‘Do not take photos of the obvious’

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Hailed as one of South Africa’s greatest figures of the 20th century, Dr Peter Magubane was more than just a photojournalist.

I remember the first time I met him, it was on Election Day in 2009 outside a voting station at Melville, Johannesburg. He was taking a walk with a child I assumed was his grandchild. Instantly, I recognised his face and approached him, with my camera in hand.

I said, “Oh you also shoot Nikon…” and that’s how our conversation started. He asked what my name was and who I was working for.

After the formalities, I proceeded to ask him for some advice, though it was more than ten years back, I remember clearly what he told me. He said, “Do not take photos of the obvious but have a look at what people are doing and take photos of people doing whatever it is that they are doing, whilst waiting in the queue to cast their vote.”

That was my first unforgettable encounter with him.

Three years later, I attended a presentation by baba Magubane where he was talking about his career as a photojournalist. He was addressing journalism students at Walter Sisulu University in East London, Eastern Cape.

During his talk, he lamented the situation and living conditions of the people of Duncan Village in East London, saying something to the effect that “People are talking about democracy but I have just visited Duncan Village and I continue to be shocked by the living conditions of that place, it still looks the way it looked like during the days of Apartheid in the 1960s and 70s.”

He later encouraged the learners gathered there to tell their local stories and to document their living conditions.

I never engaged him one on one that day but I was just moved by his honesty and observation of that environment.

Fast forward to 2015, during an outing in Rosebank, Johannesburg, I saw him at a local eatery and humbly approached him,.

I felt like I was intruding as he was having a coffee with someone but I felt like it was an opportunity I could not allow to pass me by.

I remember approaching his table and kneeling down on one knee so I could get his attention. I greeted and told him that I work as a journalist and requested to hold an interview with him. He gave me his manager, Dave’s number and told me to tell him to organize a meeting for an interview.

Not too long after that, the interview happened and he opened his home to me. Whilst I was setting up for the interview, he said “Are you working alone?’ I replied in the affirmative, and he responded “No, they are exploiting you. You should be with at least two people, a cameraman and a sound engineer. This is not right.”

I shrugged his comments off and continued to set-up the equipment.

The interview went as planned and we engaged for hours on his illustrious career. Dr Magubane was so accommodating that his help prepared coffee and biscuits for me.

During that interview, we spoke about his working relationship with former president Nelson Mandela and how Madiba asked him to be his personal photographer from his release from prison leading up to his inauguration.

Magubane also shared his fondest memories of Madiba and what he had learnt from the elderly statesman.

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After the interview he shared with me his latest project but was quick to tell me that it is a work in progress.

He revealed that he was working on a project where he was documenting sunsets and continued to show me some of the photos he had taken. He said it was a different type of project, one where he could take his time and enjoy thoroughly. During that encounter, he also showed me some of his old photos from the struggle years, specifically an assignment on the living conditions of mineworkers and child-farmworkers.

Before I left on the day, I had a chat with his manager, Dave, he said, “The old man has warmed up to you, he hardly ever talks this much about his work.”

Baba Magubane was a wealth of knowledge, a soft spoken but firm and self-assured man. He was chosen as one of 21 Icons of South Africa amongst figures like Tata Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu.

A passionate journalist, an icon of the struggle and icon to be remembered forever through his work and his impact in our history, a veteran, humble enough to always listen and give advice.

May Baba Magubane’s soul continue to rest in peace.