op-ed: peter magubane: a fortitude in photography

January 19, 2016

A proclamation addresses some of Peter Magubane’s photography from the 20th century, & it is a reality that releases the cruelty in a moment that can be attributed to a South African government fostering Apartheid as a societal method for implementing racism with oppressive violence on a physical level to those who challenged it, & conditioning Blacks into a mental survival in order to exist.

By Shaun La*, AFROPUNK contributor

Peter’s photography career spreads over 55 plus years, with a strong body of work being connected (but not limited ) to photojournalism. He has an magnifying Eye. It is an Eye focused in on the actions of humane & inhuman natures within the moment. This is an unbiased quality prompting a photographic evidence for South Africa’s cultural oppression to be viewed.

Being that Peter’s early photographic work took on the cruelty from an oppressive white-driven South African government, his photographs can be alarming by opening up Apartheid’s harsh relentlessness, when looked at from
a historical standpoint, as well as taking up a sizable, modern, reevaluating measurement that broadens into a Post-Apartheid South-Africa.

He spent months in a prison cell, alone, because he had used his camera to photograph a rally being conducted for an incarcerated Winnie Mandela towards the end of the 1960’s. There were times when Peter put his own life on the line, physical freedom in the hands of a strictly stubborn authority, or was injured while out on a photography assignment. Another time in his paragoning career, he was ordered not to practice photography by a racist, controlling government.

A Necessary Lens:
Peter trained his lens to zero in on the Soweto Uprising in 1976. His black-&-white photography examines a path of Black South Africans untying their youthful energy against the government’s need to control the parameters of education favoring a racist agenda. These photographs are stalk, attentive, a visual wager steaming up from the boiling political temperature from Blacks realizing their rights as humans was worth standing up for. For the sake of rejecting defenselessness or condoning a timid way of living by being afraid to speak up—these were their strong & serious reasons for their uprising to react to extreme unequal treatment; furthermore, his photographs are loud & honest, like the voices from the protesters, vigorous, & photo-journalistic viewpoints that covered perilous results coming down on a
Black South Africa, who had a proportion in their demographic who decided that enough was enough.

There is no unrealistic separation of wondering how the brutality in Apartheid can be pulled away from the realities in Peter’s photography. His lens was unapologetically aimed & captured the brutal treatment of Blacks during the Sharpeville Massacre (21st of March, 1960), offering the world a window into protesters (69 people lost their lives after South African police officers shot into the demonstration) dealing with a governmental protocol that clamped down on Blacks in South Africa fighting for basic respect. All of this resulted in choices being a decisive reality for selecting life, death or accepting the unequal, negative racism as a way to exist—his photography epitomized this struggle for freedom on a landscape that was rising into a change.

Black Photography, Worldwide Motives to Photograph Inequalities:
In the United States, the Civil Rights Movement contained pensive & tough moments photographed by Moneta Sleet, Jr., Gordon Parks, & Herbert Randall Jr. (just to name a few of the Black photographers who were there), large sections of Black America seeing these photographs from Black photographers is a streamline of solidarity; thus a formation of fighting Jim Crow, & its racism in the United States is a self-reflection that the Black photographer was subconsciously, visually engaging for equal rights in the movement along side the marchers & leaders who were turning the gears in the Civil Rights Movement.

In a mainstream media that covered the Civil Rights Movement, it was natural to rely on white photographers & reporters for being a latitude for society to trust as their full news & vantage points. The significance of a Black photographer being a pivotal part of a historical time period serves as a modern reward for the Black race, that is indefinite to this day. Even if the mainstream’s objective is to overlook these Black photographers, their
bodies of work is tangible photographic records.

When we hear the names, Moneta Sleet, Jr., Gordon Parks & Herbert Randall Jr. as the photographers who were holding their cameras, a sense of respect can be a token of encouragement for a new Black photographer
who has met the steady speed of white Americans or Europeans being the mainstream teachers, intellectuals, authors, & photographers who can be perceived as covering the Civil Rights movement, academically, artistically & visually—-to properly realign this imbalance into a balance, the reality that professional Black photographers who were standing right in the thick of unashamed racism & hatred directed towards them & their people is fundamentally courageous; also, they sustained their composure to operate their camera like a perfect instrument, is a valiantly prideful accomplishment for the Black race as whole on a worldly platform.

One should apply this same token of acknowledging the accomplishments of Black American photographers (which is in the previous paragraph) to Peter Magubane; moreover, on this level of respect, we should place the photographic works from (& deservingly so) other Black South African photographers such as Ernest Cole & Alf Kumalo. (Just to name a pair from the many, as a reference to the premise that Black photographers were worldly).

All of these Black photographers who were out & all over this world conducted themselves with a professionally photo-journalistic confidence while being inside of the belly of overtly dangerous racism.

Layers into Peter’s work:
A black-&-white photograph from Peter’s lens from 1968 is a viewing invitation into an economic aspect of South Africa—at least 15 men, miners are naked & standing with their arms raised high in the air, as a Black man in a white lab coat stands in front of them & their white towels resting at their feet. It is an examination being framed with a visual line, giving off Black workers being the base of providing for a country that mistreated their humanity as citizens; inasmuch as this photograph displays the rationalization in a tradition from a government accepting the manual labor of the Black worker who consequently enriched the white business owners & politicians who managed Apartheid.

A collection of photography from Peter, visually studied an open Nelson Mandela, who gained political success & worldwide acclaim as a leader in South Africa. It is in these photographs, where Mandela’s legacy & life soars into a photography world that rotates on a lifetime of memories. Especially since Mandela is deceased, these photographs of him has reelected memories of his contributions to life, politically, socially, and personally. Continuing his photography career with a vigor that is ongoing, Peter has left the photojournalism world. His work connects to a new realm for cultural celebrations, freedoms that are journeyed into by his magnifying eye going into a South African society after the Apartheid years.

Photographing Self-Actualization:
One could not go too far with the actualization that Peter Magubane’s photography is a corollary of fate & persistence that combined itself with a need to justify & protect his freedom as a man, & as a photographer.

*Shaun La is a writer & photographer, working on his book titled, “The Perpetual Intellectual
View Called Photography: Essays. His photographic work & writings can be viewed on his official website at: