Bell-Roberts Publishing, the publishers of ARTsouthAFRICA magazine, have just re-launched snapped – an African quarterly photographic journal – in association with PhotoHire Cape Town! snapped magazine spoke to Sam Nzima, the photographer who took the iconic photograph of Hector Peterson being carried by Mbuyisa Makhubo after he was shot by South African police during the Soweto Student uprisings in June 1976.
ABOVE: Mr Masana Samuel “Sam” Nzima. Photograph by Heidi Lee Smith.
SNAPPED: Hello Sam, and thank you so much for taking the time to chat with us! Having recently participated in the 2014 iPhoneography exhibition, I’m interested in what you think of applications like Instagram and the prolific influx of amateur images on social media. Coming from a strong photojournalism background, do you think it’s a good or a bad thing that nearly everyone has access to a camera these days?
Sam Nzima: Well there is a big difference because we were using manual cameras that used black and white film in the past. There was a darkroom involved in that process – after taking the picture you would go to the darkroom, start developing the film, prepare the negative, measure the chemicals for the paper developer, rinse, fix, dry, and measure the columns of the newspaper. In the past, it was a long process! But nowadays, electronically, things are being done on the computer; you can take a picture now and send it wherever you want to almost immediately.
The difference with today’s cameras is that we don’t need that kind of focus. We just pull the trigger; we just pull out our cell phone and point it at the subject we want to photograph. This has a huge influence on the type of pictures people are taking today. The art of the picture is gone now. There is no more art in photography, because everything is automatic. Electronics do everything for us now, but in the past, you had to be creative! Focusing, winding the film, pressing the shutter button, winding the film, focusing, and zooming – everything at the same time, with your fingers!
Photographers have become lazy. All they need to do is point their camera towards what they want to capture and press the button, that’s all! According to my judgement, there is nothing artistic in that.
So you’d say that the change in medium has affected the creative process involved in photography?
Yes, definitely! It’s a fast job; everything these days is done under the light yet, in the past, everything was done in the darkroom. It was a long process. But, nowadays, ‘zip zip’, and it’s there! The iPhone camera is a technology has been developed and promoted by the iPhone people to the point that every high school student or even primary school student knows how to use one – it’s so simple to use.
Mr Nzima, do you know what a ‘selfie’ is? It’s one of the things that have developed as a result of the advent of the cell phone camera; a self-portrait shot with a smart phone, which has come to dominate many people’s social media feeds.
No, no, I’ve never heard of that! That is something new.
What is your opinion is on something like that? Photographic images represent a model of social life that, when viewed in the future, provide historical evidence of the past. Your image of Hector Peterson, for example, may be the epitome of this, indicative of the violence and social oppression in apartheid-era South Africa. When people look back in the future, what significance do you think the iconography of the current ‘selfie’ will have when viewed by future generations?
Well, everything these days is a competition. It is a commercial thing. Every company is marketing their product in a different way from one another. It’s a competition: who is who, leading whom? Things are changing. It’s not like before. Before, the competition was about the latest ‘scoop’ in the news. Who comes first with the story? That was our plan.
So, you’d say it’s representative of capitalism these days?
Yes, it’s about who is who leading who in the electronic field. The competition is in electronic photography nowadays. So, ‘selfies’ have to do with camera phones, and that’ll lead to more competition in the market.
In light of that, it seems that recently documentary photography is moving away from social engagement and towards self-reference and a highly popular aesthetic, making it better suited to glossy coffee table books and the walls of wealthy art-buyers than the front pages of newspapers. How do you think this affects photojournalistic practice today?
Well, as I was saying, in the past the competition was very stiff. Who comes first with the good news? But, nowadays, it’s who comes first with the good picture. Electronically. People nowadays, I think, are becoming lazy; they want to read easy articles, they want to get their information by only looking at the pictures in the magazines. True documentary photography is disappearing now. We are no longer looking at people who are doing things and contextualising their images with good article writing. We have to safeguard on that. Journalists have to make noise about that, and say, “No people, come back, come back, here is the right way.” Otherwise, we are challenging many traditional journalistic practices, and will end up corroding the profession until there are only bits and pieces of journalistic form left.
Your photograph has become a historical icon, reproduced on everything from billboards to t-shirts. How do you feel about taking one of the first photographs that the world saw of the atrocities of apartheid in South Africa?
Well, I regretted it at first. I asked myself, “Why did I take this picture?” I was frustrated with the constant police harassment, and because of that harassment I lost my journalism career. But now I’m proud of that picture, because everybody wants it. People are phoning me, newspapers, radios and TV stations come here to interview me because of this one picture. Everybody has called it an ‘iconic picture.’ I had no idea that, when I took it, it would become one of the greatest photographs in the world. When taking this picture, I was not thinking of taking a winning picture. No, I was doing it because I was on duty, but one picture has changed my life! I had taken so many pictures, but this picture changed my life.
I’m no longer a journalist, but I became a famous person because of this picture.
I was doing my job as a journalist then, but God just brought me this picture to say, “Here’s this picture, it’s going to make you famous, in South Africa and the rest of the world.”
I’ve been to so many places as a result, including Germany in 2012. I was invited to Berlin to speak to students at the Hector Peterson High School! After the Berlin wall was pulled down, they came up with an idea to change the name of a school behind the wall. Now, Hector Peterson High School exists in Berlin in Germany! They invited me to address the students there, and they were all very excited to see the person who took the picture of Hector Peterson. I came to the school, and they said, “Here is the man who took the picture you are all enjoying here in this school.” The picture has been enlarged on the front wall. I wanted to know, “Why have you named this school after Hector Peterson?” They told me, “We are now free. Germany was divided by the wall, which meant it was just like apartheid in South Africa. South Africa is free now, because of the photograph you took. This [the Hector Peterson school] is a symbol to show that we are also free here in Germany.”
That’s an incredible story! How do you feel about having had that part to play in South Africa’s freedom?
Yes, there are those that believe that this picture freed South Africa, because of the expressions on the faces of the people in it. And you can see the face of the dying Hector Peterson so clearly. The picture wasn’t composed, it happened exactly like that.
They compared my photograph to a sculpture by a German artist, socialist, pacifist, and grieving mother, Kathe Kollwitz. Five years after her son Peter died on the battlefield in WWI, she began working on her Pietà (Mother with Dead Son) in his memory as war loomed again. The sculpture is of a lady holding her son’s dead body, holding her son like Mbuyisa Makhubo held Hector Peterson.
Your image really had an impact, internationally, on so many people. It has even been compared to Michelangelo’s Pietà.
Yes, they said, “Your picture depicts exactly what happened in Germany, and [the sculpture in] Italy of when Jesus Christ was crucified and his mother, Mary, picked up her dead son and kissed him.”
I’d like to refer back to the school in Germany that was named after Hector Peterson. From what I understand, you run a photojournalism school in Lilydale, is that correct?
It’s still in the foundation stage. On the day of my birthday, when I was completing 80 years of age, I launched the Sam Nzima Foundation, and now I’m raising funds to build the school. If you can find some people who can sympathise with my ideas, please let them know about my foundation and allow them to donate something towards my school. I’m building a photo gallery and a school of photojournalism. I would like to help keep people from the rural areas here in Lilydale. Because I’ve found that as soon as a talented person can produce anything good, they run to Johannesburg. Johannesburg is growing – it’s a very popular city, because of the champions coming from the rural areas.
What would you like to inspire in the next generation of photojournalists, the people that you hope to be taught at the school?
What I’d like them to learn is that, before there were cameras in the world, artists made an impression by looking at a person and drawing the face of the person. A long time after that, technology came and the camera was produced. The camera, at that stage, carried a film that produced black and white images; a film that underwent a long process before finally reaching the newsreader. I would like to give the students this background history – where do we come from with regards to photography? Photography began very long ago.
We must teach them how the history of the camera can preserve their own history. If you took a photograph everyday, from the day of your birth up to when you are an old man, if every day you took a picture of your son or your daughter, we could have a visual history of our own lives.
Are there any photographers from Africa whose work you follow?
Photographers were always in competition! The people that I would name as South Africa’s top photographers are the late Alf Kumalo, who was my best friend; and Dr Peter Magubane. We were the top three.
Any current photographers?
Well, nowadays I don’t know how I would even judge a great photographer. You know, in the past, during the apartheid era, we would congratulate the photographer who could steal a picture when other people would say “Don’t do this, this is taboo.” We used to congratulate them, and say, “Well done.” For instance, I was put under house arrest after sharing my photograph, because it exposed the police, which was illegal. Hector Peterson was shot by the police. So they wanted to arrest me, and I ran away, I left Johannesburg and I came here to Bushbuck ridge to hide. About three or four months later, they came here and found me, and they imposed a house arrest on me. I was in jail in my own house, because of the picture.
How did this period in exile influence your relationship with photography?
I still wanted to take pictures, but I told myself, “Let me give up everything,” because I was so frustrated with the consequences of that one picture. I went a long time without touching my camera, because they were looking for me, because of that picture, because of the camera.
So I cursed myself, why did I have to do this? Look, I lost my job, I was no longer working, and I’d left Johannesburg, because of this picture. I was cursing myself! Why did I take this picture? I know now, though, why I took the picture, and now I am proud of it.
You said in your speech at the iPhonography exhibition that you sometimes only take one photograph a day. What do you take photos of these days?
Oh, social pictures and any other picture. You know, I’m collecting the pictures I take so I can have an exhibition. Artistic pictures, because I’m no longer taking pictures for the newspaper. Many of the newspapers wanted me to freelance for them, but I realised that freelancing is very expensive. You make these pictures and the newspapers may buy them, they may not. They may cut the story down to a very small story so you don’t get paid very much. They wanted me to help, but I said, “No, I’ve already done my job.”
It’s nice to be retired, after being a champion like Mohammed Ali. [laughs] People remember me for [the Hector Peterson] picture, but enough is enough. I can no longer destroy my future.
ARTsouthAFRICA is publishing this interview courtesy of snapped magazine. It originally appeared in snapped Issue 04 (November 2014).