Isaac Schapera’s Images of Colonial South Africa

Photos courtesy of the Royal Anthropological Institute

Renowned British anthropologist Isaac Schapera (1905–2003) focused his life’s work on the lives and customs of the indigenous people of South Africa. During his many field trips to the Tswana tribe in what is now Botswana, Schapera recorded daily life on film. These photos are a small selection that were taken between 1929 and 1934, largely during his earliest work among the Kgatla peoples of Bechuanaland (now Botswana). Permanently housed at the Royal Anthropological Institute in London, the photos cover a broad spectrum of daily activities, including depictions of everything from pot making, thatching, and cattle herding to village architecture, vernacular medicine, and rainmaking ceremonies. Visually fascinating and of exceptional quality, these images capture the uniqueness of an African people in a particular time and place.

The photos are part the book Picturing a Colonial Past, and their significance explained in Jean and John Comaroff’s insightful introduction, while Adam Kuper’s illuminating biographical sketch of Schapera provides new insight into the life of the photographer. Picturing a Colonial Past reveals not only a rare side of old Botswana, but also the most famous anthropologist who worked there.

We would like to thank the staff at the Royal Anthropological Institute for their help in providing these wonderful images.