SAM NZIMA (1934-2018)

A story of a memorable photograph, and why it matters

By J Brooks Spector 18 May 2018

16 June 1976, Soweto: Against the backdrop of buildings and other students, Nzima had captured the picture of Hector Pieterson, his sister, Antoinette Pieterson, and the fellow student, Mbuyisa Makhubo, who was carrying Pieterson.

The death of Sam Nzima, the man who took the photograph that came to symbolise all that was wrong with apartheid and how it would be opposed, offers a moment to contemplate how much photographs matter to us now and how they shape the reality we carry in our minds and memories.

The passing away of South African photographer Sam Nzima on 12th May triggers thoughts of the circumstances and impact of that image, the iconic photograph, the one for which Nzima should be forever remembered. And that image, of course, is of dying student Hector Pieterson being carried – too late, of course – to medical help, while his horror struck sister runs alongside. The protests began on 16 June 1976 over the imposition of Afrikaans as the language of instruction in maths and the sciences.

In this picture, against the backdrop of buildings and other students, Nzima had captured the picture of Hector Pieterson, his sister, Antoinette Pieterson, and the fellow student, Mbuyisa Makhubo, who was carrying Pieterson, in the Orlando West neighbourhood, close to Phefeni High School, in the midst of the demonstrations and the police reaction. Antoinette Pieterson’s face is contorted in anguish when her brother became the early victim of lethal police action during student protests in Soweto.

To look carefully, yet again, at this photograph is to see just how much its emotional content owes to the classic religious portrayals of the dying (or just deceased) Jesus in the arms and on the lap of his mother, most especially the Michelangelo sculpture, usually referred to as The Pieta, as well as many other statues and paintings of that moment. As with Michelangelo’s depiction, Nzima’s capture of the stillness of the victim – paradoxically – only heightens the drama of the scene.

In something of the same way, Peter Magubane’s hauntingly beautiful image of Winnie Mandela, the one with a portion of her head-scarf draping downward, has always reminded me of paintings by the Dutch master, Jan Vermeer, such as The Lacemaker. Both are gentle domestic scenes; there is a quietness about the images – but there is also the sense that they have captured a moment in time not easily forgotten. Photography, of course, has largely usurped the documentary moment from painting for most people, even as it has become its own special art form, but it still takes a very special skill by the photographer for a photograph to deliver the emotional punch a painting can provide in the hands of a gifted artist.

Nzima had been a photographer for The World newspaper, a white-owned, but essentially black-edited daily paper, then a part of the Argus Group. (The World was forced by the government to close in 1977 and a few years later was reborn as The Sowetan, under new leadership.) Its readers were mostly in the greater Johannesburg-Pretoria area, but this particular photograph soon transcended its initial placement and became the image of the increasingly fierce student rebellion against the apartheid era government. It went big. Globally.

Sam Nzima, himself, had come from the small town of Lillydale, in what is now Mpumalanga. As a young man he had become interested in photography when a teacher showed him a camera and explained its workings. He eventually purchased his own camera and began taking animal pictures in Kruger National Park. Facing demands, he worked as a farm labourer where he was living, then moved to Johannesburg where he began working as a gardener while finishing high school. Working as a hotel waiter, a work colleague had showed him some of the ropes of photography as a skill and he began taking pictures of other employees.

Photo: Sam Nzima in 2012 (Photo by Karyn Maughan)

As he became more exposed to newspapers in Johannesburg, he glimpsed the possibilities of photojournalism as a way to make money. He took a chance and sent some work off to the editor of The World where, recognising talent, the editor gave him a chance as a freelancer and then a full-time staff member.

Once the picture was published, inevitably, given the times, the police, seeing its enormous emotional power, took a particularly serious interest in him and his work and he eventually moved back to Lillydale to get away from the cauldron of Johannesburg and Soweto. Over the years, he was sometimes discouraged to find that his best-known picture was sometimes attributed to others. Eventually, he largely gave up photography, first to run a liquor store, then to take on positions in local government, and also managing a small photography school.

In death, French photographer and con artist Emilie Chaix hijacked Nzima’s work, marketing the image as hers via the internet, among other major South African images. She has not been alone in marketing Nzima’s best-known work as their possession.

But go back to that crisp winter day and imagine how the scene Nzima captured in June must have unfolded for him and all the other photographers and journalists following the action. Like a good photojournalist, Nzima had rushed to the Orlando West area of Soweto as the disruptions were coalescing, and he followed the student marchers who were moving to deliver their demands about education to the government. To capture the image, he must have had to dodge the police’s movements, their lethal firing, and amid the chaos of children running and screaming, tear gas, vast and growing confusion and casualties, and much more. Had Nzima arrived at the crucial moment just a minute or two earlier, or a minute or so afterwards, his photographs would certainly have been dramatic pictures of student protest, like so many others – but he would not have had the iconic one everyone has come to know as a symbol of South Africa’s travails.

But Nzima had both circumstance and the photographer’s eye on his side this time – as well as that of a photo editor at The World who saw genius in that specific photograph. Thinking about this moment, I recall having once been told by a very successful photographer for Life magazine, back in its heyday, that his own success had come, not simply from having taken some good pictures, but also in his having had the good sense to select the right one from among all the many dozens of images of a particular scene or person he had taken. He had the eye to select the pictures that best captured his intentions, in addition to making use of all the elements that come together in an epic photograph.

For Nzima’s kind of picture a key element, of course, is drama, the telling of a story. And this includes the story before the picture was taken as well as hints of what comes afterwards. While my wife and I were discussing this topic earlier, I had asked her what picture she thought was the most dramatic image she could think of – and she immediately shouted out the National Geographic cover photo of the young Afghan woman. Steve McCurry’s photographic capture of the 12-year-old Sharbat Gula had come in 1984.

That picture is the one with the girl with her red scarf partly over her head and those mesmerising green eyes, starring directly into the lens, unblinking, unfiltered. To look at this image yet again is to want to know how she had lived so far, what traumas she had already witnessed, and, from the eventual advantage of hindsight, what further events will yet befall her. (And, of course, McCurry had actually returned to Afghanistan many years later to find her and photograph her a second time, closing the loop and filling in some of the ensuing story for us.)

Making use of photography to capture drama, rather than simply recording a person’s visage, is largely the result of 19th century American photographer Mathew Brady. He had outfitted a mobile dark room, together with all the paraphernalia he had needed to develop and print from those fragile glass negatives, and who had then ridden off to the battlefields of the American Civil War in his horse-drawn wagon laden with all his kit. His photographs of the men who fought the battles, the places where they had clashed, and even, on occasion, some actual battlefield action, and then from their rapid publication and distribution, brought home to every family in the nation the reality of the war, rather than just its poetry, bands and pageantry. In doing this, Brady’s photographs effectively usurped the primacy of the battlefield sketch illustrator in depicting events, thereby giving birth to the career of the photographer who captured the action – for everyone and for forever, everywhere.

That core is where so much of the value and impact of the work of Nzima’s photographic contemporaries drew their strength. They were not always aiming for high art, but, rather, they were determined to capture the moment of conflict, or of the everyday life and challenges faced by those who would confront their tormentors and oppressors. And their work sometimes ended up finding that artistic gesture anyway.

For example, I recall seeing, many years ago, that image by David Goldblatt of a “young lion” who had clearly faced and fought the police. The boy, and he was still barely a teenager it seemed, was captured with both his arms in full casts above the elbow. But there he was, still in the stance of confrontation, with his face animated, eyes lit by an inner intensity, as if to say to the photograph’s viewer, “Of course, I’m coming back to the fight, just give me a minute to heal a bit.”

And then, of course, there have been people like Eli Weinberg and Ernest Cole who early on documented the horrors of segregation and then apartheid in much of their work. There was the superb crew of photographers associated with Drum magazine such as Cole, Bob Gosani, Jürgen Schadeberg, and Peter Magubane. And there have been figures like Peter MacKenzie, Cedric Nunn, Omar Badsha, and the many other image-makers associated with Afrapix. As the South African History Archive says of that grouping:

Afrapix, a progressive photographers’ collective and photographic agency. Established by Omar Badsha, Lesley Lawson and a small group of black and white photographers and political activists in 1981. This collective played a seminal role in the development of a socially informed school of documentary photography in apartheid South Africa. The formation of Afrapix coincided with the increase in the growth of community, labour, women organisations and grassroots activism which gave rise to the emergence of what became known as the progressive or alternative media networks in the face of stare censorship.”

Driven by their hatred of apartheid ideology, the Afrapix photographers “pooled their skills and resources to train young black photographers to document life, state repression in their communities and to disseminate their work to the progressive movement at home and abroad”. That last is key – it was not just photography as art.

And then there was that loose club of photographers who relentlessly followed the activists versus the police and army action – the so-called “Bang Bang Club”, such as Greg Marinovich, João Silva, Ken Oosterbroek and Kevin Carter. Several of these men went on to capture Pulitzers for their work.

Pursuing photography beyond South Africa, Carter had also taken that haunting image of the starving child in the midst of a terrible famine, with the child being stalked by a vulture waiting for the inevitable. The resulting criticism (why hadn’t he scooped up the child and saved him?) ultimately led to suicide.

The key in all of this work, of course, was in having the photographer tell the story in a deeply felt manner, rather than simply documenting it, in order to motivate others to engage with it and do something further themselves. Works by photographers like Robert Capa with his image of the Spanish soldier at the moment of death in that country’s civil war (even if there are some doubts about the full authenticity of the work) helped rally support for Republican Spain internationally and it, and Pablo Picasso’s massive painting, Guernica, are usually cited as the two images most tightly connected with that dreadful struggle – and both were agents of advocacy.

There are many examples, of course. Capa went on to document the extraordinary heroism of soldiers landing on Omaha Beach at Normandy during D-Day (only seven of his negatives actually survived to be printed). Dorothea Lange’s pictures of rural Southern poverty in America helped turn the tide of legislation during the Great Depression, while Alfred Eisenstaedt’s moment of jubilation with the end of World War II – the sailor suddenly embracing and kissing a woman totally unknown to him on the street in New York City – has become a totem for jubilation after conflict.

But for South Africa, Sam Nzima’s magnificent moment forever encapsulated South Africa’s oppression, and it became a crisp symbol of resistance against it that was recognised universally – and the price real people would pay in order to end it. That, in turn, is why there was such uproar last year when some foolish, unthinking high school students traduced the image with the heads of dogs instead of people. Symbols matter for a nation, especially when they are real and compelling – as Nzima’s image is – and not just dreamt up for partisan political purposes. DM

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