Peter Magubane was made to stand on bricks for five days and nights. Given nothing but the sporadic sip of black coffee to sustain him, on the fifth day he collapsed. He faced an indefinite period in solitary confinement. The crime? Photographing a 1969 demonstration.
This was life for a photojournalist in apartheid South Africa. The state didn’t want the world seeing South Africa’s dark reality. Countless acts of violence were committed in the name of censorship. Rather than be dissuaded, Magubane was galvanised. For him, the only way to tell the truth was to photograph it.
He always gets the shot. It’s why he has spent his career documenting some of the bleakest moments of the liberation struggle in South Africa. “The only way to show the world is with the pictures,” he says. “You can write a whole book, but I’ll give you one picture and the whole world will see.”
Magubane is responsible for many of the iconic images from major political events of the era. The Sharpeville Massacre. Riots in Soweto. The Rivonia Trial. Despite witnessing some of the most violent events of the time first-hand, he remained focused and dedicated to his profession, always comprehending the brevity ofhis responsibility.
“I am there as a photographer first,” he says. “I had to do my job because I wanted the world to see what South Africa was like and what kind of animal apartheid was. With one picture, the rest of the world could see how our country operated.” This white-haired octogenarian has lived through the tyranny of apartheid, survived a traumatic shooting, and battled cancer. He’s still taking pictures.
As a child in Sophiatown, Magubane became enamoured with the images he saw in magazines like Time, Life, and Drum. While in high school, he acquired his first camera. The budding photographer did what any young boy would do – he used it to capture play with his schoolmates, unaware that his compositions would turn grave and that he would one day become as celebrated as the photographers he idolised.
At the time, Drum magazine was a major platform for a new generation of black photographers and writers to challenge their representation in society. The publication became a record of the defiance, hope, frustration and courage that filled the era. It served as a symbol of the freedom that was being fought for. Magubane was determined to work for them.
Needing to get his foot in the door by any means, he took up the position of driver. “It was the only vacancy they had,” he says. “I didn’t waste any time. I took the job, and I lied to them about having a license.” It didn’t take long for him to rise. Ambitious and resourceful, he soon began working as assistant to Jurgen Schadeberg, Drum’s chief photographer and layout artist.
In 1955, he won his first photographic assignment covering the ANC’s annual conference. Magubane never looked back. He plunged head first into life as a Drum photographer, armed with a camera and the words of his editor: “No one dictates terms to you. You go there, come back with the pictures. Don’t tell me that you were not able to get the pictures because there were too many police or this and that, no. I want my pictures.”
The Drum photography team of the era – which included Magubane, Schadeberg, Alf Khumalo, Ernest Cole and Bob Gosani – has become legendary. They risked their lives to document the mayhem that the apartheid state exacted upon the nation and roused the concern of the international community by getting their images out of the country.
Being on assignment in the early years wasn’t easy. Police scrutiny was intense. During his time at Drum, Magubane developed some unusual photography skills. He’d take pictures at protests and gatherings on the sly, developing creative methods to avoid being noticed by the police and getting his pictures confiscated.
“I’d have my camera underneath my dustcoat,” he says. “If I see the shot, I’d open my dustcoat, take a shot and put my camera back.” On one occasion, the innovative photographer hollowed out a loaf of bread, placed his camera inside and pretended to eat the bread. In reality he was getting the shots he needed right in front of the police.
After a short stint abroad, Magubane returned to South Africa where he was employed by the Rand Daily Mail – one of the only papers in the country that focused on issues affecting black citizens. In 1969, he was assigned to photograph a demonstration outside Winnie Mandela’s jail cell. This time, his underhand photography skills were useless. He was arrested, interrogated and placed in solitary confinement for 586 days. Upon his release, he was banned from photography for five years.
The banning order expired in 1975 and Magubane resumed his employment with the Rand Daily Mail undeterred. He covered the Soweto riots in which 20,000 Soweto students took to the streets in protest. Hundreds were killed when police opened fire. Magubane was there to capture every moment. He was once again arrested. This time he was beaten up, detained for 123 days and his house was burned down.
Still, his series of images from the event brought him worldwide acclaim and recognition. They captured a stark reality that was impossible to ignore. He became an icon for reporters working under repressive regimes. “My editor once told me that you go in there and you feed your camera,” he says. “I didn’t want to carry a gun, go outside and kill people. I used my camera as a gun, and I think I was very successful.”
Since the end of apartheid, Magubane has been the recipient of multiple photography honours, including the coveted Cornell Capa Infinity Award. Known for putting aside his camera and intervening in volatile situations, he was awarded the American National Professional Photographers Association Humanistic Award in recognition of this. “I would never leave a photographer stranded,” he says. “I would never leave a photographer to be beaten up by people.”
Despite an archive featuring iconic images of some of the most infamous atrocities in our country’s history, Magubane’s favourite shot is a photo he took of Madiba dancing. “I took a picture of Madiba jiving when he came back from prison,” he says. “I know people will say I should think in terms of images of people dying…whatever. I have too many pictures of people being brutalised.”
Now 82, he has softened somewhat. No longer as concerned with photojournalism, these days he’s more focused on exhibitions and art photography. Still, his fighting spirit remains. Magubane’s prepared to pick up his camera and keep up the struggle. “If the system of today doesn’t give me what I want – what the people want – I will not pack my bags. I will document it.”
Since Drum’s heyday and the end of apartheid, the photography landscape has changed. An abundance of new technology, new techniques, and new perspectives does not deter the man. For Magubane the essence of the profession remains. “Photography will never change,” he says. “It will remain what it has been, especially when you know you’ve got a picture that will kick the world awake. Let the people eat through your camera. Let the people eat through your eyes.”