Jürgen Schadeberg obituary

The photographer Jürgen Schadeberg, who has died of a stroke aged 89, played a big role in covering the struggle against apartheid in South Africa, and winning the trust and respect of Nelson Mandela and the African National Congress, while attracting the frequent attention of the security police. He also catalogued the emerging South African music scene, taking the earliest professional photos of the singer Miriam Makeba and the trumpeter Hugh Masekela.

As picture editor and chief photographer for Drum magazine, the leading South African publication reporting on black issues and figures, he covered many of the significant events in the country’s history, from the 1952 Defiance Campaign and the 1958 Treason Trial to the funerals following the Sharpeville massacre in which 69 protesters were killed in 1960. His photos of Mandela, Walter Sisulu, Oliver Tambo, Trevor Huddleston and Ruth First became key portraits of the figures of resistance.

Often working with the brave investigative journalist Henry “Mr Drum” Nxumalo, he exposed with his trusty Leica camera the grim daily reality of apartheid life through shots of police brutality in the streets and of farm workers and their whip-wielding bosses.

Drum covered township gangland stories and cultural events and he took pictures of young singers including Makeba, Dolly Rathebe and Dorothy Masuka, a teenage Masekela receiving a trumpet that had been sent as a gift to his school by Louis Armstrong, and the saxophonist Kippie Moeketsi. All would become stars. His photoshoot with Rathebe led to his arrest under the Immorality Act because of the ban on white and black people mixing.

As his work became increasingly difficult because of arrests and harassment by the police and internal rifts at Drum, he left for London in 1964 and worked in Europe as a freelancer over the next two decades.

His pictures in Britain, notably of Brixton and Hackney in London and of the Gorbals in Glasgow, captured sides of those cities rarely seen at the time. He was shocked by the class divisions he encountered and contrasted shots of homeless people with pictures of Cambridge May balls and Eton. He was one of a team of photographers who covered the funeral of Winston Churchill for the Observer in 1965.

His work appeared in the new colour magazines of the Observer, Sunday Times and Telegraph that were emerging at that time. With the journalist James Cameron, in whom he found a kindred spirit, he travelled to what was then still West Germany on a project about the surfacing there of neo-Nazis. Their revelations were followed up by much of the German press. He also taught at the Central School of Art and Design in London, the New School in New York and the Hoch Kunst Schule in Hamburg.

Schadeberg was born in Berlin, the son of Rosemarie (nee Weidemann), a free-spirited actor. Although her former husband Richard Schadeberg’s name was given on Jürgen’s birth certificate, his father was Olaf Schneider, an actor.

As a 12-year-old he found himself alone in the city during the allied bombing raids in 1943 while his mother was taking a break in the Alps. Sheltering in a bunker, he would play his Armstrong records on a gramophone to keep his spirits up and one of his first photos was taken there. He also acted as a boy messenger for the anti-Nazi resistance group White Rose, many of whose members were later executed, cycling with parcels and letters from one side of Berlin to the other. “I found all this undercover stuff very exciting,” he wrote later.

When the second world war ended, he worked as an apprentice agency photographer in Hamburg, taking pictures of football matches, but emigrated to South Africa in 1950 to join his mother, who had moved there a with her new husband, an English officer. It was there, in Johannesburg, that he joined Drum magazine, which was founded in 1951 as African Drum. The fearless boy became the fearless chronicler of apartheid life.

Jürgen Schadeberg in London in 2008.
Jürgen Schadeberg in London in 2008. Photograph: Nils Jorgensen/Rex/Shutterstock

In 1973, conscious of the fact that he had seen little of Africa despite his 14 years in Johannesburg, he decided to remedy this. “I was badly in need of some sun after many grey, wet winters in London,” he wrote. He hitched lifts and travelled by bus and train through the continent, taking remarkable photos in Senegal, Rwanda, Ghana, Cameroon and elsewhere.

He returned to South Africa in 1985 with his new wife, Claudia Horvath, an art historian and television producer, whom he had met at a party in London. He was reunited with Mandela after the latter’s release from prison and they celebrated New Year’s Eve together in 1990. His photograph of Mandela looking through the bars of his old Robben Island cell in 1994 was named one of the most memorable images of the 20th century by the Photographers’ Gallery in London. He also mentored a new generation of young South African photographers.

With Claudia, he formed the Schadeberg Movie Company, which produced both cultural and political documentaries. But he gradually became disillusioned with South Africa and left again for Europe in 2007, and the couple finally made their home, after stays in Normandy and Berlin, in La Drova, south of Valencia, in Spain.

Exhibitions of Schadeberg’s photos have been held around the world, and one is due to go ahead in Paris later this year. A generous-hearted, sociable and hospitable man, he was modest and humorous about his long career when he and I met in Spain at one of his exhibitions. His village home was a magical treasure trove of his work. He had kept more than 400,000 of his negatives and was still working on his archives at the time of his death.

His very frank and entertaining memoir, The Way I See It, was published in 2017, and paints a rich picture of his life. He also edited and published more than 30 photographic books, including many that recorded the work of Drum. In 2014 he received a lifetime achievement award from the International Center of Photography in New York.

He is survived by Claudia and their son, Charlie; and by Wolfgang, Martine, Frankie, Bonnie and Leon, his five children from a previous marriage and another relationship, 15 grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.

• Jürgen Richard Schadeberg, photographer, born 18 March 1931; died 29 August 2020