Magubane: I had no idea who he was

A young woman learns about SA from an icon

At the University of the Free State there is currently a Peter Magubane exhibition titled “A Struggle Without Documentation Is No Struggle”. A young journalist who takes a walk through the artistry of this legendary photographer is embarrassed to realise how little she knows about her own country. She reflects on the lessons from the past and the present.

As a young South African I cannot help but feel honoured when I am in the presence of the brave souls that had the courage to fight for what they believed in. Internationally acclaimed South African photo journalist, Peter Magubane, is one of them.

I had the pleasure of speaking to Magubane on one of my recent assignments as a junior journalist. I had to attend his photo exhibition titled, A struggle without documentation is no struggle, in Bloemfontein. Given the assignment in a rush, I had no idea who he was. I went into the story oblivious of his legendary career, shamefully so. Of course, I took it for granted that I would have to learn a few things about the man I was about to meet.

Journalist intern Lerato Lelia.

Journalist intern Lerato Lelia.

As a junior journalist, just starting out, I am always busy… being assigned in many different directions all the time. As I go about my work I’m alarmed by how little I know of the history of my country. So when I went on the Magubane assignment I was ashamed of how little I knew. But the exhibition held at the University of the Free State soon filled some of the huge gaps in my knowledge.

With his camera as his weapon, as he so sternly described it, Magubane told stories that could so easily have fallen through the cracks. And, were it not for people like him and this assignment, I would have stayed in my shell of ignorance. I would not have had the chance to experience a vital slice of my own history.

And to think I only got to find out who Magubane was because of a quick Google search on my phone, just before entering the exhibition. The sense of guilt I felt at my ignorance was overwhelming.

Legendary Photographer Peter Magubane.

Legendary Photographer Peter Magubane.

I Knew Little of Apartheid

As I took a walk through the exhibition to have a look before talking with Magubane, I also realised how little I knew about what happened during apartheid.

Here were photographs that took me deep into stories of struggle, war, pain and suffering. It is so easy to think we know enough about the world around us. But when I experienced the raw emotions of the people in the photos I felt as if I would never know enough.

The photographs were perfectly timed, captured at just the right moment. Each one told a story.

The stories were brought into my world by Magubane so I could know a little of what happened…The Soweto uprising of 1976, the Rivonia trial of Nelson Mandela & Co or the cruelty of apartheid. These are stories my generation does not go searching for. As the youth we deem it irrelevant and feel it should stay in the past. However, as I looked at Magubane’s photos – especially of the ones depicting child labour or young people in the midst of violence – I realised how blessed I am to live in more peaceful times.

And constantly with me as I walked through the exhibition, were the feelings of guilt and relief; a sense of relief because I do not have to worry about experiencing the traumas of the people in the photographs; a feeling of remorse that I did not contribute or suffer as much to deserve the South Africa in which I now live.

As I sat, listening to Magubane talk about his photographs and the stories behind them I was in awe at the depth and the attachment he had to his purpose. I could not help but wonder, how I could make a difference with my craft in the same way that he did… in a profound manner. To tell the stories of ordinary people, stories with depth and emotion.

A part of me felt that I should not have learned about his story from Google, while caught up in the haste of my life. But the exhibition became my time to reflect.

Face Your Fears

The words that will always stay with me, spoken by the man himself, are these:

“Do not have fear. When I was taking my photographs there were a lot of moments of fear. I could have chosen to not take photos because I thought they were gruesome or I would get into trouble. I did not make decisions for my audience, I took the photos and the people were the ones who would decide whether a picture was gruesome or not. Always take your photo first and then face the fear and consequence after you have your story or picture.”

Those words brought to me the realisation that as a young journalist and a South African youth, my fears should not limit me on my quest to becoming the best storyteller. That fears should not halt my efforts and desires to learn more about my country’s history or to try and have an impact on its future.

Magubane inspired me to shed my ignorance so that it will not be the stumbling block in the way of the many stories that will come to me.

Above all, while interviewing Magubane, I realised that despite the pain that he saw and his efforts to diminish it, deep down he was an ordinary human, full of charm and humour. A man who said to me:

“Make sure that you are pretty when I meet you tomorrow. If not, make sure that you bring along someone who is.”

A parting shot that helped me learn a little bit more about the world and put the icon into perspective.

Editor’s Note: This story has been developed as part of The Journalist’s Mentorship programme in the Free State. The YouTube interview embedded at the top was conducted previously for Bloemfontein’s OFM Radio Station.

Mineworkers stripped naked and lined up for inspection. A Peter Magubane classic.

Mineworkers stripped naked and lined up for inspection. A Peter Magubane classic.