December 20, 2017

A Girl and Her Maid on a 'Europeans Only' Bench – The Story Behind Peter Magubane's Iconic Photograph

“The police once broke my nose when I refused to destroy my images. I was sent to solitary for 586 days.” – South African photographer Peter Magubane told The Guardian about his best photograph.
Peter Magubane’s picture of a girl on the bench in Johannesburg.

“Working as a black photographer in apartheid South Africa was not easy. You had to always know where you were and who was around you. If the police were there, you couldn’t take photos – and the police were always there. If it was difficult for me to get a shot openly, I’d have to improvise: hide my camera in a loaf of bread, a half-pint of milk, even a Bible. When I got back to the office, I had to have a picture with me no matter what. My editors at the Rand Daily Mail would not take any nonsense. But that was fine – they wanted the pictures and I wanted to become one of the greats.

“I did not want to leave the country to find another life. 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. My editors always pushed me. “Work as hard as you can,” they’d say, “to defeat this animal apartheid. Show the world what is happening.”

“I never staged pictures. They were moments I came across. I took this in 1956, while driving through a wealthy suburb in Johannesburg. I saw the girl on the bench and stopped. The woman worked for her parents, most likely a rich local family.

“These labels – “Europeans only”, “Coloureds only” – were on everything, by order of the government. When I saw Europeans only, I knew I would have to approach with caution. But I didn’t have a long lens, just my 35mm, so I had to get close. I did not interact with the woman or the child, though. I never ask permission when taking photos. I have worked amid massacres, with hundreds of people being killed around me, and you can’t ask for permission. I apologise afterwards, if someone feels insulted, but I want the picture.

“I took about five shots and went straight back to the office. I processed it, then showed it to the editor and he said it was wonderful. It was published worldwide: for a lot of countries, apartheid was the news of the day. Ever since, I have been trying to find the woman and child. I have no leads, but I would love to say: “Thank you very much, for not interfering with me when I took this.”

“I was arrested many times and the police would beat the hell out of me. They fractured my nose once because I refused to expose my film and ruin my images. In 1974, they arrested me and I was put in solitary confinement for 586 days. You weren’t told you’re going to solitary in apartheid South Africa: you only found out when you reached your cell.

“You didn’t get visitors. The only person you saw was the guard, who would say: “Don’t talk to me.” But I knew there were people in worse shape than I: Namibians in cells downstairs were beaten every day, every night. Fortunately I was not beaten, because they knew my newspaper was looking out for me. All they could do was lock me away. A bird would come and sit on the windowsill. When I stood up, it would fly away. All I could think about was how much I wanted to be that bird.

“Towards the end of 1975, I was released but banned from taking photos for five years. I couldn’t leave my house without the police knowing. When they released me, I said to myself: “I am not going to abide by the rules of these people. I am taking pictures, not committing a crime.” So in 1976, when the Soweto uprising happened, I went with my camera and a vengeance. Because of my photos, the entire world saw what was happening.”

(Photograph: Peter Magubane, via The Guardian)


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