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The white/nonwhite divide

South African photographer Mikhael Subotsky's images offer stark evidence of apartheid's lingering shadow.

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Searching for scraps: 'Residents, Vaalkoppies' shows locals at the town dump. Below, 'Jack Shines Swanepoel's Shoes, Beaufort West Prison.'

Courtesy of Mikhael Subotzky and Goodman Gallery

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THE SOUTH AFRICAN photographer Mikhael Subotzky aims his lens at subjects most would avoid. In his exhibition, "Beaufort West" at the Museum of Modern Art through Jan. 5, the 27-year-old focuses on conditions of deprivation and desperation, opening our eyes to a grim social landscape. Subotzky, according to the exhibition's curator Roxana Marcoci, "reinvents the documentary tradition by picturing in unflinching detail the conditions of everyday life in South Africa."

After winning acclaim photographing the shocking conditions of a maximum-security prison, Subotzky spent more than two years training his sights on the small town of Beaufort West. His images, spectacularly refined in technique and unsettling in their power, show the town's nonwhite inhabitants as caged and cornered, whether they're in the town's prison or living in hovels outside its walls. "His approach never relies on politicized reportage," Marcoci says, "yet by critically tapping on the imbalance of power that still resides today, he offers one of the most affecting views of South Africa's life inside and outside the prison system."

Using medium-format color film and only available light, he documents the lives of people like a 19-year-old woman, a sex worker since age 16, who supports her extended family through prostitution. In "Ai 26s Smoke Tik," he shows young gang members, their faces obscured by puffs of methamphetamine. In "Outside Butchery," homeless men sleep in a doorway outside the local meat market, look- ing like dirty carcasses themselves. "Injured Man, Plakkerskamp" highlights the bloodied face of a drunk in a halo formed by the light of a policeman's flashlight, the rest of his sprawled body fading to black.

The most touching shots are those of residents of the town dump, Vaalkoppies, as they form a circle, like vultures, bent over to pick through a mountain of trash for scraps of food. One cannot escape the inference that these human beings have been thrown away by their government, "a truly dystopian vision," Subotzky calls it. As Nelson Mandela has said, "A nation should not be judged by how it treats its highest citizens, but its lowest ones."

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