Thursday, October 27, 2016

Nelson Mandela, 1990

Nelson Mandela, Toronto, June 1990

AS I SAID IN YESTERDAY'S POST, THERE WAS A LOT OF HISTORY HAPPENING IN 1990, and the release of Nelson Mandela from prison in South Africa was one example. Mandela wasted little time - after leaving prison in February, he traveled around the world meeting world leaders, and his world tour took him through Toronto. Really a series of epic photo ops, in retrospect events like these aren't real history as much as history taking a victory lap.

I was assigned to cover his appearance in Nathan Phillips Square, in front of Toronto City Hall, in front of what turned out to be a massive crowd, jubilant crowd. They wanted to see history happening as well, and it seemed like everyone from ecstatic Africans to beaming Italian grandmothers and schoolkids were in the square that day.

Crowds at City Hall for Nelson Mandela, Toronto, June 1990

As it always is at events like this, the crowd was the real event; shooting from behind the barricades, my shots of Mandela probably didn't look too different from what any other daily or wire service photographer would have gotten with a long lens, but the crowd always presents you with something unique from moment to moment.

The photo of Winnie Mandela I printed to go with the story over twenty-five years ago was more flattering - a shot of her with a beatific smile looking out at the crowd. It would be a few months before the story of Winnie's "football club" and the murder of Stompie Moeketsi became news outside South Africa, and longer before the details of her affair with Dali Mpofu while Mandela was in prison emerged.

Winnie Mandela, Toronto, June 1990
Nelson Mandela, Toronto, June 1990

All of this complicated the triumphant narrative, of course, and even if it made the newspapers it's doubtful whether anyone would have wanted to hear it when "Free Nelson Mandela" had suddenly become "Nelson Mandela Free." Obviously I knew that the paper wanted to happy ending, so it's only now that my shot of a more nervous looking Winnie, looking at her husband with what looks like uncertainty (it would be another two years before he divorced her) makes narrative sense.

Which proves, I suppose, that these victory laps by history are more spectacle than truth.

Crowds at City Hall for Nelson Mandela, Toronto, June 1990

None of this would have mattered to the crowd that day. The Berlin Wall had fallen, the Cold War was over and Nelson Mandela was not only free but standing in front of them, in front of the building where you lined up for construction permits. The crowd was overjoyed, and even in retrospect it's hard to blame them for it - after decades when nuclear Armageddon and despotic governments were taken for granted, history had taken a positive turn, or so it seemed.

I didn't have much experience with shooting news, but I must have done a pretty good job with the Mandela event because the paper assigned me to photograph the Dalai Lama's appearance at city hall four months later.

Nelson Mandela died in Johannesburg, South Africa on Dec. 5, 2013.


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