Veteran lensman Mike Mzileni says cameras are more powerful than guns at new exhibition launch

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The legendary photographer and former City Press pictures editor Mike Mzileni. Photo: Clarence Muller/File
The legendary photographer and former City Press pictures editor Mike Mzileni. Photo: Clarence Muller/File


“A camera is more powerful than an AK47,” said iconic photographer Mike Mzileni at the launch of his solo exhibition at Gallery 1989 at the Market Photo Workshop on Saturday, December 11.

The 79-year-old is one of the last of the Drum-era soldiers credited as black journalism’s pathfinders.

The exhibition of his work coincided with the annual graduation ceremony of young photographers at the institution which, over the years, has trained exceptional lensmen who have found their niche in various media houses. The event was a good intergenerational intersection as Mzileni’s work, on show until January 21, 2022, is exhibited in the upstairs loft space, while the work of the young photographers is showcased downstairs in both print and video exhibitions.

The workshop’s Silas Nkosi said:

The exhibition came about because, as the Market Photo Workshop, we have an archives division and part of what we’re doing is ensuring that the work of our legendary photographers doesn’t go unnoticed.

“We also do this so that our students can experience that work. We’re in the process of planning a black photo library book and the works of ubaba Mzileni will be featured in it.”

One of the cameras used by Mike Mzileni during his time as a photojournalist for Drum Magazine.
Mike Mzileni with Mpho Mphotho
Mike Mzileni with Mpho Mphotho, who won the Abdul Shariff Award in photography in 2001. Photo: Lucky Nxumalo/City Press/File
Mike Mzileni
Mike Mzileni at an exhibit of his in the early 2000s. Photo: Clarence Muller/File

On the walls, Mzileni’s oeuvre – spanning more than five decades since he first picked up a camera to publish pictures in 1963 – speaks of the political and cultural history of South Africa (see some of his iconic photos from our archives below). There are images of children’s first day at school, clinging to their mothers and siblings. The pictures show that not much has changed over the decades when it comes to the separation anxiety of little ones entering school for the first time.

READ: Extract | Black Wednesday. The day the apartheid regime let loose against the media

Under the heading “June 16 Rally” are some of Mzileni’s potent shots capturing the 1976 Soweto uprising. In one shot, a young [then] Bishop Desmond Tutu prays at a gravesite with activists wearing United Democratic Front T-shirts. It was probably one of the many burials of slain activists at which the renowned cleric officiated during his heyday as an apartheid opponent.

In other June 16 photographs, activists and children on the street have their fists raised high and young children on the streets reject the Bantu Education system and Afrikaans as the medium of instruction, bravely facing police Nyalas and Casspirs.

READ: Zuluboy “ZB” Arthur Molefe: A writer who made us proud

Covering the riots, Mzileni recalled that photojournalists would get on the wrong side of both law enforcement and demonstrators:

We used to get beaten up a lot in those days up by both the police and the students.

There are a few shots of black people’s everyday lives that are nostalgic and searing, while his series of images of prisoners at Silindela Correctional Centre makes a strong impact. Equally powerful profiles are those of jazz greats such as Abdullah Ibrahim, Bra Hugh Masekela caressing his trumpet and Philip Tabane fervently strumming his guitar. The jazz images form part of a collection of works published in his two books, A Common Hunger to Sing (in collaboration with late veteran editor ZB Molefe) and All That Jazz: A Pictorial Tribute.

The exhibition has been curated by Nkululeko Khumalo.

Mzileni worked for various publications in his newspaper career, including The World, the Sunday Express, the Rand Daily Mail and the Sunday Times, with his last media stint as picture editor of City Press from 1982 until his retirement in 2000.

Called upon to address the guests, Mzileni said:

Photographers usually express themselves best through camera lenses [rather than words]. We record history. Without photos, we wouldn’t know where we are or where we’re going. Pictures are important as without them, we wouldn’t even know what our grandmothers and grandfathers looked like. The images we take represent us and our history.
Winnie Madikizela Mandela
Winnie Madikizela Mandela negotiates with the SAP to avoid confrantation with the crowd at Jan Smuts Airport. Photo: Mike Mzileni/City Press/File
Mr Nelson "Teenage" and Mrs Sarah Pinkie (Radebe) Dladla in 1983. Photo: Mike Mzileni/Media24 Library
baby jake
Jacob "Baby Jake" Matlala vs Masibulele "Hawk" Makepula in February 2000. Photo: Mike Mzileni/City Press/File
Kaizer Chiefs vs Wits in the JPS Final in 1985. Photo: Mike Mzileni/Media24 Library/City Press
Desmond Tutu pleads for Sjambok Peace in 1982. Photo: Mike Mzileni/City Press/File
Students protesting during the June 1976 uprisings in Soweto. Photo: Gallo Images/Rapport archives/Mike Mzileni/Bongani Mnguni


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