Peter Magubane on his Iconic Work

 Europeans Only, 1956. © Peter Magubane
Europeans Only, 1956. | © Peter Magubane

Peter Magubane talks to Percy Mabandu about the day he took the famous and evocative "Europeans Only" photograph 58 years ago.

He had just turned 24 and was looking to make a name for himself at the legendary Drum magazine. So he would drive through the city and walk the streets looking for good shots to impress his editors. Which is how his famous image, Europeans Only, came about. Magubane takes up the story: “I was driving on Oxford Road. I was not on assignment, but was always looking for human interest pictures … I saw these people sitting there [the nanny and child] and stopped the car.” Magubane says he just lifted his camera and took the picture. “I didn’t ask for permission. I would only apologise if a person objected to me photographing them. It was only after I took the picture that I went over and asked the lady: ‘Do you work with these people?’ She said yes and I left.”

Human interest

Europeans Only became a much-published image that showed the bizarre yet domestic nature of apartheid. It is an image that captures the unstated humanity of people involved in the everyday experience of the oppressive system that lasted more than 40 years. By law, the black woman is only allowed to sit on the Non-white side of the bench. This is behind the child who is perched on the side marked Europeans Only. The care and love they share is palpable in the nanny’s gaze. Only the child looks up at Magubane’s lens.

The ambitious young photographer headed back to the Drum newsroom to show his picture editor, the equally renowned Jürgen Schadeberg, what he’d got. The upshot was that Magubane won Drum’s monthly prize of £80 (R1 459 at today’s exchange rate) for best human interest picture.

Sorry my baas

On another hot summer’s day 58 years later, Magubane, now 82, sits in his home sharing his memories of working as a photographer at the height of apartheid. His home in old hipster Melville is a treasure trove of his collections – from antique furniture to classic cars. He speaks in short sentences, punctuated by sharp gasps of breath – a sign of his deteriorating health. Magubane’s work often got him in trouble with the apartheid state. In the early 1970s, he spent more than a year in solitary confinement. Yet the reality of hard time never put him off. He says: “Apartheid did not bother me. My work as a learning photographer came first. I would die for a picture. I remember I went to Parliament and saw the prime minister. I don’t remember whether it was [DF] Malan or [Hendrik] Verwoerd sitting in an office – I just walked in and took the picture. “He jumped up and asked: ‘What are you doing?’ I said, ‘Sorry my baas’ and walked away.”

We laugh and move on to other topics of conversation. 

Europeans Only and other images by Peter Magubane are featured in The Rise and Fall of Apartheid: Photography and the Bureaucracy of Everyday Life at Museum Africa in Johannesburg. Coinciding with the 20th anniversary of democracy in South Africa, this award-winning exhibition, organized by the International Center of Photography, and curated by Okwui Enwezor with Rory Bester, offers an unprecedented and comprehensive historical overview of the pictorial response to apartheid. The Goethe-Institut South Africa supports the exhibition as a partner.

The Rise and Fall of Apartheid: Photography and the Bureaucracy of Everyday Life
13.02.2014 – 29.06.2014 at Museum Africa, Newtown, Johannesburg

Magubanes exhibition, A Struggle without Documentation is no Struggle, a retrospective of his work, ran from 18.02. – 13.03.2014 at the Absa Gallery in Johannesburg.