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Remembering Sam Nzima Share This on LinkedIn   Share This on Google   Tweet This   Forward This

18 May 2018

He was the son of a laborer for a white farmer in South Africa who caught the photography bug when a teacher showed him how his camera worked. A few years later Sam Nzima would become famous for a photograph of children carrying one of their dead at a Soweto uprising, which ironically ended his career in photojournalism.

The 1976 image of the fatally-wounded high school student Hector Pieterson carried by Mbuyisa Makhubo with Pieterson's sister Antoinette was published the next day in The World. But Nzima had to go into hiding and suffered years of harassment by the South African security police because of it.

In those days, of course, the only evidence of injustice was collected by photojournalists. The students protesting apartheid, which that photo helped end, did not have smartphones.

Even after The World ceased operations in 1978 and The Daily Mail and The Star newspapers offered Nzima a job, he could not accept for fear the security police would kill him.

Knowing how his life played out, it is hard to imagine the excitement he must have felt the day he learned how a camera works.

And that photo? Widely published, Nzima did not have the copyright so received nothing for the work that had endangered his life until many years later. It wasn't until 1998 that he won back the copyright for his photo.

Knowing how his life played out, it is hard to imagine the excitement he must have felt the day he learned how a camera works. But he was excited enough to buy a camera of his own to take photos in Kruger National Park.

Before he could complete his schooling, though, his father's employer pressed him into service on the farm. After nine months, he fled the farm, finding work as a gardener in Henningham where he finished his high school education.

By 1956 he was working as a waiter at the Savoy Hotel where he met the photographer Patrick Rikotso. Nzima learned to improve his photography from Rikotso, taking portraits of his fellow workers. Soon he was thinking about a career in photojournalism.

He submitted a story he had written and illustrated with his own photographs to The World, the black African daily. That got him a freelance gig which turned into a staff position in 1968.

Eight years later he took the shot that ended his career.

He resided in Lillydale where he managed a photography school and served on the councils of the Lillydale municipality and of the Bohlabela District.

In 2011 Nzima was awarded South Africa's Order of Ikhamanga, which honors South Africans in the arts, culture and journalism. And in 2016 Time Magazine named his image of Pieterson as one of the 100 most influential photographs in history.

Nzima died on May 12 at Rob Ferreira Hospital in Mbombela after a short illness. He was 83.

The Mpumalanga provincial government asked the family to postpone the memorial service and the funeral to May 24 and May 26 respectively. It takes a little longer to prepare for a state funeral, a spokesperson for the government said.

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