OBITUARY:PETER MCKENZIE 1955 – 2017
Photographer and filmmaker Peter McKenzie died on October 13. He will no longer “make pictures”. That distinction between “taking” and “making” photographs was important to McKenzie — as a photographer, an intellectual, an activist and an aesthete.
He did not believe that photography should be extractive. Rather than “take” photographs, he would “make” them — a conceptual breakaway that spoke of a connection with the people, the incidents and the issues he was photographing.
McKenzie was easygoing and easy to get on with. He respected people. As with every good photojournalist, he was humble before them. He searched for the detail in people’s lives.
McKenzie conceived of ideas and exchanged them enthusiastically with others. He read widely, talked passionately and laughed loudly; he smiled with all of his heart. All of this he channelled back into his photographs. Likewise the enduring relationships he built.
McKenzie was born in Durban, the youngest of five children. His father was an evangelist and Peter would tell people he was “the son of a preacher man”. But, from a young age, he developed an anti-authoritarian streak that would lead to a life lived as a bohemian and an activist.
Photographer Rafs Mayet, a friend since they met in grade one at Melbourne Road Primary School in Durban, remembers Peter nicking his father’s Jeep, replete with “Repent” and “Jesus Saves!” stickers, and rocking up at music gigs in the city with “the ‘bras’ tumbling out”.
Initially growing up in Durban’s casbah area, McKenzie’s family moved to Cato Manor and then, with apartheid’s forced removals, to Wentworth in Durban harbour’s heavily industrialised and polluted South Basin.
Cast into “colouredness” by the apartheid state, McKenzie would humorously refer to himself as a “bruin ou” — but his politics made it clear that he remained a proud black man.
Sent to Harold Cressy High School in Cape Town’s District Six, McKenzie studied with the likes of former finance minister Trevor Manuel and hung out with budding musicians like Robbie Jansen.
In high school, he also met his future wife, Moeneefa. The couple moved to Johannesburg, where McKenzie started working on a production line, making televisions. When an emigrating colleague sold McKenzie his camera equipment, “the photography bug bit”, says Mayet.
McKenzie returned to Durban to study photography at Natal Technikon, becoming the first black student to graduate from the department.
Photographer Cedric Nunn says seeing McKenzie’s student portfolio was “catalytic for me to realise that I could be a photographer”. Nunn was working in a sugar factory when he met McKenzie, who was a bassist in the band Staple Diet, which also included Steve Dyer.
“I had this epiphany when I saw his work,” said Nunn. “The social justice issues that were conveyed so powerfully in his work made me realise that this was a medium to articulate my own sense of this world.” He said McKenzie “gave me the courage to hand in my resignation letter”, and the duo went on a three-month road trip through Swaziland and Zimbabwe.
Moving back to Johannesburg in the early 1980s, McKenzie, with photographers such as Omar Badsha and Paul Weinberg, started the Afrapix collective, which challenged and disrupted conventional media representations of South Africa and the anti-apartheid struggle.
“Peter was one of those documentary photographers whose work was sensitive to, and created a new narrative about, everyday South Africa. This was predicated on people’s dignity and challenged the mainstream tropes that white … society had entrenched in their representation of black communities,” says Badsha.
McKenzie worked at the Sunday Tribune, Afrapix and as chief photographer at Drum magazine, where he earned the nickname “Bra Mkhize”. He also worked as a freelancer and was Panapress’s Johannesburg photo chief.
His work spanned the breadth of his considerable creative imagination and highly political sense of social justice. McKenzie photographed the violence during the state of emergency in the 1980s; he documented the Polisario refugee camps in Algeria and the Sahrawi people’s struggle to claim back the Western Sahara.
His intimate portraits of a Wentworth ghetto saw gangsters and aunties, street urchins and neighbourhood characters presented in all their complexity. This became the documentary Vying Pozi (Going Home). Despite travelling widely, McKenzie’s roots remained in Durban, Wentworth — “my kasi”.
Returning to Durban in the 2000s, he trained his lens on pollution in the South Basin, on the forgotten histories of black Durban and on the Hindu fire-walking ceremonies and faith.
Fighting liver cancer, McKenzie approached these ceremonies, which he had photographed as a student, “with a sense of his own mortality”, said Mayet. “There was a remarkable shift in how he presented his work. There were fewer huge fires and red-hot coals, his framing was now tighter, there was less depth of field and certainly something more spiritual about it — although Peter was never a religious person.”
McKenzie published and exhibited both locally and internationally. He curated several projects during his career, including the work of five South African photographers at the bi-annual Recontres de la Photographie Africaine in Bamako, Mali in 1998. Together with partner Caroline Terrier McKenzie curated and co-ordinated the Every Child is my Child exhibition for the Office of the President.
His love of ideas and his intellectualism saw McKenzie teaching photojournalism at the Institute for the Advancement of Journalism, the Market Photo Workshop and the Cape Town International Jazz Festival, and resuscitating the dormant Durban Centre for Photography.
In his latter years, his driving passion was passing on his knowledge of photography and the politics inherent in moving into people’s lives with a camera, while inspiring young photographers to open their conceptual eyes to what could be “seen”. Photographer Sydelle Willow Smith recalls his advice to “remember to pack respect and humility in your camera bag”.
Such was McKenzie’s lust for life that even the older hands learned from him. “When he moved back to Durban, I was jaded, but he saw things differently. Everywhere he looked around the city, there were photographic projects and stories to be told,” says Mayet. “He made you look differently at things you took for granted.”
Whether in a brutal apartheid South Africa or a corrupted democratic one, McKenzie looked beyond the obvious. He moved between worlds, peeling away layers of life to reveal new meanings and understandings with “a graceful eye”.
You will be missed, dear friend. You had so much more to do in this life. — Niren Tolsi