On 18 July 2012 I was fortunate to once again be the invited photographer to photograph Nelson Mandela’s 94th birthday at his home in Qunu in the Eastern Cape. The evening before I was to fly down, I heard that former US president President Bill Clinton was also planning to visit Qunu.
I knew Clinton would be visiting Madiba, but with my flight already booked to East London as the Umtata flights were full, I still faced a bumpy 2½ hour car ride from the airport to reach the small village of Qunu as fast as possible.
As a former newspaper photographer, I knew that when I got there, I’d have to get my act together because if I managed to get a chance to snap them, it would only be for a few seconds.
Having ensured that my cameras batteries were fully loaded and that I had fresh memory cards the night before, I also preset my camera. I knew that if I still had to fiddle with settings once I got into the room, I’d miss the shot for sure.
From previous experience, I knew that the light in the room was limited as no flash is allowed when taking pictures of Mandela. With this in mind, the camera was pre-set to 6400 ISO, f2.8, shutter speed 1/125. Now all I needed was to get there on time!
After fighting traffic and trucks, I got to Mandela’s house, only to be stopped by security that first needed to confirm my identity before allowing me inside.
With the seconds ticking by, I managed to stay calm even though I had no idea how much longer Clinton and Madiba would be together.
Finally the security allowed me in, and I found President Clinton getting up to go to lunch just as I walked into the room.
I stepped forward, introduced myself and asked him if he would be willing to shake Madiba’s hand one more time. He was quite obliging, and as he sat to shake hands, I fired away with my trusty Nikons.
Even though I only had about 10 seconds, maybe eight frames at most, before Clinton got up and walked away, I captured the moment shared by the two former presidents – the shot that nobody else had. Within hours, the image appeared in media worldwide.
With the pre-pics for Madiba’s birthday in the bag, I had something for the world’s newspapers to run on his birthday.
Next day was Madiba’s actual birthday and I needed something fresh. I was not sure what was going down on the actual day, but I waited, hoping I’d be allowed to shoot some pictures.
A few extra media photographers were allowed into Mandela’s house, so the game was on. We were told we had two minutes each and that we could go into the room in two’s.
I offered to go in last. Knowing full well that the shoot may be cancelled if Mandela became tired, I had another image in mind, not just one of him sitting at the table. When my turn finally came, I asked if we could include his birthday cake in the shot to get something different.
Luck was on my side – just at that moment, family members brought in the cake and they all started singing happy birthday – as I clicked away I was happy in the knowledge that I had captured a special shot that beautifully illustrated Mandela’s family wishing him happy 94th birthday.
As I left to send the picture out to the world showing the icon on his 94th birthday, the words of the late great newsman Deon du Plessis echoed in my head – BEING THERE and grasping the moment – that’s how you get a great picture!
Click here to see the media exposure for Mandela’s birthday.