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Remembering Peter Magubane Share This on LinkedIn   Tweet This   Forward This

2 January 2024

Peter Magubane, a Black South African photographer who documented life under apartheid despite repeated attempts to suppress his work, died on Monday after a battle with prostrate cancer. He was 91.

Magubane was born in Vrededorp, a suburb of Johannesburg, and raised in Sophiatown. He started taking photographs with a Kodak Brownie box camera when he was still a schoolboy.

In 1954 he read a copy of Drum, a magazine known for its reporting of urban blacks and the effects of apartheid. "They were dealing with social issues that affected black people in South Africa. I wanted to be part of that magazine."

He wanted to join Drum so badly that he took a job there as a driver and messenger. After six months, he got a photography assignment under the mentorship of J├╝rgen Schadeberg, the chief photographer. He had to borrow a camera to cover the 1955 ANC convention.

"I went back to the office with good results," he said, "and never looked back."

Photojournalism under apartheid was a clandestine operation. If police were in the area, you had to hide your camera. Magubane used hollowed-out bread loaves, empty milk cartons and even a Bible to get the shots.

'I am a feelingless beast while taking photographs.'

He never staged his photos nor asked permission. If someone was insulted by his photography, he simply apologized. But he wanted the photo.

He also practiced a detachment in the field. "I am a feelingless beast while taking photographs. It is only after I complete my assignment that I think of the dangers that surrounded me, the tragedies that befell my people."

But he would also put down his camera to come to the aid of his people. He would become "an ambulance-man, pick up the body, take it to the hospital if the person is still alive" or intervene if he saw retaliation brewing.

He said, "If my editor ever said to me I should not help -- I should not give help when it is necessary -- then my editor can go to hell."

Among his images are the shooting deaths of 69 unarmed demonstrators in Sharpeville in 1960, the Rivonia trial of Nelson Mandela and other leaders of the African National Congress in the early 1960s and the uprising by high school students in Soweto in 1976. He became Nelson Mandela's official photographer for four years until Mandela's election as South Africa's first Black president in 1994.

Through it all, he suffered beatings, imprisonment (including solitary confinement for 586 days) and banishment for five years during which he was not allowed to socialize with more than one other person at a time nor allowed to enter any school or newspaper office.

Late in life, he concentrated on art photography, documenting in color the surviving tribal life in post-apartheid South Africa for the African Heritage Series.

"I now deal with sunsets," he said. "They're so beautiful. You see so many; it's like meeting beautiful women."

He exhibited widely and published 17 books. He received seven honorary degrees among many other awards, including the Cornell Capa Infinity Award in 2010.

He was married three times and is survived by his daughter Fikile Magubane and a granddaughter.

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