Long Read | The twinkle in George Hallett’s eye

The fun-loving photographer with a ‘perspicacious sense of timing’ brought out the best in people. He focused on the beautiful and the intimate, and his life’s work is rich with these images.

Born in 1942 in District Six, photographer George Hallett was raised by his grandparents in Hout Bay. In a rare published interview with John Edwin Mason in 2014, he recalled: “My parents lived in Grassy Park … ‘where the grass don’t grow’. One Sunday we went to see my grandparents. It was a beautiful place surrounded by mountains and a river flowing by my granny’s house. Hydrangeas as we were walking up the path to the back door. Voluptuous trees all over the place. Here was paradise. I told my parents, ‘I’m not going back to the Cape Flats.'”

The young Hallett was profoundly influenced by his early life among the fishermen of Hout Bay, in particular his uncle who read voraciously, composed songs and often reminded his nephew that “there’s a world beyond these mountains, a bigger world”. 

It was while captivated by the films shown at his Hout Bay primary school on weekends that Hallett developed his lifelong love of the camera and its seductive power. While watching the exploits of golden-era Hollywood legends such as Alan Ladd and John Wayne, Hallett recalled that he “became the camera … Eventually when I became a photographer, those powers of observing held me in good stead because when you do documentary photography you don’t direct the photography. You’re supposed to stand back and observe – or go forwards and sideways – but you’ve got to photograph the reality in front of you.” 

A magical world of black intellectuals 

Hallett attended South Peninsula High School in Diep River, where his English teacher was the famous novelist Richard Rive. He took Hallett under his wing and encouraged in him a lifelong passion for reading. Through Rive, Hallett met poet and novelist James Matthews and artist Peter Clarke, who would remain close friends over the coming decades. He also became part of Rive’s circle. Many writers from the group called Die Sestigers, which included Jan Rabie and Uys Krige, were part of this crowd. 

Hallett remembered this time as one in which he and his circle were “in a magical world that we created in Silverton. We were inspired. We had an informal black studies group. We also studied literature from other parts of Africa. We were in isolation, but there was this little oasis in Silverton where we could dip the cup of knowledge into the well of wisdom. People who loved language and literature – it was a great period.” 

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It was during this period that Hallett picked up a camera and found his true calling. Having realised after high school that he “couldn’t afford to go to university, so my university was out on the streets”, Hallett went to Kariem Halim, the proprietor of Palm Tree Studios in Hanover Street in District Six. He introduced himself and was given a camera, which he used to take pictures of people on the streets. Hallett was completely self-taught as a photographer but he quickly developed, from his love of cinema and his experience on the streets, a preternatural ability for reading light. 

As his friend and colleague Rashid Lombard recalls, “You’d never see a light metre anywhere because he could read the setting just by looking at the light – almost like he could smell the light.” 

Photographing a vibrant and living District Six

It was during this period that photographer Omar Badsha first remembers meeting Hallett through Matthews. He’d been struck by Hallet’s circle as “quite a remarkable community of so-called coloured writers and artists … very full of fun, full of anger and very, very creative.” 

In the late 1960s, Matthews and Rive encouraged Hallett to go and take pictures of the life and people of District Six, following the decision by the apartheid government to relocate its more than 60 000 residents under the Group Areas Act. 

The photographs Hallett took would stand out as some of the most distinctive images of his career and of that world. Photographer Paul Weinberg characterised them as “extraordinary images – he didn’t, like many photographers of the time, concentrate on the destruction of District Six, and the removals and the breaking down of buildings. He rather showed District Six as a living, vibrant community with all its layers and cultural aspects – from gangsters to weddings to beautiful portraits of people and everyday life – his work lives on in terms of the memory of District Six.” 

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While taking photos on weekends and working as a bookkeeper at a chemical company in the week, Hallett decided that he needed to leave South Africa. As he told Mason in 2014, “It was becoming intolerable living here … I was tired of the insults – being stopped by police on my bicycle because they thought that I stole it, being harassed, being fired from a job because you stand up for your rights, being belittled … I looked in the mirror and said, ‘I’m getting ugly. I’m always angry. I just wanted to become something else, to make something with my life.’”

He had recently held his first exhibition at the Artists Gallery in Cape Town and with a portfolio of that work under his arm, he boarded the Achille Lauro and headed for England. 

Marginalised communities and celebratory covers

Arriving in London in 1970, Hallett took his portfolio around and landed a job working for The Times Higher Educational Supplement. The work he had done in communities such as Hout Bay and District Six stood him in good stead to cover marginalised, working-class communities in the United Kingdom. And his natural instinct for engaging with people and making them feel comfortable helped him capture memorable portraits of newsmakers and other subjects. 

Hallett quickly connected with the extensive South African exile community abroad, musicians such as Dudu Pukwana, Johnny Dyani, Louis Moholo, artists like Dumile Feni, Gerard Sekoto and Louis Maqhubela, and political activists including Thabo Mbeki and Pallo Jordan. 

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It was through these connections that he was first introduced to James Currey, the groundbreaking editor of the Heinemann African Writers series. Hallett would work for him for the next 12 years designing distinctive, avant-garde, black consciousness-inspired and pan-African celebratory covers for the series and taking author portraits that would become some of the most iconic and well-known images of a host of writers, from Bessie Head to Ngugi Wa Thiong’o, Chinua Achebe and Wole Soyinka. 

As Hallett recalled, his connections with exile artists, musicians and activists served him well in his work on the books as he would use “South Africans that I knew as models – musicians, Pallo Jordan and others. They posed for a couple of quid. They weren’t interested in the money. It was the joy of doing it, the honour of doing it.” 

That was how Jordan, the future minister of arts and culture, landed up on the cover of one of the bestselling African fiction titles of all time, Achebe’s Things Fall Apart. It was also how others such as Moholo and Feni ended up gracing several of the iconic covers of the series during Hallett’s tenure at Heinemann. 

As Jordan recalls, “We were a very tight group. Chris and Maxine McGregor’s flat in London was a sort of salon for South Africans, of all stripes, but mainly artists, musicians, political activists, etc. And George came into that milieu. We were all sort of models for George because he needed African faces for his covers. So I did some, other comrades did some. It was just helping out a buddy. He used to go about composing those photographs for the covers very pleasantly. Sometimes he’d use costumes, sometimes it was just as you were.”

In South Africa, where the books were banned, hungry readers would see Hallett’s work on samizdat copies of the books smuggled back by those lucky enough to have travelled abroad, giving them glimpses of those who had left and providing memorable images to attach to the names of their authors. 

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As Ntone Edjabe, the Cameroon-born journalist, editor and founder of influential magazine Chimurenga, points out, “It’s impossible to have grown up on this continent without encountering George’s work. He’s probably responsible for some of the most circulated images on the continent, certainly in the English-speaking part of it. The African Writers series that school learners encountered is on pavements and in most cities of this continent.” 

Hallett also designed album covers and took performance photos of his musician circle, including Dyani, Pukwana, Mongezi Feza and others, works that circulated widely among jazz lovers. His portraits of his creative friends, often taken not as part of a curated series intending to document exile but rather through Hallett’s natural social interactions with them, would turn out to provide a vital visual documentation of several seminal South Africans who never made it back to their homeland – Sekoto, Feni, Dyani and tragically too many others whose lives ended before the transition to democracy. 

Memories and tributes

While Hallett was never a member of a political party or the underground structures of the ANC, he was associated with many of its leading members and committed ideologically to their cause. Filmmaker and author Aryan Kaganof remembers encountering the photographer at the Amsterdam offices of the Anti-Apartheid Movement in the mid-1980s and being struck by him as a “very elegant [man who] spoke in a very measured, quiet, but extremely commanding way. You always got a sense from him of real knowing.” 

Musician and poet Eugene Skeef, who first met Hallett on his arrival in London in the 1980s, recalls that Hallett “operated with a rare fearlessness but also with a passion for his craft and a compassion for his fellow human beings, not only those who were South Africans but anyone who was fortunate to come within orbit of his influence. George was gifted with an irreverent sense of humour and the art of making the most delicious chicken curry and rice dish.” 

As a subject of some of Hallett’s photographs, Skeef was impressed that Hallet seemed “driven by a clear consciousness of the power of creative expression. I believe this made him one of the most sensitive people I met in my life. I know the common expression of being a fly on the wall, but for me this is nowhere near describing how George would be present in the space without being intrusive. For me, he was more like the oxygen we breathe to sustain our lives.” 

Photographer Cedric Nunn, who was also the subject of Hallett’s lens on several occasions, similarly marvels at the experience of being “the centre of George’s attention and his direction and his great charm. It gushed out and it was more than disarming because it was affirming in every way. His ability to bring you into that moment and make you a partner in the process of the act of creation that he delighted in … He really was a master of that craft.” 

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It was in the 1980s that Hallett first encountered and engaged with a number of the new generation of South African documentary photographers, at a festival of culture and resistance held in Gaborone, Botswana. There he met fellow jazz enthusiast and party lover Lombard, who recalls now “that it was almost as if we’d known each other forever. He was a party animal and the two of us went down very well because we were both party animals. Good music, red wine and a good discussion – that’s George Hallett.” 

The two maintained a close connection during Hallet’s remaining time in exile and throughout his life. Lombard says that whenever he would meet his friend during that time, “he was always asking when it would be a good time to come home. He was yearning to return and there was no way he was going to stay away. It wasn’t as if he thought it was a better life there.” 

Mandela and a new generation

Hallett was approached in 1994 by his friend Jordan to return to South Africa and work for the ANC to take photographs of Nelson Mandela and his transformation from political prisoner to statesman in the lead-up to the first democratic elections. 

The pictures that Hallett produced, with their carefully and gently rendered intimate portraits of Mandela as a man undergoing the challenges of personal transition in a time of great political upheaval, remain standout images in the much-captured life of the icon. They won Hallett a World Press Photo Award in 1995. Hallett followed up that work with an equally iconic series of images taken during his time as the official photographer for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. 

Jordan says the photos Hallett took during this time reflected his ability to “capture people at particular moments, which said a hell of a lot about their character … He had this capacity to capture the dignity of the human being. One thing that was good about George was his eye. He had an amazing eye, not only in terms of being able to see, like, something in front of him, but also in terms of penetrating beyond what was immediate and into a person’s character.”

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Although he continued to exhibit extensively internationally, and engage globally and at home in his great passion for teaching and passing on his expert knowledge and advice, Hallett’s output as a photographer seemed to slow down significantly after these important moments in the transition.

He did document the new generation of South African writers, musicians and dancers in the post-apartheid period, and produced a much-respected body of work on the lives of the people of Bo-Kaap. But his significantly reduced public output was perhaps a result of his aversion to what Weinberg describes as the “rough and tough, every day, every second counts photojournalist mode of ‘if you’re not close enough, you’re not good enough’. He wasn’t particularly interested in violence and hard news, and was much more attuned to the softer and more delicate part of South African society.” 

Hallett’s legacy

The body of work that he leaves behind has cemented his legacy as a photographer who Weinberg says demonstrated an “enduring commitment to the soft, the beautiful, the intimate, the human … George was extremely aware of doing that in his work. You’ll never see a George Hallett photograph that shows someone in a very uncomfortable place or position. He would never use a moment opportunistically, he wanted to bring out the best in people all the time and his life’s work is rich with those images.” 

For Badsha, Hallett’s legacy is more complicated, because of the photographer’s often vented frustrations at his perceived lack of proper recognition from the South African art establishment. 

While “he should be remembered as a remarkable, talented photographer”, Badsha says Hallett was also an artist “who could have done much more if he was given the space like others in South Africa. He was very, very frustrated, like many black intellectuals and black artists, in not getting the space to do what he wanted to.” 

His friend Skeef hopes that Hallett will be remembered “as one of the most daring photographic visionaries who was blessed with a perspicacious sense of timing. He just knew where to be at the right time to make time trip on its eternal self and thus provide him with that unique moment of truth. That naughty twinkle in his eyes showed those of us who really knew him that he knew this about himself, which made him ever more adorable.” 

Jordan remembers his friend as “a worthwhile fella, a good person with a very good heart. A brilliant photographer with an amazing eye and it’s a very sad loss to South African photography. Had it not been for what I suppose one could call the accident of birth, he would have probably have had a much bigger name as a South African photographer. But despite all that George did well if you think about it. He came from Hout Bay and I don’t think the fates had planned for his life to go the way it did. He emerged as a figure in world photography and won quite a number of prizes internationally as well.”

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As Hallett was increasingly hampered by the effects of his colitis during the past few years, Lombard, who saw him often, would “take him out. His favourite was going to Hout Bay where he grew up and we would go to Kalky’s and have fish and chips and then come home … Later on, he couldn’t because of his chronic illness and he was just up in the house.” 

Lombard says that although “it was hard to see such an outgoing person just being at home”, he saw his friend arrive at a point where “after a while he seemed content, he prayed a lot and he was happy for what he had achieved. And he always used to tell me, ‘You know where I come from and how I started, and look what I’ve achieved. My children can benefit, my grandchildren can benefit.’ He knew that he had found his place in his life and had achieved so much.” 

Hallett’s death was announced on Wednesday 1 July by his daughter Maymoena Hallett, who posted on Facebook:

“My father died peacefully in his sleep today, after a long illness.

We will always remember him for his light, his laughter, his boisterous personality, his outrageous jokes and being the life and soul of many a party.

Nobody can doubt his artistry in capturing beauty and joy in everything he saw through his eyes and his lens, nor his contribution to photography, particularly South African photography.”

Hallett’s body was cremated at the Maitland Crematorium in Cape Town on Thursday 8 July.

All quotes by George Hallett are taken from An Interview with George Hallett by John Edwin Mason, published in Social Dynamics, Vol 40, No 1. 2014.

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