Photographers fought apartheid with their cameras

(This article was published in Weekend Argus, a weekly regional newspaper in Cape Town, Western Cape province of South Africa, on June 8 2014.)

Written by Yazeed Kamaldien

A new documentary film chronicling local photographer’s lives during apartheid has raised questions about press freedom and preserving a visual archive of the struggle for liberation.

Behind the Lens, directed by Liz Fish, premieres this weekend at the Encounters documentary film festival. During its 52 minutes, the film tells of how mostly Cape Town-based photographers dodged bullets, risked arrest and ensured the world remained aware of apartheid atrocities against citizens.

Photographers featuring in the film include Rashid Lombard, Benny Gool, Tony Weaver, Zubeida Vallie and Paul Weinberg. In the film, they recall how they used their cameras as weapons against apartheid.

Liz Fish (third from left) with photographers in her film, from left: Zubeida Vallie, Tony Weaver, Benny Gool and Rashid Lombard. Pic by Yazeed Kamaldien

Liz Fish (third from left) with photographers in her film, from left: Zubeida Vallie, Tony Weaver, Benny Gool and Rashid Lombard. Pic by Yazeed Kamaldien

The film is rich with anecdotes of how they operated during the 1980s, at the height of violence, bloodshed and turmoil in largely citizen-led action against the apartheid government.

The photographers talk of being “refugees in our country” always on the run from the security police. Their cameras were used as a tool to document and understand a troubled land.

Weaver says in the film: “We were political activists. Foreign media were suspicious of us. They thought we were part of the ANC.”
Lombard adds: “I had the values of activists. We thought about how we could free ourselves.”

When apartheid’s security forces tightened its grip on individual photographers, they started moving around in groups. They also formed an agency called AfriPix that sent packages of photos and information to other parts of the world.

Journalist and photographer Tony Weaver holds up a poster in defiance of government censorship of the press during apartheid. Pic from the Cape Times newspaper archive

Journalist and photographer Tony Weaver holds up a poster in defiance of government censorship of the press during apartheid. Pic from the Cape Times newspaper archive

They had to also hide their negatives and prints in different locations to ensure the police did not confiscate their work.

Lombard relates in the film how they had “runners” – get-away guys who carried their photographic film during protests. This was to ensure if they were arrested that police would not destroy their visual evidence of violence.

Gool remembers in the film how they used to meet at Vallie’s home while traveling around on assignment together.

“Zubeida and her mother used to feed us all the time,” he says in the film.

He adds: “We regarded ourselves at war with apartheid forces. They (police) regarded us as the enemy. We had fights daily. When they decided to attack an area, they would get rid of us first. That’s when you find another way to get in.”

Workers leaving a May Day rally in 1986 are halted on the steps of Khotso House in Joburg by armed police. Pic by Paul Weinberg

Workers leaving a May Day rally in 1986 are halted on the steps of Khotso House in Joburg by armed police. Pic by Paul Weinberg

The personal, as always, was political too. Lombard says his sons were soon involved in anti-apartheid protests.

“The youth were fearless and militant and that was a driving force of the 1980s. They got killed. They buried the deceased on Sundays. They were determined and were prepared to die,” he says.

Fish says her film talks about the role of the press and a threat the media faces in democracy too: censorship.

“While I was making the film I was thinking who cares about this stuff. But I realised this is not a bunch of nostalgia stories. It’s an important story about the battle for press freedom,” says Fish.

She was also encouraged when her Born Free children, birthed during the first 20 years of South Africa’s democracy, responded positively to the film.

“My children learn about apartheid in a school textbook and it’s boring. When they hear people’s intimate stories it becomes alive. After my 15-year-old daughter saw the film she told me that she wants to make a difference with her life.”

Gool agrees this film is not simply a walk down memory lane, laden with nostalgia about a long-gone past.

“I think a lot of people don’t understand what it was like for us. This is a serious thing. People lost their lives. We must remember it and remind people what happened,” says Gool.

“It’s not a sentimental thing. Even politicians need to be reminded this.”

Gool says his son Adam, 19, watched the film and had “no idea what a State of Emergency is”.

“This Born Free generation, this is what they need to see. Kids want the best cell phones but they don’t stop to think what’s happening in their communities. After watching this tonight, Adam will have a different view of life.”

At a private screening this week for the film’s protagonists, Lombard pointed out the importance of an archive for their anti-apartheid photography.

He was Nelson Mandela’s personal photographer for three months during the former statesman’s election campaign in 1994.

“I’ve got photos of his (Mandela) release, his travels into Africa to meet his comrades, his images leading up to the elections. I traveled with him all over. I have all that archive in colour and black and white. A lot of it has not been seen,” says Lombard.

“We need a place where we can create an archive that be can be used for research and even commercial purposes. Perhaps Independent Newspapers (which publishes this newspaper) would start that archive.

“A lot of photographers are looking for that home because our work is lying under our beds. Our film negatives need to be protected and digitised.”

Lombard also points out how most of their images in the film reflect similar scenes unfolding during democracy.

“We see a lot of police brutality and (issues of) freedom of speech. Police should be a friend to society. They should be the ones that help society be part of this healing process,” he says.

“A lot of the images we see there is the police versus activists and the media. That role should change. Police should be friends of society and work with us. We have not gotten there yet.”

Behind the Lens is one of four films focusing on photography, commissioned by the Big Fish School of Digital Filmmaking.

Its world premiere is at the Labia cinema on Orange Street in the city on Sunday at 5:30pm. It also screens on Thursday June 12 at 6:45pm at Nu Metro cinema at the V&A Waterfront.

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About Yazeed Kamaldien

Self-employed journalist and photographer from South Africa.

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