Research Prizes

Sophie Feyder
PhD dissertation:
Portraits of resilience: writing a socio-cultural history of a black South African location with the Ngilima photographic collection. Benoni, 1950s-1960s.

Supervisor: Prof. dr. R.J. Ross, Prof. dr. P.E. Spyer
Nomination: Leiden University, Faculty of Humanities

Report by the Selection Committee
This thesis offers a fresh look at 1950s-1960s South African urban history based on a private collection of photographs taken by a father and a son. It tells its analytic story of an anti-monumental memory of everyday life among black and coloured South Africans in Benoni from a social anthropology perspective, and offers a fine supplement and necessary alternative approach to the “struggle stories” and narratives about anti-Apartheid heroes. Equally, the thesis offers genuine insights into urban life during apartheid South Africa. It scores high in originality and international significance. The author used so-called ‘photo-elucidation’, which entails using photographs to encourage informants to reminisce on their past. The jury was impressed by the successful marriage of the personal and the analytical in this beautifully crafted book. The author shows how, despite apartheid, Black communities continued to live and flourish, and were resilient in the face of racist oppression.

Sophie Feyder was born in Brussels and grew up in New York and Luxemburg. After a degree in political science in Paris, she eventually brought together her interests in photography and African history in an MPhil dissertation at Leiden University on black popular photography in Johannesburg. Her encounter with Farrell Ngilima in 2008 initiated a close collaboration on his grandfather’s photographic collection, which became a central focus of her PhD research. Her dissertation, entitled ‘Portraits of resilience: writing a socio-cultural history of a black South African location with the Ngilima photographic collection. Benoni, 1950s-1960s’, looks at how private photographic archives can be mobilised as a serious historical source. Feyder argues that working with the Ngilima collection enabled her to write a different kind of history of black communities, one that is focused on small everyday gestures of resilience in the context of apartheid. Her dissertation deals with themes such as leisure and consumption, the making of an urban black youth culture, and the role of house interiors in asserting a respectable and modern identity. She received her PhD degree cum laude from Leiden University in may 2016. Three years before that, she curated the exhibition ‘Sidetracks: Working on Two Photographic Collections’ together with Tamsyn Adams. This project continued with the recent publication of an art book entitled ‘Commonplace’ (Fourthwall Books, 2017). She currently lives in Brussels and is working on projects that combine academia with creative modes of dissemination.