photo archives: Nelson Mandela

Nelson Mandela / Madiba

To celebrate Nelson Mandela’s birthday – July 18th – here are two images from my archives. I had the pleasure of photographing Nelson Mandela, then president of South Africa, at a function in March ’98. I was one of several photographers covering the event where he addressed people attending a function.

The challenge with this photo-shoot was that no camera flash was allowed. Which is especially tough inside a dimly lit marquee tent in early evening. This no-flash rule was an attempt not to aggravate eye problems the president experienced. So all photographs were taken with ambient light alone. I remember being the only photographer there with a tripod.

date:  March ’98  –  Johannesburg, South Africa
camera gear:  Nikon F90x;  Nikon AF-D 80-200mm f2.8
camera settings: 1/15th @ f2.8
film:  Fujicolor 800 Super G Plus


President Mandela obviously enjoying the Imilonji Choir, as he dances to their vibrant singing. His warmth and lack of officiousness have endeared him even more to South Africans and people across the world. President Mandela was also affectionately known as Madiba, an honorary title adopted by elders of Mandela’s clan. The title came to be synonymous with Nelson Mandela.

date:  March ’98  –  Johannesburg, South Africa
camera gear:  Nikon F90;  Nikon AF-D 35-70mm f2.8
camera settings:  handheld  1/8th @  f2.8
film:  Fujicolor 800 Super G Plus


an unrelated personal anecdote

On one occasion, I even had the opportunity to shake Mandela’s hand – even if it was quite accidental.

This was during the time when Nelson Mandela and the ANC were still in a negotiation with the National Party, (circa ’90 – ’92) before the first free elections in South Africa in ’94. At the time I was still working at the South African Broadcast Corporation’s television studios, where on the day I was fixing some equipment in the TV news studio where Mandela was to be interviewed.

When I had finished with my task at hand, I walked briskly out of the studio – just as Mandela turning the corner, walked into the studio. He must have thought that I’m someone of importance there who had purposely walked up to him to greet him – and he held out his hand to shake mine. Completely in surprise, I briefly shook his hand before he continued to walk into the TV news studio.

I was instantly in awe. He really had a presence about him. Unmistakably so, even if somehow you had no idea who he was.

15 Comments, Add Your Own

  1. 3 says

    It’s really good to see that even without all those VR/IS lenses, excelent high-iso performance and so it’s still possible to take great photos. Thanks for sharing those with us, Neil!

  2. 7Ken Chong says

    Amazing 1/15 sec shot wide open. Timing is everything for this sharp shot under the circumstances. There is nothing like film grain to give it that evocative, reportage feel and essence of the man. Would love to see this in B&W. Lucky you.

  3. 8 says

    I saw video on the news this morning where a crowd of children were gathered in wishing Mr Mandela a Happy Birthday. What was especially moving to me was the fact that the crowd was composed equally of white and black children – living testimony of just what Mr Mandela has achieved.

    Sometimes when we activate our shutters – exposing film or a digital sensor – we have no prescience of the importance and historical significance of the images so formed. This only serves to underscore the importance of the photographer in capturing history and the passing of time.

  4. 10 says

    Two amazing experiences to be able to have had. Glad to hear he was as genuine and respect-inspiring in person as he seems to have been in everything I have read and seen about him. The world is always in need of men like that. Thanks for sharing and glad you got to have both or those unforgettable experiences in your life.

  5. 11Wei Chong says

    Thank you for sharing your personal experiences of a great person. You were quite prepared, with a tripod!

  6. 13 says

    Nelson Mandela passed away today. A truly iconic person who helped changed the world for the better.

    “There is no passion to be found playing small – in settling for a life that is less than the one you are capable of living.”
    — Nelson Mandela

    “ As we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same.”
    — Nelson Mandela

    “I am fundamentally an optimist. Whether that comes from nature or nurture, I cannot say. Part of being optimistic is keeping one’s head pointed toward the sun, one’s feet moving forward. There were many dark moments when my faith in humanity was sorely tested, but I would not and could not give myself up to despair. That way lays defeat and death.”
    — Nelson Mandela,

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