One of South Africa’s greatest photographers speaks to Peter Barlow
Peter Magubane has been taking photographs for the better part of a half-century. Through his photography he has documented many of South Africa’s darkest moments, such as the Sharpeville massacre in 1960 and the Soweto uprising in 1976. He has witnessed many things ranging from heart-warm-ing to horrific and yet, even today, he has managed to remain focused and relaxed.He has worked for publications such as Drum magazine and the Rand Daily Mail, with his work exhibited both locally and nationally on numerous occasions. Rhodes bestowed an hon-orary doctorate on Magubane at this year’s graduation ceremony. While here he donated one of his photo-graphs to the new Africa Media Matrix.
Q: You began taking photographs for Drum magazine. How did you first get involved?
A: I had two friends who worked at Drum, Bob Gosani and Can Themba. Bob Gosani was a brilliant young pho-tographer and Can Themba was an English master who had left teaching and taken up journalism. I fiercely wanted to do what they were doing: showing how South Africans live and what South Africa is about.
Q: What drew you to work for Drum?
A: Well, what actually made me interested in joining Drum magazine were the articles that they were writ-ing, talking about South Africa and the people in South Africa and how the blacks were the underdogs
Q: Describe the challenges of work-ing in an apartheid newsroom.
A: Drum was a different home; it did not have apartheid. There was no discrimination in the offices of Drum magazine. It was only when you left Drum and entered the world outside of the main door that you knew you were in apartheid land. But while you were inside Drum magazine, everyone there was a family.
Q: When did you leave Drum and what happened after that?
A: I left Drum in 1965. Before I left Drum I went overseas because I had an exhibition in London and an exhibi-tion in Germany. When the editor of Drum magazine, who had just taken over from Tom Hopkinson, said to me I should come back, I said I would rather lose the job than come back because I was learning there; it wasn’t just a visit. I didn’t go back to Drum, and when I finally got back to South Africa 1966, I joined the Rand Daily Mail as a freelancer. By 1967 I was on the staff of the Mail and I carried on working with them.
Q: How did you get to cover the 1976 Soweto uprising?
A: I was detained for 586 days in solitary confinement and was banned for 5 years until 1975. When June One of South Africa’s greatest photographers speaks to Peter BarlowPeter Magubane16, 1976 arrived, I hadn’t been work-ing for so long that I was hungry to re-launch myself. I was in Soweto on the first day of the uprising and on the second day, I was in a township where police went in with a vengeance; they didn’t use tear gas or rubber bullets but live ammunition. There I captured very beautiful material and at the same time had my nose fractured.
Q: How did you approach covering events such as the 1976 uprising?
A: Well, I just went in there with an open mind, telling myself I need to bring a true record of what I have seen.
Q: What did you do between then and the end of apartheid?
A: I was going around Africa docu-menting the plight of the refugees in Somalia, Ethiopia, Zimbabwe and Mozambique. In Ethiopia and Somalia I had never seen starved people; you could actually see the heart beating through the ribs.
Q: How do you deal with that?
A: You are there to document, you get your material first and then you get affected. If you are going to get affected first you won’t do your work.
Q: You are now more into cultural photography. Could you tell us a bit more on that?
A: Well, I decided I would do what I was not able to do because I had seen these people in the past dur-ing the struggle days but there was no time to capture them. After the release of the Robben Islanders, the political prisoners, I decided that this was now time for me to cover what I had not covered, what I saw then, all the cultures. To me it was very impor-tant because we were made to hate ourselves. Our didn’t want to say you were born in Natal; you would say you were born in Johannesburg: you didn’t want to admit you were born in a rural area. We all said we were born in the city so that you could get a worker’s permit and a house and all that. I had to revisit myself to see who I was and where I came from.
Q: How do you compare your present work to what you did for Drum?
A: You see, the rural areas are dif-ferent from the city; you don’t just come in and start shooting. You have to greet and sit down with people; you change your city mannerisms. In the rural areas I discuss my project with people and if they accept me, they accept me. If they don’t, then I have to portray them as I see them.
Q: How do you think photography has the power to change a country?
A: Countries have been changed around the world by photography because other countries have seen how they operate and they have been able to take action. Today you don’t have the Berlin Wall; it has fallen down and we saw that in pictures. We saw 9/11 in pictures too, and the wars around the world. The world would not have seen what apart-heid was like and what it meant. Photography has played a very impor-tant part in our lives.
Q: How do you compare the place photography occupies in society now with the place it occupied during your Drum days?
A: Nothing has changed. We have a new system, but that system has to be portrayed too. As you can see there are upheavals all over the country about non-delivery. Photographers have gone there and taken photo-graphs and people around the world have seen nothing is calm in South Africa. There is always something hap-pening.
Q: Is anyone in your family pursuing the art of photography?
A: They all take pictures but I don’t know whether they want to be photo-graphers.
Q: What kind of equipment do you use?
A: I use the old cameras. I cannot criticise digital but I will criticise the one who is using digital, because I believe you need to tell the truth with your camera and be open to the peo-ple who are going to look at your pic-tures; don’t take objects and put them where they don’t belong.