The Man Behind the Lens

Peter Magubane at an exhibition in 2014

Everyone knows a picture says a thousand words. Renowned photographer, Peter Maguabne, recognised this from a young age when he received his first Kodak Brownie camera. He spent decades capturing South Africa’s iconic events through evolving photographic technologies. On 1 January 2024, as the world welcomed the New Year, Magubane breathed his last breath, leaving behind a legacy of visual storytelling dedicated to immortalising moments in time.

Throughout his illustrious career, Magubane narrated the unfolding story of South Africa’s liberation through images. One of his earliest major undertakings occurred in 1955 during the annual conference of the African National Congress in Bloemfontein—a moment etched in history through his lens. At that time, Drum magazine stood as a radical force, harnessing the creative talents of black and white artists who boldly told the untold stories of ordinary South Africans.

Magubane’s commitment to his craft was unwavering, even during periods of adversity that saw him arrested and confined in solitary. His enduring passion for photography became a powerful tool, not for destruction, but for dismantling the shackles of apartheid and bringing to light the struggles and triumphs of a nation headed towards change.

Reflecting on his journey in 2015, he said, “I was going to stay and fight with my camera as my gun. I did not want to kill anyone, though. I wanted to kill apartheid.”

An iconic Magubane image captured in 1956

He gained global acclaim, notably receiving the  Cornell Capa Infinity Award in 2010, and becoming one of the first African photographers to exhibit in London. He had the honor of being the official photographer of Nelson Mandela – from the moment of Mandela’s release to his presidency. One can only imagine his experiences during the uncaptured moments he spent with the late struggle icon. Unconventional in his approach, Magubane prioritized authenticity over formalities, using his lens to tell stories more powerfully than words alone. 

Before social media became the main medium used to mobilise around uprisings and movements, there were courageous photographers like Magubane. In the wake of his recent passing, his words will continue to inspire people to take photos because ‘a struggle without documentation is not a struggle. Let them capture this, let them take pictures of your struggle; then you have won.’