Dr Peter Magubane is an internationally acclaimed photographer
September 21, 2012, 12:00 AM
By KERRI MACDONALD
Peter Magubane has always lived by simple words, adopted from a former editor: “If you want a picture, you get that picture, under all circumstances.”
Mr. Magubane faced difficult circumstances when he started taking photos professionally. In the mid-1950s, he was a young, black man who had recently started working for Drum magazine in Johannesburg.
When he went to the South African town of Zeerust in 1956 to photograph thousands of women marching against the pass laws, members of the press had been banned. And so to get his pictures, he did the next logical thing — went to the nearest café, bought a loaf of bread and scooped out the middle.
“I put my Leica camera inside there and made holes so that I’m able to take pictures,” he said. “I pretended to be eating. At the same time, I’m clicking, taking pictures.”
Mr. Magubane, 80, told the story matter-of-factly this week, punctuating his tale with the words: “Those are the things that I learned.”
He was in New York for the opening of “Rise and Fall of Apartheid: Photography and the Bureaucracy of Everyday Life,” a comprehensive exhibition curated by Okwui Enwezor and Rory Bester that opened last week at the International Center of Photography. (A New York Times review of the exhibition by Holland Cotter and a slide show appeared on Friday in the Arts section.)
Last weekend, The Times Magazine featured photos from the show that had originally been published in Drum, where Mr. Magubane worked as a driver before he was promoted to the dark room, and then to the field.
Twenty-three of his photographs are featured in the show, including iconic moments from the Soweto uprising and the Sharpeville massacre, when 69 black South Africans were killed by police.
But nothing in the exhibition surprised Mr. Magubane. “I was born in apartheid and worked through apartheid, so South Africa is mine,” he said. “It’s history.”
Mr. Magubane’s own history includes being shot at by police. He was banned from photography for five years. He spent six months in prison and separately, nearly 600 days in solitary confinement.
“Sitting in a cell on your own for 586 days, you know, you see the sun rise,” he said. “You see the sun set. You see a bird sit on the window. When you look at the bird, it flies away and you say, ‘I wish I was the bird.’”
But he was always compelled to keep shooting. “I wanted to use my camera so that I could show the world what is happening in my country,” he said. “If the world gives assistance, they will give assistance because they have seen photographically what is happening.”
Mr. Magubane was there in 1976 when the Soweto riots began. He was taking pictures, running backward, he said, when a group of young men approached him demanding that he stop taking photos.
“I said, ‘Struggle without documentation is not struggle. I’m not asking for myself only; I’m asking for anybody that has a camera documenting this struggle. You must let them work.’”
And they listened.
He was there, too, when Nelson Mandela was released from prison in 1990. “That was the happiest moment,” he recalled. For a time, Mr. Magubane worked as Mr. Mandela’s photographer.
Mr. Magubane continued shooting after Mr. Mandela came into power. The struggle, he said, was far from over, as complex tribal and territorial conflicts continued to create dangerous situations. Police brutality was rampant.
As a result, Mr. Magubane’s only photograph of violence between township residents and hostel-dwelling workers was shot from a great distance, on the top of a Volkswagen, using a 500-millimeter lens.
“When they come into the township, you would see no dog, no kid,” he said. “You would see no human being in the street. Houses would be closed with curtains.”
A grandfather today, Mr. Magubane lives in Johannesburg, where he was born. He has seven honorary degrees and 17 books. At 80 — “still very young,” he said — he continues to take photos.
The man who describes himself as a fighter with a camera is striving to show a side of South Africa rarely seen in his earlier work: its beauty. “I’m tired of dealing with dead people,” he said. “I now deal with sunsets.”
He added: “They’re so beautiful. You see so many; it’s like meeting beautiful women.”
Yet he’s prepared to keep fighting. “If things tend to be different from what I think they should be,” he said, “I pick up my camera and go back and I show the world what is going on now.”