How to make photographs that mattered—The JRB Photo Editor Victor Dlamini remembers George Hallett

The JRB Photo Editor Victor Dlamini pays tribute to George Hallett, who passed away today.

I first got to know George Hallett through his photographs for Heinemann’s African Writers Series. He eventually published many of these photographs in his seminal book, Portraits of African Writers.

In 2007 I had an exhibition in Cape Town at the South African Book Fair and George was one of the visitors to my exhibition. He walked in quietly, his trademark Leica hanging by its strap from his neck. It was how I got to know him personally. Such was his warmth and generosity that when we struck up a conversation at my exhibition, it was as if we were old friends catching up after a long separation. 

I was lucky enough to be invited to George’s home, where he cooked and shared his stories of making some of his famous photographs. As one would expect of one who loved writing and music so much, his house was full of books. There were the photo books and novels by artists such as Haruki Murakami, Zakes Mda and Ruth Prawer Jhabvala. He would always interrupt our conversations by picking up his camera because the light was ‘just right’ and he had to make a portrait.

He shot film, using a rangefinder. But you wouldn’t see a light meter anywhere near him because he could read his settings just by looking at the light. 

As my own work has focused on portraits of artists, writers and musicians from the continent and the diaspora, a great deal of it has been an extended homage to George. I am forever indebted to George for showing me the way that leads to making meaningful photographs of writers and other artists.

One of my cherished memories of George was when he asked me to join him on a visit to the District Six Museum. He took me on a tour of the museum, sharing how much District Six had meant to him as a place that he photographed and whose people he cherished. It was clear that the loss to apartheid’s architect’s of separation of the community of District Six still stung George. 

George took his craft very seriously and many of our meetings were taken up with gentle sharing of his wisdom about how to make photographs that mattered. 

Brother George, a portrait by Victor Dlamini
George Hallett and Morgan Freeman, courtesy of Victor Dlamini

Cover photo by Ben Williams

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