Friday, December 13, 2013

"Why Photographs and Images of Rolihlahla Nelson Mandela are So Important" by Sylvia Frain

Global Val welcomes her first guest blogger & international correspondent, Sylvia C. Frain, PhD Student at the National Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies, University of Otago, New Zealand.

Why Photographs and Images of Rolihlahla Nelson Mandela are So Important

by Sylvia C. Frain

While President Barack Obama’s ‘selfie’ picture with British Prime Minister David Cameron and Denmark's Prime Minister Helle Thorning Schmidt at the memorial of Rolihlahla ‘Nelson’ Mandela now dominates the international media’s attention, I would like to offer a more in-depth analysis regarding photographs and images within the coverage of Mandela’s passing.

A reflection and exploration of this past week’s vast amounts of photographs and images has demonstrated a parallel struggle for freedom. Photographs of Mandela that we are sharing and reposting were once banned from the media and outlawed from the public under apartheid. However, this past week they have flowed freely across online media galleries and slideshows unlike ever before.

A review of online news outlets and blogs from the day of his death and until his memorial service has produced numerous titles for Mandela. Depending on the source, he has been branded as a revolutionary, a protestor, a president, a trouble maker, a terrorist, a freedom fighter, a political activist, a rebel, a leader, a prisoner, world’s best negotiator, a peacemaker, and a legend. While these titles are descriptive and expressive, a photograph or image of him communicates much more.

“On the day Nelson Mandela died, like millions of other people around the world, my 14-year-old updated his Facebook page with a picture of Mandela… I have been mesmerized by pictures of him, soaking in gallery after gallery of photographs of his remarkable life.”

Nearly all online media and blogs relating to the coverage included at least one photograph or image, producing an inclusive visual language. Each feature included a range of visual components: a slideshow, visual timeline, or an interactive photo essay with photographs by professionals as well amateurs. “Photography is the starting point of mass media and communication, and is the most common language of our civilization.” Since its invention, photography has been examined and critiqued, regarding its powerful role to revisit history, examine politics, and to understand international affairs visually.

History has demonstrated that photography’s power can be used for ‘good and evil’, as a propaganda tool, for political manipulation, and as a method to control the representation of conflict and war. It has the power to “deaden [the audience] to political horrors and condition them to accept racism, sexism and deepening class divisions as natural, necessary conditions of existence.”

We can come to understand history through the images of the era, or even the absence of images. “Prohibitions against photographs always indicate a healthy respect for their power.” According to the BBC, during the 1970s and 1980s, “carrying the image of Mandela or being overheard saying his name could result in torture and a prison sentence.” Not only was his photograph illegal, the apartheid state banned Mandela posters and “imposed stiff sentences on anyone caught smuggling posters across the border.” See The New York Times for apartheid posters from the 1980s and 1990s. This censorship and control further helped to elevate visual representation of him as a symbol against oppression and defiance of unjust leadership. The more the regime tried to hide, suppress and control his image, the greater the drive was to expose it.

“As you can imagine, there was intense competition to get the first picture of Mandela. A day before his release, the South African government reversed its policy and published a picture of Mandela.” Once released in 1990, and thanks to contemporary technology, live images of a ‘free Mandela’ were transmitted via satellite to audiences around the world. This photograph of a free man, a man who had spent so many years in prison, and endured institutionalised racism, now could be seen in full light, and his image became an international icon.

Photographs and images of Mandela are a symbol for common experiences of the struggle against oppression, as well as a figure of forgiveness, strength, and democracy. His image represents more than a resilient and tolerant man, but also a resistance ideology, one that works towards freedom and against repression worldwide. Through this past weeks' ‘Life in Pictures’ online slideshows and galleries, photographs have communicated and visually expressed the universal struggle against domination as well as creating the image of common humanity.

Mandela’s passing is unlike any other magnitude of global grievance, mourning or loss. Photography shapes public memory, assists with making sense of a shared experience and can relay emotions better than any written text. His actions, words and practices have reached people all over the world, and people want to celebrate his vision. The photography of the global reaction, as well as pictorial tributes, which are featured on nearly every media site, show people from all walks of life, speaking different languages, across borders and spanning generations around the world gathered to pay respect, and join together in remembrance and collectively mourn Mandela.

The Wall Street Journal developed a live interactive obituary platform, with global user content, Twitter posts and quotes embedded within the article. The Australian ABC featured a video timeline of his life and major events also a tribute page with mix-media including user content and Instagram photographs. These sites provide a shared pace to instantly and visually collaborate and memorialize Mandela globally.

Mandela’s image now “adorns everything from expensive cotton pillowslips, to fridge magnets, to dusty township tavern walls.” The pictures of Mandela were once outlawed, and now have become one of the most shared images online. I believe it will continue to influence people struggling and resisting oppression world-wide for generations to come, much longer than any number of world leader ‘selfies’.

December 2013

Sylvia C. Frain
PhD Student
National Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies
University of Otago
520 Castle Street
Dunedin 9054, New Zealand


2. Freund, G. l. (1980). Photography & society. Boston: Boston : D. R. Godine.
3. Mitchell, W. J. T. (1995). Picture theory: essays on verbal and visual representation. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
4. Goldberg, V. (1993). The power of photography: how photographs changed our lives. New York: Abbeville.