The Magazine Issue X: The Forgotten Photographer - Page 60

In 2010 the Photographers Association of Malawi started a magazine. As a member, the editor told me his landlord used to be a famous photographer – could I write an article about him? Sure, it’s always fun to meet colleagues, and especially someone from a field that I don’t know much about: Malawi in the 20th century.

I make an appointment by phone. It is a bit of searching because Malawi does not have a good system of addresses, but I find the right turn from the tar road, and there at the market a little asking helps. Everybody knows the photographer.

I find Mr. Mitunda Mbeta in a little shop, selling household items like soap and eggs. He retired from photography in 2008. We sit down in his place and start talking.

He was one of the few photographers active in Malawi, and probably the only one who labeled his negatives and kept everything in an orderly fashion. He shows me a few prints, but most of his work exists only on negatives. He never made the switch to digital photography.

He tells me he used to have a little studio for passport photos right behind the immigration office, run by his wife. I suddenly remember: when I arrived in Malawi I had passport photos made there: with four hot lights on an aluminum foil reflector with a red background. It was his wife who made those photos for me with an outdated Polaroid camera.

Mr. Mbeta had started photography as a hobby when he was still in school, but he decided to go professional after school. These were exciting days in Malawi: the country was newly independent, the economy was growing, and there was a generally optimistic mood. He learnt the job of taking photos and developing and printing in the way you learnt a job then: with the Malawi Young Pioneers. The organisation was originally set up to install patriotism in the youth of the newly independent country, and they could learn technical professions there. Later it became an instrument of repression as “Life President” Hastings Kamuzu Banda evolved into a dictator. But in the early days for Mr Mbeta it was a great opportunity to get a photography education.