Capturing conflict on film

2010-03-20 00:00

IN the mid-1980s accounts of fighting and violence in the Edendale valley between UDF activists and state supported Inkatha were becoming more and more frequent. Activists were being killed in increasing numbers, but this was insufficiently reported in the local news, never mind nationally. Very few images were reaching the press to bear witness to the violence. Pietermaritzburg was not a major urban centre and therefore not the focus of the national and international struggle coverage. And yet it was here in Pietermaritzburg that an intense struggle was being waged against the forces of apartheid. So it was in this context that I and other local independent photographers, including Clint Zasman and Pax Magwaza, both of whom are now dead, and Jonathan Kaplan, took on the challenge to photograph the terrible events and to document the social and economic injustices of the time. Weekends were spent in the Edendale valley photographing rallies, union meetings, political weddings, marches, homecomings, and funerals. On occasion I slipped out of the Natal Museum, where I worked, on a weekday to respond to a call to capture political events on film and get the information out to the world. Unlike many of the itinerant news photographers who travelled around South Africa to different political flashpoints, I worked with a local political community, and had people lead me personally into the heart of events that I photographed week in, week out, for five to six years. Very often, I was the only photographer present.

Through my lens, I developed keen insights into the injustices of apartheid, which only streng­thened my commitment and spurred me to capture more visual proof with which to make known to the world what was happening. Dangerous and rallying events often generated feelings of energy and excitement, while others such as funerals brought home the deep suffering felt by a community under siege. Just as my father’s pain at losing his parents and community, murdered by Nazis and their collaborators during WW2, had pervaded my life, the parents, family and friends who came to mourn in the Edendale Valley reached right into my being.

Dr Aron Mazel is a former assistant director of the Natal Museum and director of the SA Cultural History Museum in Cape Town. He is now a lecturer at the International Centre for Cultural and Heritage Studies, Newcastle University (UK).

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