By Jabu Kumalo

Pictures by Jabu Kumalo

One of the beauties of photography is that it never lies about the past or distort history.

This became evident at the Solo Exhibition of the legendary photographer, Bab’ Mike Mzileni, which is currently on at the Market Theatre Photo Gallery in downtown Joburg until 21 January.

The exhibition, which opened on Saturday, 11 December, was marked by a mood of excitement when aspiring photographic students and staff met the living legend, Mzileni.

His former colleagues were also excited to reconnect with him after many years. Everyone, young and old, jostled for a picture with him.

Mzileni, who now walks with the aid of a walking stick, was equally excited to meet with former colleagues, including retired photographer, Len Kumalo, a legend in his own right and author Sol Rachilo.

The exhibition is curated by Nkululeko Khumalo.

Well-captured photographs on display, which range from the struggle, jazz to the ordinary everyday life of the people, Prove Mzileni’s photographic genius and artistic soul.

They captivate and move even the hardest of hearts.

Welcoming the guests, The Market Photo Workshop’s curriculum and training manager, Silas Nkosi, said part of the exhibition was to let students meet and connect with the owners of these great works of photographic art.

Silas told the gathering: “We are doing this so that our students can see the owners of the work while they are still alive. It motivates us to have adults of his calibre. We are grateful to meet people like him.

“I sincerely hope the exhibition will inspire you.”

Nkululeko said she was happy to have had the opportunity to visit Mzileni several times in the recent past.

“Whenever I took photography students to you, they never wanted to leave your place because of the excitement of seeing the massive work at your place. It is always a struggle to drag them out of your house,” she said.

“He (Mzileni) always wanted this to happen. I love the discipline from the older generation. We’d like to see the continuation of this if you Baba and Silas can allow us.

“We are teaching the young ones that history matters. People, please let’s support them and buy their work. Let’s not put plagiarised, stolen work from the internet on our walls.”

When it was Bab’ Mzileni’s turn to say a word or two, he said photographers talk less.

“Photographers cannot express themselves. They do it through the camera lenses. The camera is more powerful than an AK47. For instance, today you know your grandparents because of photography. If there were no photographs, you might have never known them. You must respect the camera, please,” said Mzileni.

According to Nkululeko, it was difficult to choose which photos to put on display because of the massive body of work Mzileni has in his archives.

They were also handicapped by space, hence they had to choose a few photographs.

She said because of the many photographs the icon has, she was hoping for a repeat of this exhibition in the future.

One of the legends at the opening, Len Kumalo, said some of the photos taken by Mzileni would not have seen the light of day during the brutal days of apartheid.

“We are free today because of the struggle photos. No one would have known about our struggles and suffering. Some of the photos taken by Mike would not have been allowed before,” said Len.

“Apartheid was bad. It was tough working under those conditions. If you meet cops, they would demand either your pass (dompass), permit or special. If you couldn’t produce, no matter how close to your house you were, you’d be arrested.”

It must indeed have been a headache to choose which photos to use for someone who started his career in 1963, working for major newspapers of the time, some now defunct.

Even after his retirement in 2000, Mzileni continued clicking the camera as a freelancer.

His other former colleague and former journalist, Sandile Memela, had great words to say about Mzileni.

Sandile said: “I love it when African people celebrate themselves and their victories. It is beautiful. Spend time with them (the legends) and you will learn more about Black history. These photos freeze and keep the past to enable us to connect the past with the present and the future.

“If you are a photographer, take your work seriously. Thank you, Bra Mike, for barring your soul to the nation.”

Mzileni’s career highlights include:

Being featured in the World Press Photo Competition in The Hague, in 1966.

In 1985, he was named JPS Sports Photographer of the Year.

He was appointed a judge in 1996 and 2002 of the Fuji Photo Press Awards.

In 1987, he worked with a colleague, Zuluboy ZB Molefe, to come up with a book titled, A Common Hunger To Sing.

In 2008, Mzileni completed a pictorial tribute to South African music in a book titled, All That Jazz.  

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