Alf Khumalo: 5 decades in photos

5 November 2004

To take a photograph is to aspire to an art form. To have taken pictures of the most prominent South African leaders of the past five decades, from Albert Luthuli to Thabo Mbeki – that is a privilege, says internationally renowned photograher Alf Khumalo.

Khumalo, recently awarded the Order of Ikhamanga, South Africa’s highest award for excellence in the creative arts, is a self-taught photographer.

The essence of what attracted Khumalo to photography was and still is the visual impact of a picture. From the beginning, he says, it was always about capturing the movement – the visual impact.

He even tried his hand at drawing in an attempt to capture the movement of the situations he found fascinating, but, he says, eventually realised that the camera does a better job.

This he discovered when he launched his career as a journalist in the 1950s. Then, he was not only taking pictures, but writing stories as well. He was freelancing for Bantu World, a newspaper regarded as the voice of the black middle class at the time.

His beat was covering court cases in Evaton. He says the magistrate so admired his accurate reporting that a special place was created for him inside the courtroom.

“This is the time I met Mandela for the first time”, says Khumalo, adding that he enjoyed watching Nelson Mandela at work, drilling and questioning white people who did not want to be questioned by a black lawyer.

Their relationship evolved from a professional one into a close friendship. According to Khumalo, when Mandela was in prison it became his duty to take pictures of Mandala’s family and send them to him.

Photography won Khumalo his first car, in a 1963 competition run by South African Breweries. Khumalo submitted an image of mine workers, fatigued and sweaty against the background of a mine.

Photography also landed him in New York, in 1971, where he tried to crack it as a freelancer. Although he did not plan to stay in the Big Apple for too long, he says he ended up spending eight months in New York.

In 1980 Khumalo joined The Star as a permanent staff member. However, his freelance experience is as wide and extensive as his experience as a staff journalist.

His work has appeared in international newspapers like The Observer, New York Times, New York Post, and Sunday Independent (UK). Locally, he also worked for Drum magazine and the long defunct Rand Daily Mail.

In the course of a career spanning over half a century, Khumalo has documented the life and times of the evolving South Africa, both the commonplace and the historic, in the process capturing, for all time, much of the country’s collective history.

He documented, inter alia, the Treason Trial, the Rivonia Trial, the resurgence of the trade unions in the 1970s, the emergence of Black Consciousness, the student uprising of 1976, the states of emergency of the 1980s, the unbanning of the liberation movements, the Codesa talks and the country’s first democratic elections.

In September 2004, Khumalo was given the honour of exhibiting a collection of his life’s work at the 59th Session of the United Nations General Assembly in New York, an exhibition that drew much acclaim.

His drive to capture the moment gave him the privilege of witnessing extraordinary moments – and forced him to endure detention, arrest and harassment at the hands of apartheid officials.

Despite his age, Khumalo continues to work professionally – and to dedicate his time and effort to promoting his craft.

In an effort to ensure that a new generation of South African photographers emerge, and to make sure that aspiring photographers do not face the same obstacles he did when he started out, he has opened a photographic school in Diepkloof, Soweto, which offers nine-month courses designed to train photographers from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Source: City of Johannesburg