Apartheid under the lens
Photographer Deseni Soobben, a lecturer at the Durban University of Technology’s journalism department, has been invited by the Nelson Mandela Foundation to exhibit two photographs that exposed apartheid and the resistance against it. The exhibition, Between States of Emergency, can be seen from September 22 to mid-March at the foundation in Houghton, Johannesburg, during working hours and by appointment, 011 547 5600, then moves around the country. It features 40 South African photographers who worked behind the lens from between July 21, 1985, and June 7, 1990 – the period of the two states of emergency. CANDICE SOOBRAMONEY asked Soobben about her career in photography.
DESENI Soobben was 10 when her grandfather, a businessman, returned from a trip to Japan and gave her a Kodak Instamatic camera.
As any child would be, young Soobben was in her element. She snapped pictures of anything and everything – with her sister Sivani and brother Anand often her guinea pigs.
“My younger sister was a gymnast and I remember photographing her flying into the air, or of my brother doing handstands,” smiled Soobben, chatting at the DUT campus café in Anton Lembede (Smith) Street.
Now 52, she still snaps away at anything and everything she possibly can, and encourages her students to do the seeame.
After matriculating at Isipingo High School, Soobben pursued a career in photography. She enrolled at the then Technikon Natal (now Durban University of Technology), while most of her friends chose to pursue more stable career paths, studying law, teaching, medicine and accounting.
But her parents, Daddy and Gnanavellie Moodliar, were supportive of her choice.
Despite the heavy theoretical components of physics and chemistry in the photography course, Soobben completed her studies. The student photographer’s part-time job included taking pictures at soccer matches at Currie’s Fountain.
“The first time I went to the grounds was with a male colleague, Christy Murugan. Back then it was the norm to take team pictures. One of the teams asked my colleague where the photographer was – I was standing in front of him. It was different to have a female photographer take pictures at a Premier League soccer match,” she recalled.
She soon learnt the art of where to stand to capture the best shots, courtesy of The
Graphic photographer, Moosa Badsha. “I would huddle behind the net to get a picture of a goal being scored.”
She became a familiar face at Currie’s Fountain, and her pictures would be published in The
Graphic. “Being at The Graphic was an excellent training ground as staff were of such a high calibre – the likes of Ticks Chetty, Hoosen Kolia, Rajendra Chetty, Christy Murugan, Moosa Badsha, Manu Padayachee and Yogin Devan.”
While a student, she also worked at Afrapix, a photographic agency started by Omar Badsha.
The “special breed” of photographers there, she said, included Badsha, Paul Weinberg, Cedric Nunn, Rafs Mayat and Jeeva Rajgopaul, who were social and political activists. Many of the pictures were syndicated worldwide.
Two of the photographs Deseni will be exhibiting at Between States of Emergency are of a policeman escorting a police Casspir towards the entrance of Phoenix, Durban, and women gathered at the funeral of a man called “Goldfinger”.
Relating the stories behind them, she said: “There was a radio broadcast that activity was taking place in Inanda.
“I was with Afrapix and decided to head out. I had to park in nearby Phoenix, but from that vantage point, I could see the rioting. This was during the state of emergency.
“Lorry loads of Indian people were fleeing from their homes and I used a zoom lens to capture it. The police were there and you could feel the buzz. The air was thick with anxiety.”
She stayed about an hour, capturing what she saw. The other photograph that will be exhibited is of a funeral in KwaNdengezi, Pinetown.
“It was again, during the state of emergency. During this time your movements were restricted.”
Under the emergency, organisations could be banned and meetings prohibited. Added to that, the commissioner of police could impose restrictions on media coverage of the emergency and the names of detained people could not be disclosed.
“I accompanied reporter Christina Scott, who was working at Concord, on a story to KwaNdengezi where the funeral of a man named ‘Goldfinger’ was being held. When we arrived, I wanted to head down to the burial site but we were told women were not allowed to do this. So Christina and I had to wait with the female mourners at the top of a hill.”
After the photographs were taken, the two were almost in their car, when a Casspir pulled up.
“Christina, who was a small and gutsy Canadian-born reporter (now sadly deceased), told me to stand out of sight while she handled the situation.
“I could not hear the conversation between her and the policemen, but I was worried because I was not allowed to photograph the funeral or be in a township. There were so many things going through my mind. What would happen if I were arrested? What would happen if I could not see my family again and they did not know where I was detained?
She said the policeman then warned Scott to leave. “We got out of there so quickly. It was such a relief,” she laughed.
One of her favourite photographs was one she took of Archbishop Desmond Tutu at the launch of the United Democratic Front at the Students’ Union Hall at the (then) University of Natal, in February 1985.
“Hundreds of people gathered, it was pulsating. He was a great orator. Although he was discussing serious political issues, as a photographer, I found his expressions too delightful.”
The photograph, she said, was used on the front page of the Weekly Mail (now Mail and Guardian).
S’bu Mngadi (Durban bureau chief at City Press) approached her to work at his paper. “I spent several years working with S’bu and Fred Khumalo, travelling KZN, covering political, social, environmental and labour issues.”
Soobben believes her life has come full circle – “as I am now working in same building where I studied 30 years ago”. With the exhibition opening, her work is now getting the recognition it deserves.
Soobben is married to award-winning cartoonist Nanda Soobben and they have two children, Sorubi, 22, a law student, and Dravid, a Grade 10 pupil.