Magnum photographer Ian Berry took to the lectern last week at the Royal Geographical Society in London, to talk through his photographs of South Africa in the second in the PhotoVoice/Magnum lecture series.
Berry’s incredible images capture decades of constant, and often extremely volatile, change within the country, yet in contrast to many other photographers who have been drawn to South Africa, he has always attempted to document it in its complex entirety, rather than simply focus on its violent aspects. As esteemed photo editor Colin Jacobson explained in his introduction to Berry’s talk, “while most of the Western media came to look at the violence, he was looking at the social structures that had created this violence”.
Berry originally visited South Africa purely for travel reasons: “I was looking forward to seeing the lions… I went without any political thoughts and initially rolled into white society without any effort at all.” His work as a photographer for Drum magazine quickly exposed him to the apartheid within the country, however, when at the end of the working day he would be “dropped off at the white hotel and then the black journalists had to go into the townships to find somewhere to stay. They were regularly arrested for being in the wrong place at the wrong time.”
A crucial early moment in his work came when he witnessed the 1960 massacre at Sharpeville, when he was in his early twenties, on a day that was in fact his day off from the magazine, but he was asked by Drum’s editor, Tom Hopkinson, to investigate a shooting there. “The police opened fire and 76 people were killed around me. I simply filmed the people running past me – there were no really interesting photographs, they were just a record… This was something that happened early in my life and was something of a turning point… The longer I stayed and started to work in South Africa, things started to change. I thought that things would change much faster after Sharpeville though and I’m still amazed now that it took so long.”
Just prior to the elections bringing the ANC to power with Johannesburg’s streets lined with soldiers and barbed wire, an African draws attention to the “use the ballot” poster, Gauteng, Johannesburg, 1994
At Sharpeville, Berry also found himself facing a decision that would return innumerable times during his photographic career – knowing when to stay to ensure that he got the best shots and when it is time to leave for his own safety. After taking a few shots, he “decided it was possibly a good thing to leave as we were the only people left standing in the field”.
Berry went on to document the decades of change in South Africa for Drum and then for the Observer Magazine, for whom he also completed assignments around the world. Most interesting in his South African work is his ability to capture both the social realities of apartheid and its aftermath, but also cover the wide-ranging religious and social groups that live in the country.
His work inevitably has taken him into many potentially life-threatening situations, yet of South Africa’s townships, often seen as being some of the country’s most dangerous locales, he speaks fondly. “In all the time I’ve worked in the townships, I’ve never really been threatened,” he commented. “In the early days if you were an obvious foreigner, you were seen to be on the Africans’ side… Basically as a photographer you have to take your chances by yourself and certainly I walk around the townships without any worries at all.”
As Berry’s talk followed Philip Jones-Griffiths‘ recent lecture on his photographs of Vietnam, when wrapping up the talk Jacobson asked Berry if he felt that photography had contributed to the changes within South Africa, as it had in Vietnam. “I don’t honestly think that the press played a great part, not in the way they did in Vietnam,” he replied. “Partially because there was a different level of interest, and partially because it wasn’t as clear cut.”
All proceeds of the lecture series are in aid of the Photovoice charity, which brings about positive social change for disadvantaged communities through providing them with photographic training with which they can advocate, express themselves and generate income. The next lecture will take place on July 11 and will feature a debate by Magnum Photographers who have specialised in covering the Middle East. To book tickets, click here.