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News & Insight

Nelson Mandela – The Man Behind the Photographs

By Kishore Sawh on December 6th 2013

How does one summarize a life? Can a life be contained within a few paragraphs, and is it even just to do so? Nelson Mandela has been taking up headlines and column inches for decades, and no doubt those words will find themselves inked into the annals of history books. A history he helped define. It is still however, questionable, if those words will give the full picture of the man in front of the crowds, and in front of the mirror.

Good use of photography can give even poverty with all its rags, filth and vermin, a measure of divineness rarely noticeable in real life.

And pictures along with their makers, Mandela had a great appreciation for. In a letter to his daughter Zindzi he wrote while imprisoned, “Good use of photography can give even poverty with all its rags, filth and vermin, a measure of divineness rarely noticeable in real life.” Incredible how a man whose eyes had been damaged by “snow blindness” during his years in prison working in a highly reflective limestone quarry, was able in a single lucid line, to capture so much of the responsibility and romance of photography. It was the result of those years exiled on Robben Island that flash photography in close quarters of Mandela was prohibited. This was a request honored by the press, and photographers resigned to ambient light.

Photo courtesy of Library and Archives Canada, Yousuf Karsh Fonds

Often photographed yet less often captured, throughout the decades have come many anecdotes from photographers relating the difficulty in capturing Mandela in an a-typical moment; a moment of introspection or one not of a man who has seen the worst and now finds joy in life’s trivialities. It stands to reason then why such photos are highly prized. It was only this week a portrait of Mandela by Adrian Steirn fetched $200k at auction in New York.

There have been phenominal moments of Mandela’s life captured through lenses of great phoographers and ones who would soon be. It is common to see photos of ‘Madiba’ associated with names like Jillian Edelstein, and probably most famously David Turnley. The anonymous buyer was quoted on CTV News saying, “…In a single frame the photographer has captured the essence of dignity, principle, conviction and courage in this great man from whose life’s work and dedication to a greater cause we all have much to learn, and by which I am inspired daily.”

Photo courtesy of Amnesty International Video

Mandela saw that photographs have the ability to slow time and allow for detailed perceptions of a particular moment, an attribute a moving image doesn’t have. So perhaps it will be through pictures that we can really see the person behind the publicity. Here is a wonderful collection to begin with.

[REWIND: Gregory Heisler Offers Great Advice to Photographers]


Adrian Steirn, a South African based photographer happened to be the last person to do a photo shoot with Mandela. It was part of a remarkable project called ’21 Icons.’ Steirn describes it as a “multimedia project around men and women who’d made South Africa the place it is today.” 4 years in the making, it is fitting Mandela would be part, and arguably the heart of it. Having been informed about the project 3 years ago, Steirn assures us Mandela was very much on board; that he liked what he saw. I think we all benefit from ‘Madiba’s’ gracious choice to be involved allowing the intimate glimmer Steirn shares with us. See the ’21 Icons’ video here, and continue on to view a revealing BTS chat with Steirn about the experience.

I’m sure there will now be a bumper crop of photos of the passed-on great statesman. Already what’s been published is impressive. The difficulty photographers spoke of in capturing the real man, combined with his words on photography, leave me inspired to take a step back and spend more time thinking, and seeking out the revealing moments. It’s that ability to see rather than just look, I strive for. I’d love to hear your thoughts on the matter or about any ‘aha’ moments you may have had that you find help you reveal your true subject.

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A photographer and writer based in Miami, he can often be found at dog parks, and airports in London and Toronto. He is also a tremendous fan of flossing and the happiest guy around when the company’s good.

Q&A Discussions

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  1. Lukas

    Great video and photo and man.

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  2. Hanssie

    Love reading about the different approach taken in the life of this icon. Great spin.

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  3. Shanna

    Wow. What an insightful article.

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