the whites do seem to be looking carefree and calm—at a beauty pageant, for instance—it's impossible to avoid wondering how they can behave this way. The text by the New York Times' former Johannesburg bureau chief, Cowell, is much colder and more analytical than Turnley's work. Even so, Cowell notes that though South Africa's white supremacist government has in recent years survived a series of "Emergency decrees," those crises showed its power to be a "power without roots of broad consent, never resting easily with itself or with the people on whom it preyed." And Cowell quotes a former president of the white Afrikaner Institute of Commerce as saying, with a sense of ironic resignation, "If we really want to lose everything, then we must hang on to everything now." For immediate impact, however, it is hard to really compete with the impact of Turnley's photographs. To see the picture of the young black nanny in the Orange Free State, holding a little blond boy she now cares for, is to be left wondering what will happen—or what will have happened—between this woman's children and this boy in 20 years. (Stewart, Tabori & Chang, $35; paper, $19.95)

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