Magubane: a great photographer

About 25 years ago Drum magazine sent a photographer to Zeerust in the western Transvaal. They wanted the photographer to take pictures of a political trial. The photographer’s name was Peter Magubane.

When Magubane got to Zeerust, the people of Zeerust did not give him a warm welcome. They told him to go home. They didn’t want photographers in court.

But Magubane did not give up. He dressed up like a worker. He bought a loaf of bread and went back to court. He sat in court and ate his bread. The judge did not mind.

A few weeks later, Drum magazine was the only magazine with pictures of the trial. Peter Magubane had got his pictures – by hiding his camera in the loaf of bread.

Peter Magubane got the job done. He always gets the job done. And that’s not all. When Peter Magubane does a job, he does the job well.

Now some people say Magubane is one of the best photographers in the world. But Magubane did not start at the top. He has worked hard. He has suffered. He has paid the price.

He was born in the old Sophiatown 51 years ago. His father was a fruit vendor. His mother sold ‘skokiaan’ beer.

Peter was the only child. On weekdays he went to school. On weekends he helped his father sell fruit in the white suburbs.

One day the young Magubane bought himself an old camera. And he found himself a new love. His new love was photography.

When he left school he wanted to work as a photographer. He got a job at Drum magazine – as a driver. In his spare time he took pictures. The people at Drum saw some of his pictures. And they gave him the job he wanted.

He worked very hard. He worked late nearly every night. He often slept in the darkroom because he missed the last bus home.

Magubane was learning all the time. He learnt one of his biggest lessons at the Sharpeville shootings. He went back to his editor with his pictures. The editor said the pictures were not very good. He said Magubane did not stand close enough when he took the pictures.

He told the young photographer that fear and shock must never stand in his way. Magubane has never forgotten what the editor said.

Magubane has a special love. He loves children. He can talk for hours about children. He has taken many pictures of children in South Africa.

Magubane worries about the children. He has taken many pictures of children working. He feels angry about child labour in this country.

“Nearly half the people in the world are children. And yet they have no say,” says Magubane sadly.

Magubane has had some bad times himself. He has spent 23 months in jail. He was in a cell alone for most of the time. And in 1971 the government banned him for five years. When he was banned, he couldn’t make a living from photographs. So he sold cars for a time. And then he sold dresses door to door.

Now Magubane travels all over the world. He has won many prizes. People from many countries buy his books.

But Magubane never forgets about home. “I can’t live in another country for a long time,” says Magubane. “South Africa is my home. I will always come back.”

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