Jürgen Schadeberg, whose photos chronicled apartheid, dies at 89

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Jürgen Schadeberg, whose photos chronicled apartheid, dies at 89
Unusually for a young white person, he gained entree into segregated Black communities and photographed such emblems of talent in the face of adversity as singer Miriam Makeba and trumpeter Hugh Masekela.

by Alan Cowell

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- Jürgen Schadeberg, a German-born photographer who survived the turmoil of wartime Berlin, then emigrated to South Africa, creating some of the most potent and enduring images of Nelson Mandela and chronicling the increasingly violent imposition of apartheid on Black lives, died Saturday at his home in La Drova, Spain. He was 89.

The cause was stroke-related issues, his wife, Claudia, said.

Unusually for a young white person, he gained entree into segregated Black communities and photographed such emblems of talent in the face of adversity as singer Miriam Makeba and trumpeter Hugh Masekela.

In many ways his work broke the mold of conventional white photography. In a memoir published in 2017, he recalled being dismissed out of hand by a white photo editor in the early 1950s because he worked with compact 35-mm Leica cameras rather than with the larger format Speed Graphics that prevailed in the white-run press — and in many parts of the world — as the news camera par excellence.

A photo reportage on the harsh conditions and health risks confronting Black workers in an asbestos mine, he said in 2014, was turned down because “they are only blacks.”

The rejection led him toward Drum, a monthly magazine aimed at a Black audience that sought to lure readers with investigative reporting and sometimes racy photographs, opinion columns, original fiction and sensational crime stories often relating to gang warfare in the townships.

“When I arrived in South Africa in 1950, I found two societies which were developing in parallel without any communication between them,” Schadeberg said in remarks accompanying a collection of images published in France in 2006 titled “Jürgen Schadeberg — Photographies.” “There was an invisible wall between these two worlds.”

“The Black world was becoming more and more dynamic on the cultural and political front, while the white world seemed isolated, stuck in its ways, so colonial and totally ignorant of the life of the blacks.”

As a newly-arrived foreigner, he said, “I could easily move from one world to another.”

Drum had acquired a reputation as a mouthpiece of resistance and Schadeberg became its lead photographer and artistic editor. He was widely credited with acting as a mentor to young Black photographers without the money to purchase their own cameras and denied access to jobs in the white-run media.

The magazine specialized in producing stories and photographs illustrating some of the major turning points in South Africa’s modern history, including the forced removal from 1955-59 of Black people from the racially mixed suburb of Sophiatown, which was home to what Schadeberg called an “effervescent Black society” of jazz musicians, dance halls and bars.

His work at Drum in the 1950s coincided with such seminal events as organized civil disobedience across South Africa, known as the Defiance Campaign, and the treason trial of Mandela and 155 other foes of apartheid, which started in 1956 and ran for five years.

“It was like a family,” Schadeberg told The New York Times in 2014, referring to Drum. “There was no discrimination inside the offices. It was only when you were outside of the front door that you knew you were in the land of apartheid.”

But, in his memoir published in 2017, titled “The Way I See it,” Schadeberg described a darker side to Drum that included disputes between photographers over the provenance of iconic images, freewheeling financial operations and a culture of alcohol abuse.

He left the magazine in 1959 after a personal dispute with Anthony Sampson, the editor, who later became a biographer of Mandela. Working as a freelancer, Schadeberg continued making striking photographs of events including the aftermath of the Sharpeville massacre of 69 Black protesters in March 1960. To photograph the funeral, for instance, he chartered a light airplane to circle the line of coffins to illustrate, he said, the scale of the killings. He left South Africa in 1964.

Among his best-remembered photographs were two that book-ended the career of Mandela. The first, taken in 1952, showed Mandela in the law office in Johannesburg that he shared with Oliver Tambo, another leading figure in the African National Congress. The second, in 1994, showed Mandela revisiting the prison cell on Robben Island, off Cape Town, where he spent many of his 27 years incarceration.

Like the work of French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson, who sought to capture what he termed “the decisive moment,” Schadeberg’s photographs displayed a sense of composition and meaning that achieved a greater significance.

“A photograph is a pause button on life,” he said in 2017. “You capture a moment in life, a moment that has gone forever and is impossible to reproduce.”

Jürgen Schadeberg was born in Berlin on March 18, 1931, and was raised by his mother, Rosemarie, the only child in a single-parent family of limited means. In his memoir in 2017, he depicted his mother as a bit-part actor on stage and in movies. He did not identify his father by name.

His mother, he said, falsified her age on her birth certificate to make herself seem 10 years younger and sometimes introduced her son as her younger brother.

Schadeberg called the war years in Berlin a “slow descent into hell.” One of his first photographs was of people grouped around an accordion player in an air raid shelter in 1942. In his memoir, he described ruses to avoid meetings of a Nazi youth movement and the ever more pervasive imposition of Nazism on Berliners, including the persecution of the city’s Jews.

When British forces entered the city, Schadeberg wrote, a British officer came by chance to their apartment. His name was Capt. Oswald Hammond and this encounter began a relationship with his mother that led to marriage. The couple emigrated to South Africa in 1947, leaving Schadeberg to study photography and to work as a darkroom assistant and photographer at the German Press Agency in Hamburg until he too emigrated to South Africa in 1949.

In his memoir, Schadeberg described his first encounters with apartheid as shocking and bewildering. “I was continually fascinated by how isolated people in South Africa were from the rest of the world,” he wrote.

He worked for a company called Werner’s Studio and traveled around the country taking formal portraits mainly of white clients. He found that many Afrikaners, learning that he was German, said they sympathized with him and wished Hitler had won the war.

After he joined Drum magazine in 1951, he met a South African actor called Etricia, whom he married. They had four children before divorcing in the early 1960s.

He had a brief second marriage to a Portuguese woman whom he did not identify by name in his memoir. He married his third wife, Claudia (Horvath) Schadeberg, an art historian and television producer, in 1984.

Besides his wife, survivors include their son, Charlie; his children from previous relationships, Wolfgang, Martine, Frankie, Bonnie and Leon; 15 grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.

From 1964 onward, he worked in Britain, Spain, Africa, the United States, Germany and France before returning to live in South Africa in 1985. His most striking images from that period include photographs showing the demolition of slums known as the Gorbals in Glasgow, Scotland.

In 1973, he embarked on a 7,000-mile trip hitchhiking through several African states from west to east to chronicle the lives of ordinary people. He also taught photography in Britain, the United States and Germany. From 1961-81, he documented the Cold War division of his native Berlin.

In 1985, back in South Africa, Schadeberg embarked on a yearlong project to catalog the archives from Drum magazine, which he had found three years earlier on a farm owned by Drum’s former owner, Jim Bailey. The archive later inspired acrimonious disputes and lasting feuds over copyright and royalty payments.

During this period, as Schadeberg and his wife focused on producing books based on the Drum archive and documentaries, South Africa was changing drastically. Protesters on the streets of segregated Black townships clamored for change and for the freedom of Mandela, which finally came in 1990.

In 1994, citing their belief in the so-called rainbow nation of a new South Africa, Schadeberg and his wife took South African citizenship. They left again in 2007, living first in northern France, then Berlin, then Spain. But they had witnessed possibly the most remarkable transformation of all when South Africa held its first fully free elections in 1994.

“It was a tremendously happy, positive atmosphere,” Schadeberg said in 2014. “People were standing in the hot sun for sometimes all day to vote and there was a missis and her maid standing next to each other and for the first time talking to each other like normal human beings.”

© 2020 The New York Times Company

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