Jurgen Schadeberg. Mandela's photographer.

by Vicente Dolz in interview - 2 years ago

Jurgen Schadeberg. Mandela's photographer.

by Vicente Dolz in interview - 2 years ago
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Jurgen Schadeberg, leading figure in photography, ‘Father of South African photography’, was born in Berlin in 1931. Someone who has given his life to photography, who had already worked as an apprentice photographer in Hamburg during his teenage years. At the age of 20, he migrated to South Africa and became an Art Director in Drum Magazine.

During the 50’s he took photos of historical moments, which were crucial in the South African citizens’ lives, especially during Apartheid.

In the 60’s, he left South Africa and lived in London, working as a journalist photographer in Europe and America. In the 1970’s, he was a teacher in New York, London and Hamburg.
He has carried out numerous expositions around several countries, received prizes and mentions in various languages and edited and published over 30 books, as well as producing 15 documentaries about South African history. Always accompanied by his wife Claudia, who was also a producer, he has been taking photos for over 70 years and his collection encompasses over 200,000 negatives.
Having done this little presentation in which I could go on without leaving any time for the interview, we are going to learn a bit more about this fundamental photographer.

Jurgen, good morning. It is a real pleasure for us to be able to talk to you for a little while, to get to know you and hear about a few stories from your extended photographic life. The first question inevitably is, how did everything start?

There were many reasons for me to leave Germany in 1950. My mother had moved to South Africa in 1947 which was when I left Berlin for Hamburg where I worked as a trainee with the German Press Agency. I left Germany for South Africa in 1950 because I found the former Nazis were still active in Germany and nothing had essentially changed in the psyche of the German people. My first choice was to work in New York as a photo journalist but this was financially impossible so with the help of my mother I emigrated to South Africa in 1950. 

Which circumstances took you to South Africa?

Working as a freelance photographer for a black photo magazine such as Drum made one very unpopular in white society but I was very much accepted by the black world who appreciated the rarity of a white person taking an interest the black social, cultural and political scene. 

Which memories have you got from the whole Apartheid process and how did you survive as a photographer in the middle of the turmoil?

I documented the pre Apartheid, Apartheid and post Apartheid South Africa over a period of 35 years and I was happy to witness the positive changes from 1994 when Mandela became President, although there is still a long way to go. 

You left Nazi Germany and came across Apartheid. Did this vision of the world that you were perceiving affect your photos?

I went from the frying pan into the fire – from a racist Nazi Germany to a racist unjust South Africa. Growing up in Berlin during the war gave me an awareness about injustice so I was shocked but mentally prepared for the parallels in the two countries. 

What made you work for The African Drum, which did not seem to be the safest bet?

When a job came up on Drum Magazine I was told by many that it would not be suitable as you would be working alongside blacks, the pay would be low and  there were certain dangers involved – all these factors made me more interested and ready to take the job....without regret. 

You were arrested for taking photos of a female singer of colour (Dolly Rathebe) and you faced the Immorality Law which forbid interracial relations. What is your memory of that event?

In 1952 I was asked to take beach photos of blues queen Dolly Rathebe. Since there were no beaches in Johannesburg we improvised using a mine dump – sand dunes created by the coal mines. A white witness to the photo shoot reported us to the police as he assumed we were contravening the Immorality Act (no physical relations allowed between whites and blacks) and we were both arrested. 

Your iconic image of Mandela has gone around the globe, did you realise the importance that photo would have on South Africans’ lives at the time?

I did not realise the importance of this Mandela image at the time – I took it in 1993 as part of a book and film project entitled “Voices from Robben Island”. I am happy to see that it has become a popular image worldwide. 

How was it to work as a journalist photographer in the 70’s for important journals? Do you think this has changed nowadays?

In the seventies in Europe I focussed on social stories such as the Gorbals in Glasgow, the non swinging sixeties in the UK and the Provos in Amsterdam. At that time magazines and newspapers such as New Society, The Sunday Times, The Observer, the Weekend Telegraph Magazine, Die Zeit welcomed stories of this kind.  Nowadays social issue stories are very hard to get published. 

Which photography teams do you work with? Which one have you always felt more comfortable working with? Why?

I have never worked with a photography team – I have always worked independently.

In the 1970’s you met your partner (who also was a photographer?) and you have worked together since then. How did this long-lasting collaboration begin?

I met my wife and partner Claudia in the seventies in London when she was a television researcher/producer at the BBC, not a photographer. We found that we had very similar interests in photography and films and when we moved to South Africa in 1985 we worked together on a series of documentaries and dramas, photography projects and published a number of photo books related to black life. This collaboration continues today after some 35 years. 

From all your exhibitions, which one would you rank as the top one?

My recent Leica Hall of Fame retrospective exhibition in 2018 I would consider one of my better shows. It is currently at the Leica Gallery in Prague after a run in Germany and will then tour Europe. 

Our feature documentary “Have you seen Drum recently?” – a 35mm 75 minute film – is my favourite. It was made in 1987 and was our first film – it features previously largely unseen archive footage from the fifties, 33 pieces of original fifties music, which we unearthed in the basement of a record company, and many rare black and white photos. 

Which documentary from the ones you have filmed would you recommend me as the top one?
Which photo has given you the most satisfaction?

It’s almost impossible to choose a favourite photo – they are all favourites! 

How was your photographic incursion into jazz?

My interest in jazz started at the age of 11 when I was given some Louis Armstrong records which I played on my little gramophone during the Berlin bombing in the air raid shelter despite the complaints of the others who exclaimed “stop playing this jungle music”. 

My interest in Jazz in South Africa grew as it signified one of the few forms of defiance for black people against the Apartheid system. We used jazz in many of our films and produced a book about six decades of jazz in SA. 

How did you end up in this small village in Valencia (Barx) where you currently live?

When we left South Africa in 2007 we went to live in 

France, then Berlin and then decided to move to Spain – it was largely  by chance and knowing some people in the Valencia province that we ended up in our little mountain village of La Drova. 

You chose black and white in your work but, in which occasions have you carried it out in colour and why?

I in fact shot colour since the fifties when I developed the film myself. At that time there was little demand for colour pictures until the late fifties with the emergence of television in the UK and the new colour magazine supplements for which I worked.

I have read your interview when you said ‘…and then there are these feet photos that everyone takes.’ I started laughing because I have a collection of those types of photos, jejeje; but you are right.

 What do you think about the selfie trend? Why do we not give our camera or phone to someone else so that he takes the photo for us, as it used to be done?

I don’t have much interest in food photos that many people take but selfies are a way of recording memories.  

One of my favourite recent colour photos is of a group of people taking a selfie of themselves on Gandia beach...it works well. 

Certainly, with your life experience, I find it hard to bring this interview to an end. You have so many things to tell that they would not fit in a thousand interviews.’’

NOTE: This interview was conducted in 2019. Jurgen passed away on 29 August 2020.

We would like to pay tribute to his memory and republish the interview of this excellent photographer and wonderful person.

We would also like to point out that Claudia, his widow and producer, continues to manage Jurgen's 7 decades of photographic archive, holding continuous exhibitions in Europe and South Africa (ParisPhoto in November 2021, Leica Gallery in Salzburg until March 2022) and offering silver prints.