On May 12th, we said goodbye to yet another important figure in the apartheid resistance – photographer Sam Nzima. Though you may not know his name, you’ll certainly recognise his most famous photo. Sam Nzima was the man who took the picture of a dying, 13-year-old Hector Pietersen during the 1976 Soweto Uprising.
The moment that photo was taken was easily one of the most important ones in South Africa’s history. On a grand scale, it gave the brutal apartheid system the face of a victim – a child representing the innocent. On the personal side, it nearly destroyed Nzima, who took it while working for The World newspaper. His editor went ahead and published it, changing the face of apartheid forever. This moment also forced Nzima to fear for his safety – as the security police reportedly wanted to prevent him from publishing any further incriminating images.
He eventually moved to Lillydale in Mpumalanga, where he ran a photography school, until his death in May this year.
If we’ve learned anything from this image, it’s that society is visual. We can empathise, and be angry (in theory) at some atrocity or injustice taking place somewhere in the world. But, unfortunately, we are only able to feel something real once we’ve seen an image.
In 1972, the image of a young girl running towards the cameraman showed the reality of collateral damage and friendly fire. Napalm was mistakenly dropped by the South Vietnamese air force, which burned off the nine year old’s clothes and covered nearly half of her body. In recent years the chilling image of five-year-old Omran Daqneesh sitting in the back of an ambulance, face bloodied, having survived an airstrike in Aleppo, Syria, has also given the Syrian civil war a face, a human element. In the same way, Nzima’s photo showed us the real, physical and emotional pain felt by civilians in times of terror and brutal regimes.
So, thank you Sam Nzima, for all you did for raising awareness about apartheid, but also thank you for reminding us of the power of the image. Rest in power.