Hamba Kahle Peter McKenzie

Veteran documentary photographer, Peter McKenzie, passed away on Tuesday morning October 10, 2017 after a long fight with cancer. I first met Peter in Mozambique in 2004 at the Foto Festa put on by the Associação Moçambicana de Fotografia. Cedric Nunn had invited me to join him and Peter on the trip. Peter was there with his French wife and adorable young son. Although he was probably a decade or so older than me, we had a great connection around photography and activism. I had done some work as a journalist and photographer in Wentworth with Groundtruth and Wentworth was Peter’s home area in Durban.

Peter McKenzie (left) and me at Restaurante Costa do Sol in Maputo. We were there for the Foto Festa in 2004. If I remember correctly, Cedric Nunn took this picture with my camera.

Peter was an activist at heart. He used his photography to highlight injustice. He also had a heart for people and particularly passing on the decades of experience that he had gained as a photographer to the next generation. He had worked for Drum magazine as chief photographer, co-founded Afrapix Photo Agency, worked as co-ordinator of the Photojournalism Department at the Institute for the Advancement of Journalism, in Johannesburg, and as Chief Photographer at Panapress, Pan-African news agency. In recent years he founded the Durban Centre of Photography (DCP) where he trained young photographers in the craft of documentary photography. He invited me from time to time to present to his classes, and it was always a privilege to do so.
The last time I saw Peter was at DocuFest Africa 2017. When I first approached him to help by suggesting young photographers in KZN that we could feature in the festival, Peter was going to be in France and so was unavailable to present at the festival himself. Once the programme was already finalized, however, Peter contacted me to say he would be back early and could make it after all. I managed to create an extra slot on the Saturday afternoon for him.
At DocuFest Africa Peter presented a very personal, almost mystical journey he had been on relating to death. As he told us, he grew up in a very rigid Pentecostal home. His dad was a minister and although he and his siblings were allowed to attend local Hindu festivals, they were forbidden from eating the food. It was to those festivals, particularly that of Theemeri – fire walking that he turned in his final months. He spoke about how the image of fire from his Pentecostal background had been associated with the fires of hell. But his exploration of Theemeri was transforming fire for him into an image of refining and cleansing. His pictures of the Theemeri ceremony were experimental. He used a long lens and allowed the camera to focus where it would as he engaged in the ceremony in what he described as a semi-trance state.

The ever expressive Peter McKenzie during his presentation at DocuFest Africa 2017. By the way he looked none of us there would have believed that in just a couple of weeks he was to pass away.

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Death is not something we readily speak about, yet it is all around us. Here in South Africa many of our people spend long hours on evenings and weekends at wakes and funerals. Just the other day I was at the wake of the security guard I had got to know well. Zalisile Cakucaku (Bra Z to all who knew him) guarded the NAHECS building at the University of Fort Hare (UFH). And he did so with dignity and grace. I had given him a lift home on a number of occasions and been into the home he built with his own hands. So when he suddenly passed away I and my digitisation team, who have been working on the ANC Archive at UFH, went to the wake to bring what comfort we could to his devastated wife and two children. Death does that. It brings devastation. There is little good we can say about it and so we avoid it as much as we can.
It’s been my observation that what we believe about death determines how we deal with it. For instance, if we believe we are the result of chance material evolution and that consciousness is constituted entirely of the firing of synapses in highly developed brain, then it is quite reasonable to be terrified of death, or at least loath to contemplate death, because death brings an end to one’s particular instance of material existence. That is the belief system inherent in most of our Western-based education.
If, on the other hand, one believes that if one has maintained good relationships in the community within which one exists and that the memory of that community will keep one present with the community after death as a “shade” (a living dead), then death holds considerably less fear for one. Many with a traditional African belief system hold that view.
It seems to me that Peter rejected the Pentecostalism of his upbringing. I did not get to engage him very much on it, but I am familiar with such churches. Some can be found to teach that one’s sins are weighed against one’s good deeds and if one is found wanting, then one’s destiny is the eternal fires of hell. This concept of the weighing of deeds on a scale that determines one’s ultimate destiny is not unique to some particularly religious strands of Pentecostalism, but is evident in many religions. If this was what Peter grew up with, it is understandable that he leaned away from that view in the last months of his life. There is little more burdensome than trying to please an unpleasable God! As Peter contemplated his end he seemed to lean toward a Hindu understanding of endless cycles of reincarnation.

Peter's last portrait. As far as I know the last portrait taken of Peter McKenzie taken by Harry Lock after Peter's lecture at DocuFest Africa as part of his project to document participants in the Hilton Arts Festival. Peter's good friend, Rafs Mayet (left) assists Harry (at the camera). None of us suspected this would be the last time we would see Peter.

We know what happens to the body after death. There is plenty of evidence for that. But if we had to look for what happens to our consciousness after death, there would not be a lot of evidence that one could gather. The one exception, that I am aware of, is the resurrection of Jesus Christ. If that could be established as historical fact, that would provide some concrete evidence of life after death and would certainly give some cause for hope. And, in my view, the hope would be particularly solid if it is true that the qualification for inheriting such life after physical death is not dependent upon my performance in this life, but on Christ’s life and sacrifice on my behalf – in other words, if it were a gift, and not something I needed to earn. I don’t know of any other historic event from which one could extract such hope regarding death. For at the end of the day death is our ultimate enemy and the ultimate enemy of all that we most cherish.
And so it is that death has taken Peter McKenzie from us. And we can all feel he was taken too early. Yet in the few short years and decades that we still live, we will cherish the memory of Peter, his life and energy and sense of humour and the passion and compassion that he brought wholeheartedly to the photographic community here in Southern Africa. Our thoughts and prayers are with his family at this time. Hamba kahle umfowethu!