On June 16, 1976, he captured an image that helped to change the course of history. Now, at 80, Sam Nzima is using his iPhone to tell the stories of the future.
History is what happens in the blink of an eye. The camera captures the moment, and in an instant, an image is transformed into a memory, a symbol, an icon of its time. A movie starlet standing on a subway grating, her skirt flaring in a sudden rush of steam. A man in a spacesuit, standing next to a star-spangled banner on the surface of a cold, grey world. A sailor stooping to kiss a white-uniformed nurse on the day peace breaks out in Times Square.
And on a bitterly cold June day in 1976, in Soweto, Johannesburg, a young man in dungarees carrying the body of a dying boy, while a schoolgirl runs alongside, her face contorted in pain. That was the image that went around the world, galvanising global opposition to Apartheid, and helping to set in motion the hurricane of social and political change that would lead to a free South Africa within two decades. The name of the boy was Hector Pieterson, and the man behind the lens was Masama Samuel Nzima.
That single frame defined the career of Nzima, a photographer of courage and compassion, who says now, looking back: “The camera never lies. It will always tell you the true story.” His own story begins in the village of Lilydale, Mpumalanga, where he was born in 1934, growing up on a farm with no greater prospects than to follow in his father’s footsteps as a labourer. But one day, at school, a teacher showed the young Nzima a magical instrument that could somehow capture pictures in a box. When he gazed down into the viewfinder, it opened a window on the world.
Today, still sharp-eyed and active at the age of 80, living once again in the village of his birth, Nzima feels that same thrill of curiosity when he holds his latest photographic device in his hands. An iPhone.
When someone first told him that you could use it to shoot an image, and that it was becoming a tool of choice for millions of photographers, professional and hobbyist, around the world, he was sceptical. But he pressed the home button, touched the camera icon, fixed his view on a fiery subject, and delicately touched the circle on the screen. And there it was: the sun setting over Lillydale, with the mountains in silhouette in the background. Sam Nzima had become an iPhoneographer.
A storyteller by instinct and profession, Nzima has fallen in love with the iPhone, and for everyday use, he carries it at the ready in preference to his hefty digital SLR. But it’s not just a question of a burden lifted from his shoulders. “What I like about the iPhone,” he says, “is that it never loses focus. The exposure is very good, and it brings out the detail. I’m getting used to looking at the world through the screen. It’s a whole new approach to photography. It’s very exciting.”
Training his eye on cultural events and everyday life in his village, Nzima accessories his iPhone with an olloclip fisheye-and-telephoto combination lens, and a tripod for added stability. As a mentor and teacher, his advice to young photographers is drawn from the same hard lessons he learned as a photojournalist on assignment for The World, the legendary Johannesburg newspaper that was banned by the South African Government in 1977.
“Move around,” says Nzima. “Be selective. When you look at the world through your camera, you will see that this is the picture, and that’s not the picture. You’ll learn to see the good picture as you move around.”
The great French photographer, Henri Cartier-Bresson, called this the quest for the decisive moment, the split-second difference between an image that lives forever, and an image that disappears into the light.
On June 16, 1976, Sam Nzima captured the moment, in the haunting Pietà of Hector Pieterson, a picture that told a story beyond words.
“Photography changed the way I look at life,” says Nzima. “It made me realise that I can talk through the camera. I can talk through pictures.”
Now, the iPhone is changing the way he looks at photography. For this acclaimed storyteller, honoured with the South African government’s Order of Ikhamanga in Bronze for his contribution to the field of photojournalism, history can never be forgotten. And the stories of the future still wait to be told.