By Edward Tsumele

Veteran photographer, Tladi Khuele, has seen many hair-raising events as a press photographer, with close to 40 years’ experience in the field, while working for several South African publications.

But there is that one picture that he took in 1983 in the streets of Joburg that still haunts him till this day, almost 40 years since he captured it.

“I do not know who those boys were and whether they are still alive, or not. I also did not have an opportunity to take down their names. When I saw what was happening, as I took the picture of the action, deep down I was wishing that the policeman, instead of arresting those young boys, should have arrested me. It could have been 20 to 23 years ago. I mean those boys did nothing criminal. They were selling bags to put food on the table. That was cruel of the apartheid police,” said Khuele in an interview at Museum Africa.

He was at Museum Africa to prepare for an exhibition, which is a retrospective take on his photographic career that saw him work for several publications, including the Rand Daily Mail, City Press, New Nation, and Pace Magazine during apartheid South Africa. His last job was at Sunday World in post-apartheid South Africa before retiring in 2004.

A self-taught photographer, the Alexandra-born and Diepkloof-bred, Khuele saved enough money from hustling, mainly hawking anything he could lay his hand on, while he was still in high school, to buy an Olympus camera when young boys of his age went for fashionable clothes.

“I realised at a young age that clothes had no value really, instead I invested in a camera. What happened is that I used to read a lot, especially magazines and came across an article about Peter Magubane, a former driver who taught himself to take pictures and became a legendary photographer. I wanted to be like him and therefore decided to buy myself a camera.”

Khuele started off as a street photographer, graduating to taking social pictures, such as weddings, before breaking it in the media when he was hired by the Rand Daily Mail, a liberal newspaper strongly opposed to apartheid in the 80s.

“The man who gave me that break in the media was Dannie Coetzer who was the picture editor of the newspaper. He mentored me and I will always be grateful to him for that,” said Khuele.

“It was during that time when I could go out into the streets of Joburg to document people’s lives, including protests against the apartheid system when I saw police arrest those young boys simply for selling bags to put food on the table.  I also documented Joburg’s social ills, such as homelessness.”

It is the documentation of the anti-apartheid protests and the social ills that have always been a feature of Joburg life during apartheid and post-apartheid that are contained in the narrative of his solo exhibition entitled Changing Faces of Johannesburg, which will open at Museum Africa in Newtown on 30 November, running until February 2022.

The exhibition is sponsored by the City of Joburg, as well as receiving support from Fuji, and this is his major solo exhibition in years.

“Of course, the picture that has haunted me, of the two boys in handcuffs, arrested for legitimately earning a living in the streets of Joburg, forms part of the Changing Faces of Johannesburg exhibition.

“I worked on this exhibition for two years and when I thought everything was ready in 2020, Covid-19 came and put a stop to the exhibition,” he said.

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