Peter Magubane, picture perfect

2014-02-16 14:00

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Peter Magubane talks to Percy Mabandu about the day he took this famous and evocative photograph 58 years ago.

In the summer of 1956, Peter Magubane was starting out on a photographic career that has made him one of the masters of the craft in South Africa.

He had just turned 24 and was looking to make a name for himself at the legendary Drum magazine.

So he would drive through the city and walk the streets looking for good shots to impress his editors.

Which is how his famous image, Europeans Only, came about. Magubane takes up the story: “I was driving on Oxford Road. I was not on assignment, but was always looking for human interest pictures?...?I saw these people sitting there [the nanny and child] and stopped the car.”

Magubane says he just lifted his camera and took the picture.

“I didn’t ask for permission. I would only apologise if a person objected to me photographing them.

It was only after I took the picture that I went over and asked the lady: ‘Do you work with these people?’ She said yes and I left.”

Europeans Only became a much-published image that showed the bizarre yet domestic nature of apartheid.

It is an image that captures the unstated humanity of people involved in the everyday experience of the oppressive system that lasted more than 40 years.

By law, the black woman is only allowed to sit on the “Non-white” side of the bench.

This is behind the child who is perched on the side marked “Europeans Only”.

The care and love they share is palpable in the nanny’s gaze. Only the child looks up at Magubane’s lens.

LOVE SEAT: Peter Magubane’s casual ‘human interest’ shot catches the paradox of alienation and affection between nanny and child. Picture: Peter Magubane

The ambitious young photographer headed back to the Drum newsroom to show his picture editor, the equally renowned Jürgen Schadeberg, what he’d got.

The upshot was that Magubane won Drum’s monthly prize of £80 (R1?459 at today’s exchange rate) for best human interest picture.

On another hot summer’s day 58 years later, Magubane, now 82, sits in his home sharing his memories of working as a photographer at the height of apartheid.

His home in old hipster Melville is a treasure trove of his collections?– from antique furniture to classic cars.

He speaks in short sentences, punctuated by sharp gasps of breath –?a sign of his deteriorating health.

Magubane’s work often got him in trouble with the apartheid state. In the early 1970s, he spent more than a year in solitary confinement.

Yet the reality of hard time never put him off.

He says: “Apartheid did not bother me. My work as a learning photographer came first. I would die for a picture. I remember I went to Parliament and saw the prime minister. I don’t remember whether it was [DF] Malan or [Hendrik] Verwoerd sitting in an office?–?I just walked in and took the picture.

“He jumped up and asked: ‘What are you doing?’ I said, ‘Sorry my baas’ and walked away.”

We laugh and move on to other topics of conversation.

Magubane’s exhibition, A Struggle without Documentation is no Struggle, opens at the Absa Gallery, Absa Towers North, 161 Main Street, Joburg, on Tuesday

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