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Beneath the surface: Steve Bloom's portraits of Apartheid

In the 1970s Steve Bloom recorded the everyday inequities of apartheid. A new exhibition shows the day-to-day reality of this lost and unlamented world

The screams from my neighbour's flat woke me in the early hours. The sound I remember, intense today as it was 35 years ago, was a woman's shrill voice crying out, "Leave me alone! I'll do what I like with my body!" Through my kitchen window I saw two policemen dragging a black woman in nightclothes along the passageway, closely followed by my white neighbour who was frogmarched by the two remaining policemen. Under the apartheid system, interracial sex was illegal.

During the 1970s I worked for Nasionale Tydskrifte, which printed many of South Africa's top fashion magazines, and employed mixed-race people, who were obliged to enter the building through a separate doorway. I felt discomforted by the unearned rights assured by my white skin. I spent my weekends in the streets with my 35mm camera looking for something, though I never quite knew what: a confrontation with that particular time and place, an antidote to my working world of seamless commercial images. With no formal training, I approached the project as a fresh-faced amateur.

On my way home from work each day I passed a group of bergies – homeless street dwellers. Many were addicted to methylated spirits: cheap industrial alcohol that causes blindness and shortens life expectancy. Bergies were regarded as invisible by most people; stepped around, avoided at all costs. I photographed them, some very directly, trying to capture their sense of hopelessness. I visited Crossroads squatter camp, where thousands of families had set up home in defiance of the Group Areas Act forbidding migrant workers from living with their families. During the day, the authorities routinely demolished homes and terrorised the population.

It is impossible to escape the agenda of the photographer with an individual story to tell. I sought to capture a sense of alienation that may well have been a reflection of my own estrangement from the society in which I lived.

Beneath the Surface, an exhibition of Steve Bloom's photographs of mid-70s South Africa, is at the Guardian Gallery, Kings Place, London N1, 1-28 June (lfph.org)


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