The photographer and filmmaker Peter McKenzie died on October 13 2017. He will no longer “make pictures”.
That distinction between “taking” and “making” photographs was important to McKenzie, as a photographer, an intellectual, an activist and an aesthete.
He did not believe that photography should be extractive, so rather than “take” photographs, he would “make” them. A conceptual break-away that, in articulation, spoke of a connection with the communities, the people, the incidents and the issues, he was photographing.
McKenzie was easygoing and easy to get on with. He respected people. As with every good photojournalist, McKenzie was humble before them. He searched for the detail in people’s lives, which he explored through the detail of his own work.
McKenzie conceived of ideas and exchanged them enthusiastically with others. He read widely, talked passionately, and laughed loudly; he smiled with all of his heart. All of these he channeled back into his photographs and the themes they explored. Likewise the enduring relationships he built.
Peter Mckenzie was born in Durban, the youngest of five children, on February 10 1955. His father was an evangelist proselytiser and McKenzie would hasten to tell people that he was “the son of a preacher man”. He was even quicker in shrugging off the constriction of scripture from a young age, developing an anti-authoritarian streak that would lead to a life lived as a bohemian and an activist.
The photographer Rafs Mayet, a friend since they met in Grade One at Melbourne Road Primary School in Durban, remembers Peter nicking his father’s Jeep, replete with “Repent” and “Jesus Saves!” stickers and rocking up at music gigs in the city with “the ‘bras’ tumbling out”.
Mayet credits McKenzie with introducing him to the music, and the musicians, which would lead to his own life-long photographic love-affair with music, jazz especially.
Initially growing up in Gale Street in Durban’s casbah area, McKenzie moved with his family to Cato Manor and then, with apartheid’s forced removals, to Wentworth, the township created for “coloured” people in Durban harbour’s heavily industrialised and polluted South basin.
Cast into “colouredness” by the apartheid state, McKenzie would humorously refer to himself as a “bruin-ou”, but his politics made clear that he remained a proud Black man.
Sent to Cape Town’s District Six to complete his secondary education at Harold Cressy High School, McKenzie studied with people like former finance minister Trevor Manuel and hung out with budding musicians like Robbie Jansen and Russell Herman.
In high school, he also met his future wife, Moeneefa. The couple moved to Johannesburg together, where McKenzie started working on a production line, making televisions. When an emigrating colleague sold McKenzie his camera equipment, “the photography bug bit” says Mayet.
Mckenzie returned to Durban to study photography at the then Natal Technikon, becoming the first black student to graduate from the department.
The photographer Cedric Nunn says seeing McKenzie’s third-year student portfolio was “catalytic for me to realise that I could be a photographer”. Nunn was working in a sugar-factory at the time and jolling with university students when he met McKenzie, who was then a bassist in the band Staple Diet, which also included the musician Steve Dyer.
“I had this epiphany when I saw his work,” said Nunn, who had been “looking for a career at the time”. “The social justice issues that were conveyed so powerfully in his work made me realise that this was a medium to articulate my own sense of this world,” said Nunn.
During a strike at the sugar factory Nunn was working in, McKenzie visited and “gave me the courage to hand in my resignation letter”. The duo went on a three-month road-trip through Swaziland and a newly liberated Zimbabwe afterwards.
Moving back to Johannesburg in the early 80s, McKenzie, together with photographers like Omar Badsha and Paul Weinberg, started the Afrapix collective which challenged and disrupted conventional mainstream media representations of South Africa and the antiapartheid struggle within the country.
“Peter was one of those documentary photographers whose work was sensitive to, and created a new narrative about, everyday South Africa. This was predicated on people’s dignity and challenged the mainstream tropes that white culture and society had entrenched in their representation of black communities,” says Badsha.
McKenzie worked at the Sunday Tribune, Afrapix and as chief photographer at Drum magazine — where he earned the nickname “Bra Mkhize”, which he wore proudly. He also worked as a freelancer and was the pan-African news/feature agency Panapress’s Johannesburg photo chief.
His work spanned the breadth of his considerable creative imagination and highly political sense of social justice. McKenzie photographed the violence during the state of emergency in the 80s, he documented the Polisario refugee camps in Algeria, and the Sahrawi people’s struggle to claim back the Western Sahara.
His intimate portraits of a Wentworth ghetto replete with the gangsters and aunties, street urchins and neighbourhood characters, with whom he grew up alongside, were presented with all their human complexity in his work.
This also became the documentary film, Vying Pozi (Going Home). Despite travelling widely, McKenzie’s roots remained firmly grounded in the communities he grew up in: Durban, Wentworth, “my kasi”.
Returning to Durban in the 2000s, he trained his lens again on the issues of pollution in the South Basin, on the forgotten histories of black Durban and, latterly, on the Hindu fire-walking ceremonies and notions of faith.
Fighting liver cancer by this stage, McKenzie approached these ceremonies, which he had previously photographed as a student, “with a sense of his own mortality,” said Mayet.
“There was a remarkable shift in how he presented his work,” said Mayet. “There were fewer huge fires and red hot coals, his framing was now tighter, there was less depth of field and certainly something more spiritual about it — although Peter was never a religious person.”
McKenzie published and exhibited both locally and internationally. He curated several projects during his career, including the work of five South African photographers at the bi-annual Recontres de la Photographie Africaine in Bamako, Mali in 1998. Together with partner Caroline Terrier McKenzie curated and co-ordinated the the Every Child is my Child exhibition for the Office of the President.
The love of ideas and his intellectualism saw McKenzie branch out into teaching. Between 1996-1999 McKenzie was the co-ordinator and facilitator of the photojournalism department at the Institute for the Advancement of Journalism in Johannesburg. He also taught at the Market Photo Workshop in Johannesburg, the jazz photography workshops held by the Cape Town International Jazz Festival, and resuscitated the dormant Durban Centre for Photography.
In his latter years, passing on to the next generation his knowledge of photography and the politics inherent in moving into people’s lives with a camera, while inspiring young photographers to open their conceptual eyes to what could be “seen” became a driving passion.
He left a lasting impression on his students. The photographer Sydelle Willow Smith says his advice to “remember to pack respect and humility in your camera bag” were words essential to abide by as a photographer.
Such was McKenzie’s irrepressible lust for life, that even the older heads learnt from him: “When he moved back to Durban, I was jaded, but he saw things differently, everywhere he looked around the city, there were photographic projects and stories to be told,” says Mayet. “He made you look differently at things you took for granted.”
Brought up in a country that sought to prescribe everything one thought and knew about oneself as a Black person, McKenzie’s driving passion was to look beyond that.
Whether in a brutal apartheid South Africa, or a corrupted democratic one, McKenzie sought to always look beyond the obvious. He moved between worlds, peeling away the layers of life to reveal new meanings and understandings with “a graceful eye”.
Peter McKenzie (February 10 1955- October 13 2017) is survived by his partners, Moeneefa and Caroline; his two sons, David Lee and Issa; three sisters and a brother. —Niren Tolsi
The funeral for Peter McKenzie will be held on October 22 2017 at the Inter Fellowship Dome (the new hall next to Cheshire Homes) 15 Eksteen Place, Merewent, Durban. Viewing: 12h30 – 13h00, followed by the service. A memorial for McKenzie will be held at the Market Photo Workshop Auditorium in Johannesburg on October 26 2017 at 14:00.
Main Photo by Reedwan Vally.