The South African photographic legacy of Jurgen Schadeberg

By Edward Tsumele

Legendary Germany born photographer Jurgen Schadeberg, who died of age related complications on August 29, aged 89, is as much of South African history as he is of that of Germany where he left after the Nazis had caused major destruction. He found a new purpose and a fulfilling role in South Africa where his actress mother, with her English former army officer had settled, leaving him alone in Berlin as a young teenager  to live on his own devices.

But as fate would have it, in South Africa, the then young Schadeberg contributed immensely to history through his photography that saw him, through his trusted camera and film, capture the early political developments, especially of black political leaders and struggle heroes such as Nelson Mandela and others such as Walter Sisulu before they were arrested  in Rivonia in 1963 and later jailed in 1964 in the infamous trial. Schadeberg also captured other historic moments in South Africa, such as the defiance campaign in 1952 and the Sharpeville  Massacre in 1969, as well as producing several documentaries about apartheid  South Africa, together with his wife Claudia.

 His photographic work went further though as he also alongside others, such as Peter Magubane and Alf Kumalo, documented the colourful lives lived by colourful characters of Sophiatown. Many a celebrity of the time, such as Dorothy Masuka, Dolly Rathebe and others, owe their career development through the documentation of their work by Schadeberg and his colleagues, working for Drum Magazine.  

He also documented Sophiatown’s destruction as well as assuming the role of  mentor to many black photographers as Drum’s Chief photographer, opening doors for photographers such as Bob Gosani and Ernest Cole, among others.

His immersion in the unfolding South African story and finding fulfillment in the process, must have helped the then  young photographer to heal from the trauma of witnessing Nazi Germany’s destruction as a teenager, as well as literally being abandoned by his mother who left for South Africa on a ship with her lover, leaving him alone in Germany.

To understand the photographer’s life, one only needs to read his book The way I See  It, a memoir he wrote and was published by Pan MacMillan South Africa in 2018.

In this book, the legendary Drum photojournalist details the destruction wrought in post-war Germany and apartheid South Africa. I got hold of the book in 2018 and I wrote in a review for Business Day newspaper then:

“The memoir of legendary Drum photojournalist Jurgen Schadeberg brings to life the devastation of post-war Germany and the destruction wrought upon South Africa by apartheid. It sketches the journey of one man’s relentless pursuit of fulfillment through photography, fiercely and successfully fighting obstacles put in his way.

Born in Berlin, Schadeberg meticulously sketches his life from the impressionable age of 10 in 1941. He describes the extent of the devastation of the city during the war. This account of a boy caught in the crossfire brings to vivid life buildings reduced to ruins, burying rotting corpses.

The teen Schadeberg’s career started as a volunteer apprentice photographer in Berlin and developed after he emigrated to SA in 1950 where he became a celebrated lens man, mainly at Drum magazine. He captured huge events in world history, spanning Africa, Europe and the US. In 1941, the Third Reich was at its pinnacle.”

May his soul rest in peace.

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