Black, White, and Gray

Ian Martin with his book, Invisible People, and his old Leica M6 film camera he used to document South Africa’s white poor.

Ian Martin is a Carmel-based wedding photographer. He captures couples and families coming together in rituals of abundance and mirth – people in embrace, eyes shut, basking in rays of happiness, healthy images of cakes, flowers and smiles.

Ian Martin is also a photographer of tragedy. Of racism and economic oppression that lingers for generations. He has photographed people surrounded by trash and leaking septic tanks, in the company of mangy dogs, police officers and addicts, smoking cheap cigarettes and wearing ill-fitting clothes.

One such photograph shows a young mother in the doorway of a hut with her 3-year-old son, stripping copper from an alternator. Another is of a dingy drug den populated by young men smoking. Another shows a woman getting her hair done, a cigarette in one hand, and in the other, a photo of one of her three daughters – two of whom were taken from her by the state. Some of his photo subjects are homeless. Others might as well be.

The people in these photographs of poverty and ruin are all poor white South Africans, a minority of a minority Reuters estimates number 450,000.

“Shanties like these, once symbols of apartheid, are now also home to many poor whites,” one caption reads.

In 2008, Martin went to South Africa, where his wife (who is white) was born and still has family. His wife’s sister-in-law, a journalist, suggested he photograph poor white people.

“I thought it was an oxymoron,” he says. “All the whites I met [there] had beautiful homes and nice cars. They benefitted from the high non-white poverty. Many had domestic workers.”

With help from poverty relief volunteers, he found them, in camps and enclaves near Capetown, Pretoria and Johannesburg. Some allowed him to get close, and some didn’t. Some blamed their degraded lives on the liberated black majority. Others said they were never invited to reap the white rewards of apartheid.

One photograph shows a white woman standing awkwardly in front of a shanty dwelling, averting her eyes before a couple of robust black police officers. In another photo, a middle-aged white man sporting a swastika tattoo on his shoulder is waiting in a food line, a black teenager behind him.

“A lot of these people are trapped in a cycle of poverty that goes back to the Boer Wars, when they were defeated by the British Army,” Martin says. “That level of devastation can last generations.”

During South Africa’s 50-year apartheid (1948-1994), he says, the white ruling minority had to uphold the facade they were superior to the native black majority. Poor whites were given jobs that could have gone to black South Africans. When the policy was dismantled, that government mandate for whites evaporated, creating a new demographic of jobless whites.

Martin published a book of these subjects called Invisible People: Poor and White in the New South Africa. In the foreword, Albie Sachs, a former judge appointed by Nelson Mandela to the Constitutional Court of South Africa, wrote: “The new democratic South Africa neither protects nor condemns people because of their skin color.”

The Weekly is powered by the generosity of readers like you, who support our mission to produce engaging, independent and in-depth journalism.

Show Your Support
Learn More

It may seem like an inversion of the United States, with its black minority and white majority. But Martin says it’s not an apt comparison.

“In the U.S. we often think of ourselves as white or black. In South Africa, those calibrations are more finely gradated,” he says. “South Africa has 11 official languages. There are poor white South Africans who are racist, and there are those who voted for Mandela.”

What he’s trying to show in these photos, he says, is that poverty transcends race, that stereotypes mislead, that what people ascribe to race may more accurately be ascribed to class. It’s a precarious balancing act his wife, Vibeke Norgaard – who clerked for judges constructing the country’s post-apartheid constitution – thinks he’s accomplished with compassion.

“When you see white people living in poverty,” she says, “it brings an understanding of the experience of poverty as something different from the color of your skin.”

Martin has photographed immigration, storms and crime for National Geographic, Newsweek and The Virginian-Pilot. Today he has two kids, 4 and 10, so he’s focusing on wedding photography over grittier photojournalism. But he hasn’t forsaken his passion.

“I’m not just photographing for the bride and groom, but for their grandchildren,” he says. “Recently, I shot a [wedding] – she was Jewish and the groom was Hindu. The best aspects of each culture coming together – wonderful thing. It was not that long ago that in our own country, we weren’t there.”

Become a Weekly Insider.

Join Us
Learn More

Recommended for you

(0) comments

Welcome to the discussion.

Keep it Clean. Please avoid obscene, vulgar, lewd, racist or sexually-oriented language.
Don't Threaten. Threats of harming another person will not be tolerated.
Be Truthful. Don't knowingly lie about anyone or anything.
Be Nice. No racism, sexism or any sort of -ism that is degrading to another person.
Be Proactive. Use the 'Report' link on each comment to let us know of abusive posts.
Share with Us. We'd love to hear eyewitness accounts, the history behind an article.