Paul Weinberg: A Man Who Can Honestly Attest to Living Through History

April 26, 1994 Nelson Mandela casts his vote for the very first time, an iconic photograph by Paul Weinberg.

April 26, 1994 Nelson Mandela casts his vote for the very first time, an iconic photograph by Paul Weinberg.

It’s almost a year since Nelson Mandela passed away. To commemorate this great man, award winning art professional Natalie Liknaitzky has curated an exhibition of South African art, which will be shown at the Stephan Welz Studio in Sandton from December 5 until January 11.

The show, another in the series of shows which Liknaitzky has put together celebrating Mandela, will be called We Love Mandela: In Memoriam; it will include a selection of works from the exhibition recently shown in London, plus new works by Jane Makhubele, Ilan Ossendryver, Alfred Thoba, Zapiro and Cape-based photographer Paul Weinberg (pictured, below) – a co-founder of the 1980s photographic collective Afrapix – who took arguably the only photograph of Mandela’s first vote at Ohlange School in Inanda, Durban, the site of the grave of John Dube.

Last week, speaking of the past, the present and the future through his lens, he told My View how that photograph happened: “I was working for the Independent Electoral Commission as a freelance photojournalist during the 1994 elections. Mandela voted a second time for hundreds of photographers outside.”

But being first in line hadn’t always been Weinberg’s privilege when it came to filming Mandela. When Mandela was released from the Victor Verster prison in 1991, Weinberg was a little late in arriving to cover the event. “I sheepishly tried to find a spot and a relatively good vista. My initial position was behind a Time magazine photographer and his partner. As the wind blew, her long flowing hair kept obscuring my vision.

“‘Do you mind moving slightly to the left?’ I asked her at one point. ‘Yes I mind!’ she said. ‘I’ve been waiting here for eight hours.’ My response was immediate: ‘Well, millions of us have been waiting all our lives!’ I then settled on a place which was more like a worm’s eye view. At least I had a clear path of the gates.

“And after more waiting, Nelson and Winnie walked through the gates towards the media. I focused and pressed the shutter. As I did, a group of comrades who were to my right, surged. My cameras, camera bag and I went flying. My Madiba moment consists of blue sky and telephone lines! To add further ignominy, I lost a lens in the fracas.

“In an attempt to redeem myself, I rushed to the grand parade and it was jammed packed and after hours of waiting Madiba arrived in very low light – his driver had gotten lost, which resulted in a long wait. I have a blurry photo of him waving to the crowd. I was really freaked out that two historic moments had passed with nothing to show for it.

“Caught up in the events that followed I joined the Mandela train to some extent as he connected to the South African public. On one occasion I was commissioned to do ‘a day in the life’ of Nelson Mandela. As we walked along the corridor, Madiba remembering my name, turned to me and asked, ‘Are you related to my good friend Eli Weinberg?’ I replied with the same answer, ‘Not directly but our forebears came from the same city, Riga in Latvia.’ ‘I see,’ he said generously. But I knew my answer was not going to get me much closer to the great man.

“One got then a very clear impression that Madiba knew when he was talking to you or allowing his photograph to be taken, he was connecting with the world. You were as important to him as he was to us. The media were his direct artery to the world which he so brilliantly has managed throughout his life.”

Weinberg, who was born and raised in Pietermaritzburg describes his participation in Liknaitzky’s project as something that grew out of a conversation. “I got into the show through the side door. I went to see the work she did on Mandela at the South African Jewish Museum in Cape Town, I told her I’d done a bit of work myself,” he adds, referring to the collection on show in this exhibition as a “series of firsts.”

Skirting from describing himself as having a comprehensive focus on Mandela he says, “As a photojournalist, I kept my eyes peeled and was cognisant of the significant moments that were happening. I had been documenting politically significant moments from the 1980s.”

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When Weinberg was 11 he won a Hebrew prize designated for the purchase of books. “But I ran off and used it to buy myself a very nice little Canon Rangefinder, it was better than a Brownie and was my first real camera. On my barmitzvah, I upgraded to a Pentax, with all the lenses, which I bought from a press photographer.

“In high school I dabbled and kind of did what I thought I needed to do, and learned how to take pictures and develop. My interest in photography was percolating. Then I did all the usual things: I went to the army and came out and went to the university and I was half way through a law degree at ‘Maritzburg University when it was suddenly June 1976. And I thought I just can’t do this anymore. I have to take a stand.

“So I handed in my rifle and registered as a conscientious objector, not really knowing what I was doing, but that moment was pivotal because then I realised it was real and pondered: if I do get arrested or charged, do I really have the balls to sit in jail?” He decided to get some kind of qualification that would give him the skills to earn a living elsewhere. “A law degree would get me nowhere.

“I went back to the local technical college where I did a certificate in photography, but I also completed my BA at the same time and then I headed for Jo’burg, to escape from the army commando that I was at.

“And the rest is history. I lived out of a suitcase with a passport next to me and never paid tax and got totally involved in the world around me in trying to play my part in documenting what was going on. And I tripped and fell often, as I went.

“Narratives can be delusional,” he laughs, speaking of the flawed sense of romance in the hard life of a freelancer. “It was incredibly exciting. We were living history. I was caught up in events and the world was happening around us. On reflection, what a phenomenal privilege it was to live through those times.”

Afrapix was founded in 1982, by Weinberg in collaboration with Omar Badsha, Lesley Lawson, Biddy Partridge and Mxolise Mayo. A decade before the photographers associated with the Bang Bang club – Ken Oosterbroek, Kevin Carter, Greg Marinovic and Joao Silva – “Afrapix’s ethos was different to that of the Bang Bang Club. We were like a family. We were uncompetitive with each other: it was quite phenomenal. We had a lot of people who weren’t traditional photographers – there were housewives and people from the townships like darkroom assistants like Santu Mofokeng, who developed into heavyweights in the industry. We were there for strays and waifs, and anyone who was committed to the cause.

“It’s a big jump for documentary photographers like myself to enter the artworld,” he adds. “It’s a whole new vocabulary. I am in the minor league,” he says, but as the creator of several photographic books containing his different series, he’s developed a lot of street cred as a photographer who knows his stuff.

“But when I think of the 1970s, I remember how David Goldblatt’s books, like Some Afrikaners and On the Mine were available at Estoril books for R1.50: they were commercial failures at the time, but have gone on to become enormously iconic, and I believe there’s hope. Someday, maybe someone will be buying Paul Weinberg books in the same vein.”

In his capacity as photographic curator, where he is employed by the archives of the University of Cape Town, Weinberg is currently in the process of putting together a project called The Other Camera. “It’s about vernacular photography, which I have been researching over years and years. The opening of this exhibition at the Wits Art Museum will coincides with a Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research (Wiser) conference at Wits University in mid February.

“For this project, I have dug and found stuff way off the beaten track. Being aware of this genre has been amazing. Okwui Enwezor and Simon Njami have discovered the west African form of this genre of portrait photography and have exposed it to the world through Malick Sidibé and Sedou Keita but they’ve left out the southern African part.

“Does it make sense? This is really where urbanisation took off first in Africa. The connection with the camera and identity all that stuff to do with modernity was definitely going to happen.

“Photography has a weird place,” he concludes. “Photographers are sometimes inarticulate in various ways but they kind of know that this, in this moment, they have got something special. Often it is for the wrong reasons – fame and glory… but at the end of the day, one looks back at them and sees their value.”

  • We Love Mandela: In Memoriam is at the Welz Studio, Shop L38, Nelson Mandela Square, Sandton, December 5-January 11. Call Christa (011)026-6586 or Nadine 082-891-8252.
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