His­tory in pic­tures

Farewell, Sam Nz­ima

Sunday Times - - Insight - — Chris Bar­ron

He re­gret­ted tak­ing the pic­ture of Pi­eter­son, ‘be­cause that pic­ture de­stroyed my fu­ture in jour­nal­ism’

● Sam Nz­ima, who has died in Nel­spruit at the age of 83, took the un­for­get­table pho­to­graph of a blood­ied and dy­ing 13year-old Hec­tor Pi­eter­son be­ing car­ried by a dis­traught Mbuy­isa Makhubu af­ter be­ing shot by po­lice in Soweto on June 16 1976.

Pi­eter­son was the first vic­tim of the stu­dent up­ris­ing that erupted that day, and which sig­nalled the be­gin­ning of the end of apartheid.

No pic­ture more pow­er­fully cap­tured the hor­ror and bru­tal­ity of apartheid, or did more to gal­vanise in­ter­na­tional re­vul­sion against it.

In terms of its im­pact and ef­fect it was in the same league as As­so­ci­ated Press pho­to­jour­nal­ist Nick Ut’s pic­ture of a naked Viet­namese girl run­ning down the road scream­ing in agony af­ter be­ing caught up in a US na­palm strike, which changed Amer­i­can per­cep­tions of the Viet­nam War.

Time magazine listed it as one of the 100 most in­flu­en­tial im­ages of all time. ‘Sud­denly the world could no longer ig­nore apartheid.’

Time magazine listed Nz­ima’s image one of the 100 most in­flu­en­tial of all time.

“Sud­denly the world could no longer ig­nore apartheid. The seeds of in­ter­na­tional op­po­si­tion that would even­tu­ally top­ple the racist regime had been planted by a pho­to­graph,” the magazine said.

Nz­ima, who was cov­er­ing the protest for The World news­pa­per, re­mem­bered that he was be­tween the stu­dents and po­lice.

“The po­lice were just shoot­ing at ran­dom. “I saw a child fall­ing down. I rushed there with my cam­era. I saw an­other young man pick him up, and as soon as he had picked him up I started shoot­ing the pic­tures.

“I knew the po­lice would force me to open my cam­era. So I took the film out quickly and stuffed it in my sock.”

The po­lice ripped the film out of his cam­era and ex­posed it to the light. But the pic­ture that would do more than any other to turn the tide of world opin­ion against apartheid was safe.

“The film in my sock, they didn’t see that.”

Spark a civil war

The World didn’t want to use it at first, he said in an in­ter­view many years later.

“There was a big de­bate at The World. “The ed­i­tor thought we must not use the pic­ture be­cause it would spark a civil war in South Africa. Then he changed his mind and said come what may, we must use this pic­ture.”

Nz­ima said he never dreamt it would have the im­pact it did, not least on his own life.

Af­ter it was splashed across the front page of The World it was banned in South Africa, but used on the front pages of ma­jor news­pa­pers around the world.

The re­sponse from the po­lice was im­me­di­ate and threat­en­ing.

“The po­lice came to the of­fice of The World and they weren’t happy.”

They de­manded to know why he took the pic­ture. He told them he was on as­sign­ment and tak­ing pic­tures was his job.

They told him to choose be­tween his job and his life.

They said their as­sign­ment was not to ar­rest him but to shoot him.

Fear­ing for his life he re­signed from The World and went into hid­ing in the small vil­lage of Li­ly­dale, in Bush­buck­ridge, Mpumalanga, where he was born, and opened a bot­tle store.

When the se­cu­rity po­lice found him there he was put un­der house ar­rest for 19 months. He said that for many years he re­gret­ted tak­ing the pic­ture of Pi­eter­son, “be­cause that pic­ture de­stroyed my fu­ture in jour­nal­ism”.

Ko­dak Brownie box cam­era

Nz­ima was born on Au­gust 8 1934 and grew up on a farm in Bush­buck­ridge where his fa­ther worked. A teacher got him in­ter­ested in pho­tog­ra­phy and he bought him­self a Ko­dak Brownie box cam­era.

He earned pocket money dur­ing school hol­i­days tak­ing pic­tures of vis­i­tors to the nearby Kruger Na­tional Park.

Af­ter com­plet­ing school he did var­i­ous jobs in Jo­han­nes­burg, in­clud­ing work­ing as a switch­board op­er­a­tor and ho­tel waiter. He learnt more about pho­tog­ra­phy, read the Rand Daily Mail when­ever he could and de­vel­oped an in­ter­est in pho­to­jour­nal­ism.

He wrote a fea­ture story on a bus owner, ac­com­pa­nied by his own pic­tures, and took it to The World, which of­fered him a job in 1968.

Af­ter re­turn­ing to Bush­buck­ridge he be­came a mem­ber of the Gazankulu home­land leg­isla­tive assem­bly. Af­ter 1994 he served on the Bush­buck­ridge mu­nic­i­pal coun­cil and started a pho­tog­ra­phy school.

Nz­ima bat­tled for 22 years to get the copy­right for his fa­mous pic­ture but the Ar­gus com­pany, which owned The World, wouldn’t budge.

Af­ter the com­pany had been sold to Tony O’Reilly’s In­de­pen­dent Group he re­ceived a let­ter in­form­ing him that as it was felt that lit­tle value still at­tached to the copy­right, he could have it.

Nz­ima said it was more about ac­knowl­edge­ment than money. No longer would pub­li­ca­tions around the world be able to use his pic­ture, as they of­ten had, with­out ac­knowl­edg­ing him as the pho­tog­ra­pher.

He is sur­vived by his wife, Zinziswa, and six chil­dren.

Pic­ture: Veli Nh­lapo

Sam Nz­ima with a print of his pic­ture of Hec­tor Pi­eter­son be­ing car­ried by Mbuy­isa Makhubu af­ter the 13-year-old was shot by po­lice dur­ing the stu­dent up­ris­ing in Soweto on June 16 1976.

Pic­ture: Reuters

Sam Nz­ima, sec­ond from right, with leg­endary pho­tog­ra­phers, from left, Jür­gen Schade­berg, João Silva and Peter Magubane at the funeral of their col­league Alf Ku­malo in Jo­han­nes­burg in 2012.

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