Feb 10, 2015 11:59 AM
South African photographer recalls joy of Mandela's release
The Associated Press
JOHANNESBURG (AP) The photographer could barely steady himself amid the jostling crowds, eager to hear Nelson Mandela speak hours after he was finally released from prison, 25 years ago on Wednesday.
While most photographers waited outside the prison where Mandela was to be freed, Chris Ledochowski wanted to capture the moment the anti-apartheid leader would address South Africans for the first time in nearly three decades.
Mandela's image had been banned by the apartheid regime and the vast majority of South Africans had not seen a photograph of him since he was sentenced to life in prison in 1964 for treason charges related to opposing white minority rule.
"We hadn't seen Mandela's photograph in a very long time but we also hadn't heard his voice," said Ledochowski, who was 34 at the time, Feb. 11, 1990.
"Comrades and fellow South Africans, I greet you all in the name of peace, democracy and freedom for all," Mandela told the cheering thousands gathered outside Cape Town's City Hall on that clear Sunday afternoon, according to an Associated Press report of that day.
In the jubilant crowd below, community workers and trade unionists acted as crowd martials and were wholly overwhelmed, according to Ledochowski.
In his viewfinder Ledochowski saw Mandela stand on the balcony of the city hall, his hands moving as he spoke. Cyril Ramaphosa, who is today South Africa's deputy president, held a microphone and Mandela's then wife, Winnie, stood behind him, with Mandela's old friend and fellow prisoner, Walter Sisulu on his other side. Around them, young men balanced on a thin ledge while one clung to a wrought iron railing. Ledochowski took the picture.
"I knew I'd caught an image that was a rare image," he said.
Ledochowski was ringed by young men who knew him from his work as a documentary photographer working in South Africa's black-only townships in the 1980s.
"They were the housebreakers, the pickpockets," he laughs. "And this time they were protecting me from being robbed. They created a sort-of cordon around me because your feet were not even on the ground most of the time. You were just being pushed around, downriver, being swayed around. They kept me steady because I never used flash so they knew I had to be vaguely still to take a picture."
While international news photographers and television camera crews crowded onto a raised scaffold to get a clear shot, Ledochowski was determined to be in the crowd.
"I was just interested in being among the people, experiencing this occasion from the masses' perspective," he said in a telephone interview with AP. "What camera you were using, and which F-stop and which speed you were shooting at, those are not the issues. The issue is from which perspective you were taking the picture."
Mandela's release marked the beginning of a new era which led to South Africa's first all-race elections in 1994, ending years of racial oppression and violence. Since then, Mandela's party, the African National Congress, has remained in power, but the euphoria of freedom has given way to frustration with continuing problems such as unemployment and crime, legacies of apartheid made worse by the government's slow response.
Mandela's release had a profound impact on Ledochowski's work, which changed to color from black-and-white photography. A few years after Mandela stepped down after his single term as president, Ledochowski stopped documenting life in South Africa's townships, where he felt little had changed in the lives of black people living there since the end of apartheid.
"It got a bit depressing to see that nothing much was changing," he said. "It was hard to find positive aspects out in the townships to photograph and to celebrate."
Now 59, a lung disease has made working almost impossible for Ledochowski. He often pauses to inhale deeply, accompanied by a slight wheeze, but his words tumble out excitedly when he remembers meeting Mandela nearly a decade after he was released. Assisting a friend who was taking a portrait of the Mandela family, then President Mandela came into the room where Ledochowski was packing equipment.
"He got pretty tired of his family, he wanted to have bit of time alone in his other lounge where I was," he said. "He got me to sit down with him and talk with him and that was my chance, to give him the picture."
"I must say I didn't quite know what the hell to say to him, but he did all the asking anyway."
The image only became well known 10 years after it was captured, when it was included in a collection of historic South African photos. Ledochowski made a print and added color to it. Mandela himself often used the image by signing prints and sending it to supporters.
"It was no money spinner or anything like that," said Ledochowski, who stopped distributing the image once Mandela became ill.
Mandela died in 2013, but his image remains prolific across South Africa, from statues to T-shirts, an enduring symbol of liberty and optimism to many, including Ledochowski.