WHAT WOULD MAKE a man risk his life by balancing precariously on one hand with his legs above him, on a rain-soaked ledge of a building high above a city half covered by mist? That’s what acrobat Hans Prignitz did in 1948 in Hamburg, as a favour to a 17-year-old photographer working for the German Press Agency. The photographer was Jürgen Schadeberg. That was the shot that signalled the beginning of his illustrious career. Over the next six decades Schadeberg became a legendary photographer with a portfolio of stunning images which chronicled apartheid and events in other countries. Schadeberg died on 29 August 2020, from complications after a stroke. He was 89.
The image of Prignitz remained one of Schadeberg’s personal most favourite, famous pictures, ultimately being listed in The Guardian’s “My Best Shot” series. His other favourite was one he took in 1994 of the new SA President Nelson Mandela returning to visit his former cell on Robben Island, where he had spent the major part of his 27-year incarceration.
Schadeberg was born in Berlin on 18 March 1931. It was a time when goose-stepping Nazis were emerging brazenly onto the streets. In an interview in the Guardian in 2014, Schadeberg recalled that when he was growing up he would ask his mother: “Who is this man on the radio who is always shouting and seems so angry? What is this all about?” The man, of course, was Adolf Hitler. His mother told him to be quiet or he would get them into trouble. “It was a very unpleasant environment to grow up in,” he said. “And, after the war, a lot of Nazis were still around.”
In his early teens, Schadeberg was forced into the Hitler Youth, but played tricks there, sometimes by marching backwards, or wearing bright colours instead of the requisite brown uniforms. Police told his mother to control her son. In his memoir, he describes the “slow descent into hell” of the imposition of Nazism on Berliners.
Schadeberg was the only child of a single woman named Rosemarie. She was an actress. After the war’s end, Schadeberg was dismayed by what he saw as an inherent quality in Teutonic German culture, drawn to Nazi-like marching in step and singing about the glories of the Führer and the Fatherland. He moved to South Africa in 1950, barely out of his teens.
But on arrival, he discovered that South African racism was just as bad as what he had left behind in Germany. “The blacks” were spoken about by South African white people in just as contemptuous a way as Jews had been spoken about in Germany. Some people said they wished Hitler had won the war. It was the beginning of formalised apartheid – although most people believed it would not last, since fascism had already been conquered in Europe.
Within a year, Schadeberg joined Drum magazine as a photographic freelancer. The Sophiatown-based publication, which was to become known as an important anti-apartheid mouthpiece had been founded in that year, 1951, by radio man and journalist Bob Crisp. Schadeberg moved through the ranks of the weekly’s hierarchy to become its chief photographer and art director. He mentored great photographers such as Alf Kumalo and Peter Magubane. Drum’s provocative investigative reporting, often spicy photographs, opinion columns and dramatic crime stories drew a mainly black audience. Writers were vastly diverse.
Schadeberg’s passions were always lit by jazz and dancing. Jazz, he said, was “a form of defiance and protest which eased the burden of apartheid”.
His work in the 1950s, which became known as the heyday of Drum – the “Drum decade” – addressed social justice issues that moved him, such as civil disobedience across South Africa, and the five-year treason trial of Nelson Mandela and 155 other anti-apartheid activists. He and Magubane covered the 1952 Defiance Campaign and the 1956 Women’s March to Pretoria to protest against laws forcing them to carry passes. They were arrested for photographing the Treason Trial between 1956 and 1961. They documented the aftermath of the Sharpeville Massacre in March 1960, when police opened fire on a gathering of some 7 000 unarmed people protesting against the pass laws, killing 69. For their funeral, he chartered a light plane to circle the line of coffins from above to illustrate the scale of the killings.
Under his guidance, Drum’s photographers immortalised life in the vibrant, multicultural Sophiatown, its people and their popular culture in fashion, jazz and dancing. Together with bold investigative journalism, Drum also gave its readers sport and celebrities, such as musician Todd Matshikiza, who composed the musical King Kong. Schadeberg photographed the singer Miriam Makeba in 1955 for the cover.
His portfolio contains images across a wide spectrum, including ANC activists such as Nelson Mandela and Walter Sisulu, jazz musicians such as the great trumpeter Hugh Masekela, and writers such as Can Themba, Bloke Modisane, Es’kia Mphahlele and Nadine Gordimer.
As Drum’s popularity grew, these iconic writers in South African literature came on board, as did people of the ilk of Casey Motsisi, Lewis Nkosi and Nat Nakasa. The writer Henry Nxumalo was one of the writers who developed an animated style to write about jazz and shebeens, and confessional, naughty interviews, which were fun to read for the publication’s vast readership.
One particularly famous photograph of Schadeberg’s taken in 1955 was of Constance Molefe, a junior tennis star from Orlando, leaping over a tennis net, racket in mid-air, looking dangerously close to catching her foot in the net. She appears to be fixed in flight, aiming at the future and her hopes of a senior title as an athlete. But her dreams as a star black athlete would soon be dashed by apartheid.
“A photograph is a pause button on life,” Schadeberg said in 2017. “You capture a moment in life, a moment that has gone forever and is impossible to reproduce.”
Nxumalo – who was fondly known as “Mr. Drum”- was a courageous investigative journalist who fought to expose injustice and cruelty. As part of a Drum investigative report, Schadeberg and Nxumalo once posed as a visiting journalist and his servant to gain access to farms in Bethal so that they could write about the abuse of farm labourers, there. Public response was huge and the edition sold out. Later, Nxumalo got himself arrested so he could write about prison conditions.
Drum’s rebellious spirit, however, couldn’t endure under stifling apartheid. It eventually withered, with many of its best members emigrating from the country. In addition, by 1956 Sophiatown’s black residents were being forcibly removed by a government fanatical about racial separation, to make way for a whites-only suburb.
Schadeberg left Drum in 1959. As a freelancer, partly for the Sunday Times, he went on to produce powerful images of the most important individuals and events in South Africa. He left South Africa in 1964, and travelled through Europe, photographing life in England, Scotland, Spain, and France. In 1985, swept up in enthusiasm for political developments in South Africa and believing that momentous democratic changes were imminent, he and his wife Claudia returned to the country.
But by 2007 Schadeberg’s disillusionment about the “new South Africa” and the persistence of racial separation and inequality made him and Claudia realise they were not really “African”. They left the country. He lamented in interviews how it was so different from the“rainbow nation” he had expected to emerge from the transformation. But notwithstanding their disappointments, they had witnessed at first-hand a once-in-a-lifetime event, the incredible change when South Africa actually dismantled apartheid. In its first fully free elections in 1994, whites and blacks stood in the same queues to vote for their president.
In 2014 Schadeberg received the Cornell Capa Lifetime Achievement Award from the International Center for Photography. That award constituted resounding public acknowledgement for his rich career, which was bookended by his picture of Hans Prignitz balancing on a ledge in Hamburg in 1948, and going all the way forward to Nelson Mandela in his jail cell in 1994.
Schadeberg married Claudia Horvath, an art historian and television producer, in 1984. They spent 36 years as spouses and working together on films, books and photography. Scathingly intolerant of new trends in photography, Schadeberg said in an interview in the Mail & Guardian in 2014, that much of it amounted to imagination without real skill. He added that he thought a lot of contemporary photography needed to justify itself verbally: “I don’t need to justify my pictures,” he said. “Take it or leave it. You either like them or you don’t.”
When Schadeberg died in La Drova, Spain, he joined the list of distinguished late South African photographers who had confronted apartheid, including people of the ilk of David Goldblatt, Gisele Wulfsohn and Santu Mofokeng. He is survived by Claudia and their son Charlie as well as five children from his previous marriages, 15 grandchildren and three great-grandchildren. He provided a great legacy for them to cherish.