Photography : South Africa, Sophiatown and racism - German snaps it all

Six decades ago, German photographer Jürgen Schadeberg left for South Africa, hoping for a fresh beginning. But what he found was a far cry from the thriving, democratic nation that staged the 2010 World Cup.

Leila Samodien
Ein Selbstporträt des Berliner Fotografen Jürgen Schadeberg./ A self-portrait of Berlin-born photographer Jürgen Schadeberg.Alle Bilder anzeigen
Foto: Jürgen Schadeberg
13.07.2010 15:57Ein Selbstporträt des Berliner Fotografen Jürgen Schadeberg./ A self-portrait of Berlin-born photographer Jürgen Schadeberg.

When German photographer Jürgen Schadeberg immigrated to South Africa in 1950, he was a fresh-faced teenager who knew almost nothing about the racial turmoil in the county. At the time, some apartheid laws were already in place, and the government was beginning to classify people according to their race group.

There was resistance – anti-racist movements protesting peacefully against the system, but nothing like the unified, more aggressive front that was to come in later years.

On the other side of the world, it had been five years since World War II ended. It was more than a decade before the Berlin Wall was constructed, and many Germans moved freely from East Germany to West Germany, hoping for a better life.

Schadeberg – born and raised in Berlin – was 19 at the time and lived in Hamburg, freelancing at the German Press Agency. But, he earned no money for his work, and he was hungry for adventure and a fresh start. “It was difficult to leave Germany at the time, but I wanted to leave,” he said. “I was young, I had an adventurous spirit, and I was sick and tired of Germany’s Nazi past.”

And so, Schadeberg embarked on a new life in South Africa, joining his mother, who was already living in Johannesburg. What he found was unexpected. He’d come out of one struggle, only to find another. Schadeberg described it as “an invisible wall” between people, where people of certain race groups were not treated like citizens.

“I came from Germany, where a racist and fascist regime had just been overcome,” he said. “When I arrived in South Africa, it was the beginning of it rather than the end.” Still, Schadeberg stayed 14 years before things became “too unpleasant” and he left.

It was during this time – and a lot of post-apartheid work he later returned to South Africa to do – that he shot many of his most recognised photographs.

A number of his best photos are being displayed at three exhibitions in Europe, bringing a piece of South Africa to Germany and France. They are in Hamburg and Osnabrück in Germany, and in Paris.

These are three of several travelling exhibitions, which are exhibited on and off in different cities.

Another exhibition, for example, is currently on at Mandela Rhodes Place in Cape Town until July 15. It features a collection of black and white photographs, documenting South African history.

The exhibition at the Freelens Gallery in Hamburg features a collection of photographs called Tales from Jozi.

It has recent photographs, both in colour and in black and white, portraying the lives of ordinary residents in Johannesburg and its surrounds (such as Kliptown in Soweto), especially with backdrop of the Soccer World Cup.

Stephanie Bunk, of the Freelens Gallery, said there had been a lot of interest in Schadeberg’s work, but that there hadn’t been an increase in interest as a result of the World Cup – an event which has put South Africa in the international spotlight.

“I was hoping that there would be an increase in interest in the exhibition because of the World Cup, but now I have the impression that it is the contrary,” said Bunk.

“People care too much for the games and less about the context in which they are taking place. So, they go to public viewings and not to galleries, but the people who are interested in good photography came to visit the great show of Jürgen Schadeberg anyway.”

At the exhibitions in Paris and Osnabrück, a range of photographs are being displayed, including some of his work that portrays the history of South Africa.

At Osnabrück, there are photos taken on Robben Island – such as when Nelson Mandela returned to visit the island after democracy was established – as well as the jazz music of Sophiatown and its eventual demise as a result of the forced removals.

The collection of 45 photos also documents the living conditions in townships.

Anne-Sybille Schwetter, of Felix-Nussbaum-Haus, where the exhibition is being held, said it had been well received by the public.

“Especially for the opening, (there) have been lots of visitors here,” she said.

Many of Schadeberg’s exhibitions, including the Osnabrück show, was opened by struggle veteran Dennis Goldberg.

In a telephone interview with Weekend Argus from his home in France, about 180km from Paris, Schadeberg said his first stint in South Africa had been “pretty tough”.

“It was difficult for photographers to make a living,” he said. “We weren’t taken seriously because there were no real experienced photographers in the magazine business. South African papers weren’t interested in pictures.”

Although they didn’t pay much, Schadeberg soon joined a small team of newspapermen as a freelance photographer.

“When I started in mid-1951, there were only four people on the staff. They couldn’t really afford any worthwhile pay, so we were more like a gang than anything else,” he said.

These were the early days of Drum magazine – highly respected for its reportage of social and political issues in the black community, particularly in the 1950s.

“We all stayed simply because we felt the work we were doing was important,” said Schadeberg. “At that time, there was no real voice for the black population; no publication that captured their identity.”

He remembered the heyday of Sophiatown, saying there was a great feeling that oppression based on race would one day come to an end.

“There was a great enthusiasm and dynamic. People felt the apartheid system wouldn’t last – it’s just that nobody expected it to stretch out another 40 years,” he said.

He left for London in 1964 to pursue a freelancing career in US and Europe. Things, he said, had become so bad, he could no longer stay.

“As an immigrant, I was happy to stay, except it became more and more difficult for me to remain there and apartheid became more brutal.”

Though, this was not the last time Schadeberg would see South Africa. He has returned many times – very often for photographic projects – with his wife Claudia, and plans to visit Cape Town for one of his exhibitions in November.



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