Peter Magubane, picture perfect

2014-02-16 14:00

Multimedia   ·   User Galleries   ·   News in Pictures Send us your pictures  ·  Send us your stories

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

Join the conversation! encourages commentary submitted via MyNews24. Contributions of 200 words or more will be considered for publication.

We reserve editorial discretion to decide what will be published.
Read our comments policy for guidelines on contributions. publishes all comments posted on articles provided that they adhere to our Comments Policy. Should you wish to report a comment for editorial review, please do so by clicking the 'Report Comment' button to the right of each comment.

Comment on this story
Comments have been closed for this article.

Inside News24


WATCH: Man films himself going down water slide upside down as things go very wrong…

What is at first an exciting tummy-turning adventure stunt, quickly turns into a scarily bad idea caught on camera. Take a look:


You won't want to miss...

WATCH: Conor McGregor: Notorious the trailer
Best date night restaurants in South Africa
WATCH: Ryan Reynolds offers fans a free tattoo in new Deadpool 2 teaser
Should you date your co-worker?
Traffic Alerts
There are new stories on the homepage. Click here to see them.


Create Profile

Creating your profile will enable you to submit photos and stories to get published on News24.

Please provide a username for your profile page:

This username must be unique, cannot be edited and will be used in the URL to your profile page across the entire network.


Location Settings

News24 allows you to edit the display of certain components based on a location. If you wish to personalise the page based on your preferences, please select a location for each component and click "Submit" in order for the changes to take affect.

Facebook Sign-In

Hi News addict,

Join the News24 Community to be involved in breaking the news.

Log in with Facebook to comment and personalise news, weather and listings.