/ 1 October 2021

Black Photo Libraries: Peter Magubane on the struggle for documentation

Black Photo Libraries
Watching and learning: Peter Magubane with a BaNtwane elder at a rites of passage ceremony near Groblersdaal in 2008. Photo: Dave Meyer-Gollan

My father, Isaac Magubane, bought me my first camera, a Kodak Brownie. I would take pictures of my school friends in Sophiatown and charge them. In our days there were no places for black photographers to learn, experience and exchange ideas like at the Market Photo Workshop.  If you wanted to be a photographer, you had to learn on the job by watching others and teaching yourself. 

It was when I saw the pictures in Life magazine that I knew I wanted to be a photographer. I wanted to get a job at Drum magazine but the only vacancy that existed at the time was for a driver. I thought fast – this was an opportunity to get my foot in the door, so I told them I had a licence and that weekend I went to Durban and got one! 

I would drive journalists to their assignments, watching them as they worked, learning all the time.  

I learnt a great deal from Bob Gosani just by following him around. Bob was a brilliant photographer, and a real mentor to me in the early days of my career. I am extremely grateful to him for taking me under his wing and showing me the ropes. 

Like so many of us as budding photographers at the time, I moved to the darkroom as a technician. In the darkroom, I learned the art of developing my own film and this would help me immensely in the years to come. 

On my off days, I would walk the streets of Johannesburg taking pictures, refining my craft. I had a burning desire, a determination to be a more than just a photographer; I wanted to be one of the best photojournalists and show the world how apartheid operated, what was going on in my country. 

My first real assignment at Drum was covering the adoption of the Freedom Charter in Kliptown in 1956. I was so ecstatic to see my pictures published! 

Then, in 1960 at the Sharpeville massacre came the greatest learning experience of my career. I was shooting from a distance and never had I seen so many dead bodies in my life. I was shocked, scared, and totally overwhelmed by what I was seeing and when I got back to the office, my editor, Tom Hopkinson, gave me one hell of a tongue-lashing and said I must get closer to the picture. He wanted to see the bullet piercing the body, so I had to get closer to the action. Tom said if he did not believe I had the makings of a good photographer, he would have fired me on the spot. From that day, I never allowed my emotions to get in the way of my taking a picture, no matter the circumstances.

Reading the essays in this collection, I am reminded vividly of how I applied that lesson at the Soweto uprising of 1976. My banning orders had been lifted, so I went into 16 June 1976 determined to get pictures and show the world my country. I put my emotions aside and knew I had to get the pictures. The students did not want us to take pictures. I told them: “[A] struggle without documentation is no struggle”, that they needed to allow journalists in, to tell their story so that there is a record for the world to see what they were fighting. 

Bra Sam Nzima has the iconic picture. To me, his picture is the best picture of 16 June 1976. I may have three books on 16 June and the aftermath of the Soweto uprising as it spread throughout the country, but Bra Sam got the picture. It is very sad to read how his picture was abused and it is important that this injustice be placed on record in a book of this nature. 

I remember Sam Nzima, Alf Kumalo, Mike Mzileni, Bongani Mnguni and I organising the containers for the exhibition on 16 June 1976 in Soweto. I am told that this exhibition inspired the building of the Hector Pieterson Museum in Soweto. I am glad to see that there has been some attempt to remember the contribution of Mabel Cetu and I hope more research is done about her. Each time I travelled to Port Elizabeth, I asked my contacts in the area about Mabel, and about what had happened to her. Nobody could tell me anything.  

I am also glad to see that the wonderful contributions to South African photography made by people like Ernest Cole, Santu Mofokeng, Rashid Lombard, George Hallett, Alf Kumalo, Moffat Zungu, Mike Mzileni, Omar Badsha, Juda Ngwenya, Robert Tshabalala, Walter Pitso, Ralph Ndawo, Sam Nzima, Cedric Nunn, to name a few, have been documented here for future generations to come.

The fact that the Market Photo Workshop exists is wonderful. A place where people can go and learn about photography, refine their craft, and be stimulated by others. I fondly remember, over the years, assisting with events they were having and giving guest lectures from time to time. I was always inspired by young people’s energy to learn, and I was thrilled that they had a place like the Market Photo Workshop. After all, photography is one of the most important visual art mediums that exists. It has been used as one of the most powerful and important agents of liberation, not only in South Africa, but also throughout the world.

I therefore feel very honoured to have been asked to contribute to a very important collection of essays that captures the life and times of black photography in South Africa. Reading the essays, I am reminded distinctly of the times we lived and the events we faced daily. 

Finally, this collection is a record of the tremendous contribution made by black photographers to the liberation of South Africa through our pictures. I hope photographers of today will be inspired by these essays, to not rest on their laurels, sitting around waiting for editors to tell them to go on assignments; but to learn to go out on their own initiative and create their own projects, guard their copyright, and not go hungry.

Dr Peter Magubane, August 2021

This article is Peter Magubane’s foreword to Black Photo Libraries, a project by the Market Photo Workshop

Credits for Black Photo Libraries

Edited by: Dr Candice Jansen

Co-ordinator for archives and research: 

Loyiso Qanya

Researchers: Brittany Zoё Masters and Tshepiso Moropa

Copy editor: Lebohang Mojapelo

Proofreader: Michelle van Heerden

Design: Rendani Nemakhavhani

Web design: Sandile Phakati and Kabelo Dube

Printer: Remata Print & Communication

Black Photo Libraries, a research collection by the Market Photo Workshop, is presented in partnership with the Mail & Guardian, sponsored by the National Institute of Humanities and Social Sciences. 

This collection furthers the development of a research community led by the Market Photo Workshop for the remembering, teaching and publishing of black contributions to photographic history in Africa. 

It addresses the need for greater visibility of African photographers and their practices to be taught, learnt from, and referenced in the culture at large. 

Black Photo Libraries is inspired by South African photographer Santu Mofokeng’s Black Photo Album (2013) and takes up Mofokeng’s ways of research, writing and reading photography as strategies for the production and excavation of visual histories for the present.

For more info, visit: photoformafrica.com/bpl/ 

Email: [email protected]

Market Photo Workshop is a division of the Market Theatre Foundation.