Growing up in Berlin during World War II, Jürgen Schadeberg witnessed the destruction of his hometown. As a result of experiencing the dismantling of Germany’s Nazi regime, Schadeberg developed a lifelong hatred of anti-democratic injustices. So it came as no surprise to people who know him that he would one day become internationally recognized for his pioneering photography focused on struggles for human rights.
After the war, young Schadeberg volunteered with the German Press Agency in Hamburg. Then, in 1950 at age 19, he followed his mother’s and British stepfather’s footsteps out of war-torn Germany to racially divided Johannesburg, South Africa — just two years after apartheid became institutionalized.
“I wanted a change and some adventure and thought that this would be an exciting move,” the now 80-year-old Schadeberg told the Weekly in an email conversation from his current home in Berlin, where he lives with wife Claudia.
Schadeberg’s intuition that the move would be an adventure proved correct. In 1951, he was offered work as a freelance photographer for the then-new Drum Magazine, which this year celebrates its 60th anniversary. When he joined the magazine, then owned by Robert Crisp, there were three employees: the great investigative journalist Henry Nxumalo, music writer Todd Matshikiza and a secretary.
“My five years of photography training enabled me to launch into a new paper with an exciting aim of creating a magazine for black readers and largely created by black journalists,” Schadeberg explained. “I became picture editor, art director, printing supervisor, stand-in editor and a mentor to the new generation of photographers, as previously there were no black photographers.”
Tom Harding, co-founder of Altadena-based Art Aids Art, which is hosting an exhibit of Schadeberg’s work at two Pasadena libraries, noted how Drum pushed the racial envelope before American magazines did. “It’s notable that Drum Magazine was started by dissidents in response to the regime and that during this incredible time of racial oppression and the heart of apartheid, there was this magazine that featured black women on the cover as images of beauty,” said Harding. “Three years later, LIFE magazine finally followed suit, making Dorothy Dandridge the first African-American woman to be on the cover.”
Schadeberg’s new positions allowed him to interact with and photograph historic figures in their early years — including Nelson Mandela, Dr. James Sebe Moroka, Walter Sisulu, Yusuf Dadoo and Trevor Huddleston — during key moments, such as the Defiance Campaign of 1952, the Treason Trial of 1956, the Sophiatown Removals and the Sharpeville Funeral in 1960.
“My first encounter with Nelson Mandela was in 1951, when I photographed him at the Bloemfontein African National Congress Convention, where he was the Youth Leader,” wrote Schadeberg. “In those days, it was not difficult to photograph these events, as there was little interest from the white world, and the black world was very happy when someone took an interest in their activities. I was one of the only photographers to document the Defiance Campaign with Mandela, which was a very important catalyst in the struggle for democracy and freedom.”
While his many photos of Mandela and others were done on a mostly freelance basis for various newspapers and magazines to supplement his then meager income, Schadeberg maintained that “financial considerations were secondary to the cause.”
Activism and family life
In many ways, Schadeberg was an activist photographer. He often received threats from the white Security Police, who followed him on assignments, because it was illegal for whites to enter black townships. He was even arrested while trying to protect a black photographer at the Treason Trial.
“During my many visits to the black townships in the early 1950s, I was made welcome, but the apartheid government was not happy with several of my investigative stories, such as slave labor conditions on the potato farms in Bethal and blacks being banned from white churches,” he wrote. “They were against any stories which challenged the government.”
In the early 1970s, Schadeberg met Claudia in London, and they got married in 1984. A year later, they went back to Johannesburg to make films about pivotal social, cultural and political moments in black history, according to Claudia. A year after that, they had a son, but Schadeberg still found time to travel for projects, documenting farm conditions and evictions in South Africa and the effects of AIDS for a United Nations project.
“We both traveled around the south on our project about jazz greats, many of whom had, sadly, been largely forgotten,” wrote Claudia. “We also concentrated on urban human rights issues in Johannesburg and Soweto, such as our documentation in 2007 of the great economic divide between the rich and poor in Johannesburg.”
Schadeberg maintained a lifelong friendship with Mandela, who invited the photographer and his wife to private parties and lunches after his release from prison in 1990. In 2006, as the first democratically elected South African president, he opened Schadeberg’s exhibition of the Defiance Campaign at the Mandela Foundation.
Today, Schadeberg and his wife continue working on photographic projects, exhibitions and book production. “Jürgen and I have worked together for 27 years, and I am always amazed by the energy, passion, speed and skill in his work, both in photography and film,” Claudia wrote.
Schadeberg said he is particularly proud of a body of his work from 1959, when he photographed the San people and their Dance of Exorcism in the Kalahari Desert.
“The Bushmen of the Kalahari were a marginalized group whose peaceful, respectful and gentle lifestyle was being threatened by Western values and commercial interests,” he wrote. “Although I have traveled widely to Africa, Europe and the States, I enjoy whichever country I am based in, as there are always interesting stories to cover wherever you are.”
Schadeberg in Pasadena
Art Aids Art is a nonprofit organization that stimulates economic opportunity for South African artist collectives by purchasing artwork at fair trade prices and selling the pieces at Altadena and Pasadena home parties. The group then reinvests that income into various community-building projects in Cape Town. On Dec. 1, World AIDS Day, the group opened an exhibition of 60 years of Schadeberg’s iconic photos of South African history at the Pasadena Central Library. The exhibit, “South Africa: A Nation in Transformation,” ends Tuesday but reopens at Pasadena City College’s Shatford Library from Jan. 15 to Feb. 27.
Harding explained that a South African jewelry artist they work with, Beverly Price, uses archival photos, including some of Schadeberg’s work, as part of her jewelry. Price put the organization in touch with him while one of his exhibits was being shown early 2011 at UC Berkeley.
“We were honored to have him,” said Harding, “and we thought his work should be showcased in other public venues, like libraries, where people who don’t necessarily go out of their way to see artwork would see it. We wanted to have the Pasadena exhibit designed to share information and challenges about South Africa now, in addition to the role Pasadena had in denouncing the country’s apartheid history.”
Pasadena was one of the first cities that took formal steps to divest from South Africa during apartheid.
“As educators, we feel it’s critical that artwork serve a purpose, and not just be shown in the usual limited places where art lovers go, not just galleries, but also public places, where people come across it without planning to see artwork.”
The exhibit will be open to the public during both libraries’ regular hours. Before it moves to PCC it will be available to see from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. today, 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. tomorrow and Saturday, 1 to 5 p.m. Sunday and 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday and its final day this Tuesday, Jan. 10 at Pasadena Central Library, 285 E. Walnut Street. Visit ci.pasadena.ca.us/library or call (626) 744-4066 for more information.
The exhibit will reopen 7:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. Mondays through Thursdays, 7:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. Fridays and 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturdays from Jan. 16 to Feb. 27 in the rotunda of PCC’s Shatford Library, 1570 E. Colorado Blvd. The library is closed Sundays. Visit www.pasadena.edu/library or call (626) 585-7221 for more information.