Important art reveals something about the human condition. This documentary on the work of South African photo-documentarian Jürgen Schadeberg brings to life the past and well as current struggles of the Blacks of Soweto, South Africa. It’s an art form of the highest value.
“Schadeberg: Black – White” opens with a night vision of current Johannesburg. It is dark, rainy and thunder claps as a street bustles. The narrator says the city is “very rich, very poor and very criminal.” The point is that the misery of being Black in South Africa is still present, despite the outward signs of recovery.
This film tells the story Schadeberg, who through 30 years of photography, documented and challenged the laws of apartheid.
He immigrated from an impoverished post-WWII Germany when he was 19 because South Africa was regarded as the land of opportunity. He ended up getting a position as a photographer at Drum magazine, a publication that ended up dedicated to Black liberation.
Drum, with a Black readership, told stories through pictures, promoting Black leadership and political freedom. The magazine chronicled the early ANC (African National Congress) leaders like Nelson Mandela and success stories of blacks in the community.
Schadeberg says that the difference between photography and photojournalism is that the journalist gets involved in how people live and the activity s/he is recording. In Drum he was helping a people develop a politic consciousness.
As the apartheid resistance grew, Schadeberg became the one photographer who was the confidante of the rebels. While Blacks didn’t own cameras they were delighted to be photographed so Schadeberg ended up having access to the homes, communities and all the leaders of Soweto. The Whites didn’t like this.
To bait the government, one day Schadeberg set out to photograph a Black woman in a bikini. In no time they were surrounded by police. It was enough that Black and White were mixing. But he would be fined and arrested for 9 months if it could be proved that he had had sex with her. He remarks that he’d be in more trouble with his wife!
By the end of the 1950’s all of the leaders of the ANC were incarcerated and all had been subjects of his photography. So it is that his most memorable photo was taken in 1994 when he returned with Nelson Mandela to photograph him at his cell.
Schadeberg explains that the South African government sought to destroy the culture of the Blacks while he sought to document this tragedy. He explains in the film that no one was allowed to photograph Blacks and Whites together. They couldn’t even photograph Blacks and Whites boxing. Over 1,000 books were forbidden.
He says the difference, for him, between a photographer and a painter, is the time of production. As an artist, during the time you are creating your art you are influenced by the environment: sounds, music, and arguments. However, in photography “it is all in the moment – it is in the eye.”
Schadeberg argues that he is not political – just a humanist. He says, “I don’t see myself on a mission to teach people something. I take pictures of life as I see it, as a professional photographer, and to show when and where possible the story … and the social condition.”
Schadeberg ended up leaving South Africa because of political pressure. He was harassed everywhere he went by the police for taking pictures in the ’60s. However, when he returned 30 years later he began a mentorship program that helped Black students learn photography and get jobs at places like The Sowetan, a daily newspaper.
He recounts in the film that there is now a new force at work in Soweto under the guise of making the area safe and interesting to tourists. There is a government brigade known as Red Ants that works with the police to clear squatters and homeless out of the area. However, the problem is that there are few places to live. While there are many apartment buildings deserted by the Whites in the ’50s and ’60s, these structures now have no water, sanitation or electricity. These are among the only places Blacks can find to live.
Interestingly, Schadeberg’s photographs are used to help. Stuart Wilson, a man who fights for squatters’ rights, defends those who live in the dilapidated high-rises and squatter camps. He’s out to prove that these are the only places these people can live because there is no alternative housing. Plus, using Schadeberg’s pictures, he has successfully shown that these people are ordinary, decent, hardworking Africans, not criminals or indigents.
Schadeberg, at age 77, is now exhibited around the world. He remarks that he “does not photograph the sensational, violence or the criminality of war, but life.”
His remarkable photographs are sprinkled throughout the film and his story is an inspiring testament about a good man in a time of challenge and injustice.
Produced by Filmkraft Filmproducktion Munich
Written and directed: Peter Heller
Photography by Hans Albrecht Lusznat
Sound: Gregor Kuschel
Language: English subtitles when necessary
Released: April 22, 2010
Time: 58 minutes
Web site: www.jurgenschadeberg.com/films.htm
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