When a jumble sale find opened the doors to a world of photography

2014-11-17 00:00

AN international reputation as a top photojournalist began with a camera bought at jumble sale.

In 1947 Durban’s Ranjith Kally, who turns 89 next week, was a 21-year-old shoe factory worker when he stumbled on a Kodak postcard camera at a jumble sale. It cost sixpence. “I didn’t even know if it would work.”

Fortunately it did and some of the photographs Kally took with the camera include the portraits of his mother and father reproduced in his new book, Memory against Forgetting — a photographic journey through South Africa’s History 1946-2010, with accompanying text by Kally as told to Kalim Rajab.

Kally began his career photographing social events. “I charged the people five shillings for a six by eight print and then gave another print to The Leader.”

Kally didn’t use the postcard camera for long — “the film was too expensive” — and bought what would become his favourite camera, a Nikon 2.

Kally combined freelance photography with work at the shoe factory. “I would think: ‘how long can I go on putting 850 soles on ladies shoes day after day like this?’”

The answer came in 1956 when Kally was offered a job with Golden City Post and Drum magazine. Thus began a career that saw Kally capture images of some of the key events of recent South African history, including the 1956 Treason Trial, the 1963 Rivonia Trial, and the aftermath of the 1982 Maseru Massacre; as well as people such as Chief Albert Luthuli, Nelson Mandela, Oliver Tambo, Monty Naicker, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, Billy Nair and Miriam Makeba.

In 1952, Kally came third out of 150 000 entries in an international competition held in Japan and in 1967 was admitted as an Associate of the Royal Photographic Society.

Last year he received an honorary doctorate from the University of KwaZulu-Natal and was also named an eThekwini Living Legend.

Despite the nature of his work Kally only had one encounter with the police. The Special Branch were keeping an eye on a political meeting. “When I saw them I took the film out of my camera and put in a new roll.”

Soon afterwards Kally was collared by a policeman “He said ‘give me that film’. I said: ‘You can have it, but I want a receipt’. And he went off with a roll of new film.”

Much has changed since Kally took his first photograph.

“Today taking a photograph is a piece of cake,” he said. “In the past you had to work out film speed and exposure — there were all these things to check, now it’s just point and shoot. And back then, until you developed the film you didn’t know what you had.”

• Stephen.Coan@witness.co.za

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