Photo Essay

Private commissioned photo shoot with Nelson Mandela on August 13, 2004, for the Nelson Mandela Foundation.

It was a rainy afternoon some 600km south of Johannesburg. I was busying myself with work, lost in the everydayness of running my own business, when I received one of those telephone calls that changes your life forever. Ten years earlier I was standing with thousands upon thousands of others to witness the opening of the ICC [International Convention Centre] in Durban. I was still in school back then but, unbeknownst to me, I was about to begin an incredible journey of my own.

As far as the eye could see were people, all jostling for a better view of a man that stood on a tiny podium making a speech well over 200 metres away. Later that night, I was walking back to our school bus when from behind me the presidential cavalcade rolled past.

Like one of those fleeting visions that never leave your conscious thoughts, I turned around to see our president of this great Republic waving to us through the back window and just like that he was gone – his entourage powering away into the night.

Over the preceding years I studied photography, majoring in Advertising & Documentary Photography. This tool of photography became a passport, allowing me the opportunity to experience the realities that our people face in a post-apartheid South Africa. What had started out as a single-minded determination to meet this great man saw me as a young man actively pursuing questions I had about our leadership in South Africa and venturing out to discover places that have defined our history.

On that rainy day of June 2004 I received a telephone call from Verne Harris who told me that Mr Mandela, that very morning, had seen my portfolio of images of Robben Island that I had sent to them six months earlier. The Nelson Mandela Foundation had decided to include many of my black & white images of Robben Island in the launching of the Nelson Mandela Foundation Centre of Memory and Dialogue. Furthermore, it had been decided that I would be given a very rare, almost unheard of, opportunity to photograph Nelson Mandela privately. Few words can support the depth to which hearing him speak those words affected me.

I had failed to get into university and paid for ever single shoot I had done to achieve this single-minded vision. My constant battle to stand up, with no backing or accreditation, and pursue this dream had paid off – my crazy dream of believing in a man, somewhere out there, who epitomised who we are as a nation. When I look back I realise the value in having a vision is not so much in the achieving of the end goal, but in the creation of a life that was worth living.

It was 9h45 on the morning of August 13, 2004. Mr Nelson Mandela had just arrived at the Foundation. All security sweeps were being done and I was waiting for the go-ahead. Ten years is a long time to wait to meet someone and here I was, moments away from realising this dream. The message arrived from upstairs that Madiba, as he is fondly called, was ready to meet me.

Verne Harris of the Nelson Mandela Foundation briefed me that our time with Madiba was an occasion to chat openly and share memories through archived photographs of his time on Robben Island. Before I saw him I heard his voice coming through the double doors. We were led into his private lounge adjacent to his office and there, a few moments after 10h00, Zelda Le Grange, Madiba’s personal assistant, called me forward to introduce me to Nelson Mandela. My heart was singing, I knew that after 10 years of having that presidential cavalcade disappearing into the dark night in Durban, I had finally caught up with it!

Madiba was in great spirits. After our introduction we were led to two chairs that had been set up near the window in the lounge. One must remember that when photographing Madiba no flash photography is allowed. The air was crisp that Johannesburg morning and the sunlight poured in through the curtains. Madiba sat down first, then I sat down next to him in the opposite chair. It began like a page out of Laurens van der Post’s Yet Being Someone Other: we cast our nets out into the deep and were rewarded with the harvesting of the most infinitely descriptive, yet wonderfully told stories of this great man’s life. They were intimate details of his thoughts, creatively mixed together with jokes.

There were moments of silence, of thought, of Madiba pondering, reflecting when seeing a certain shot, lost in time, and of people who had gone on before him - men who were the only ones to experience with him what he was telling us today.

I remember when I entered the room to photograph him that morning I was overcome with the emotion of this rare occasion. Once Madiba was relaxed I saw Zelda, with all the care and attention to detail, move aside, and Verne begin to show the pictures and I began to listen and watch. On hearing Madiba talk and gesture about ‘this and that’, I realised that it was Madiba’s hands more than anything else that struck me as the one thing that embodied this great man’s humanity.

They are hands that had known hatred, pain and hardships, hands that had longed to touch the face of his children and if only momentarily to hold the hands of his wife through prison bars. I saw for the first time the soul of a man who had walked those cold grey corridors of B Section cells on Robben Island. It was the reality of imagining those same hands touching the stone, the cold iron bars, and his work in the limestone quarry that motivated my shoot that morning.

We ran over our prearranged finishing time by half an hour, but no-one seemed too concerned. Fifty minutes had gone by so quickly. As Madiba and Zelda left we walked back down the corridor filled with the incredible sense that what we had experienced was a glimpse into this great man’s life. On that crisp Johannesburg morning we captured a moment that symbolised both the simplicity and deep wells of knowledge, wisdom and vision that is the man Nelson Mandela. – Matthew Willman.