Nelson Mandela Released - Iconic Photograph

Greg English explains how he took his famous picture of Nelson Mandela on his release from prison after 27 years. He talks to David Clark

Nelson Mandela being released by Greg English
Image: Nelson and Winnie Mandela punch the air in triumph as he is released from prison on 11 February 1990 © AP/Press Association Images

In early 1990, apartheid in South Africa, under which the minority Afrikaner community ruled the black majority, was beginning to crumble. The system, which had been official government policy since 1948, prevented non-white people from having the vote, forced them to live in separate communities and severely reduced their human rights.

In response to this regime, anti-apartheid groups such as the African National Congress (ANC) had organised uprisings and protests. The government reacted by often violent repression and the imprisonment of opposition leaders.

On 2 February 1990, the new President, FW de Klerk, announced a set of major reforms. They included repealing laws that directly discriminated against the black community and lifting the ban on the ANC. Crucially, de Klerk also announced that the charismatic ANC leader Nelson Mandela was soon to be released.

Mandela was 71 years old and had been in prison for 27 years, having been sentenced to life imprisonment for sabotage and conspiring to overthrow the government. For several years he had been the subject of a growing international movement for his release.

As the world waited for this momentous event, the international news media made preparations to record it. Teams of reporters, photographers and television crews from around the world were dispatched to the country. One of the photographers assigned to the event was 32-year-old South African Greg English.

English, who had been a professional photographer since 1980, was working for the Associated Press. He had won the Associated Press award for Excellence in News Photography in 1986 and been given a World Press Award in the same year. He was based in Cyprus when he got the call to cover Mandela's release and flew to Johannesburg.

Image: Greg English, photographed in 2013

As English remembers, one of the main problems he faced was trying to find out exactly when and where this major event would happen. There were rumours that it might be Johannesburg, Pretoria or Cape Town. ‘Things were so unpredictable,' he says. ‘I didn't sleep for five days.'

Behind the scenes, agencies were anxiously booking flights for their photographers to different destinations. Finally, it was revealed that Mandela would be released from Victor Verster prison in Paarl, Western Cape, where he had been held for the previous three years.

On 11 February, photographers, journalists, TV crews and crowds of thousands waited in the searing heat outside the prison gates. Finally, in the early afternoon, the gates opened and Mandela appeared with his wife Winnie. He had not been photographed for more than 25 years and this grey-haired, smartly dressed and dignified figure looked very different from the young
revolutionary fighter the world had previously seen.

‘It was very exciting,' says English. ‘Everyone was so jubilant. When we actually saw him, a lot of us were in tears because we never thought it would happen.' However, his emotion at the event itself was soon replaced by anxiety that he would not be able to get the pictures he needed.

‘We were opposite the entrance to the prison gates, and could see Nelson and Winnie walking towards us,' he continues. ‘It turned into a complete nightmare for us photographers, because we were corralled into standing in a particular place while crowds were running everywhere, blocking our shots. People started pushing and shoving and it was complete chaos.'

English was shooting with a Canon 35mm SLR and a 300mm f/2.8 lens. As Mandela approached, the crowds momentarily parted. ‘Suddenly, I had a clear view and I shot around six frames,' he remembers.

‘At the time I did feel I had a good shot, but you're never sure. Of course, I was shooting film and in the heat of the moment I didn't know whether I'd got him in focus or whether someone had stepped in front of me when the camera's mirror was up.'

While editing the images, one picture stood out. In it, both Nelson and Winnie Mandela were smiling and holding up fists in celebration while holding hands. It summed up the day's events in one powerful image. However, all the elements of the picture were not immediately apparent to the Associated Press staff.

Image: Another of the images shot by Greg English on the day of Nelson Mandela's release © AP/Press Association Images

‘Initially, the picture was wired with the hands cropped out, but I felt that showing them holding hands was a big part of the story and asked them to re-send the picture with a different crop,' English remembers. ‘At the time, Winnie Mandela was a rock for the ANC and a strong person. She was viewed differently later, but I still stand by the decision to keep the holding hands in the picture.'

Mandela went on to become President of South Africa in 1994 and remained in the post until his retirement in 1999. Afterwards, he turned his energies towards working for human rights organisations and charities. He retired from public life in 2004, but remains one of the world's most acclaimed and respected public figures.

English went on to cover many other major news events. He is now semi-retired, but is involved in shooting still images of musicians and directing music videos.

The experience of photographing Mandela's release is still a vivid memory and the photograph he took that day remains special to him. ‘When I look at it now, it reminds me what an honour and privilege it was to record that great moment,' he says.

‘I knew I had borne witness to an iconic event in history which gave millions of people, not just South Africans, hope for the future. I still really love that picture and the unity of what it represents.'

Books and Websites

Books: Nelson Mandela's autobiography is Long Walk to Freedom (1995), published in paperback by Abacus. For a more general overview, see South Africa: The Rise and Fall of Apartheid by Nancy L Clark and William H Worger.

Websites: News footage from the day of Mandela's release can be seen on www.youtube.com. Greg English has no personal website, but some more of his photojournalism can be seen on www.hungryeyeimages.com.

Events of 1990

  • 7 February: In the Soviet Union, the ruling Communist Party votes to end its monopoly on power. The following month, Mikhail Gorbachev is elected President
  • 1 April: The Community Charge, popularly known as the Poll Tax, is introduced in England and Wales. There are numerous protests and many people refuse to pay
  • 18 May: Following the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, East and West Germany sign a treaty agreeing on social, economic and monetary union
  • 24 June: Kathleen Young and Irene Templeton become the first women in the UK to be ordained as Anglican priests 
  • 12 November: British computer scientist Tim Berners-Lee publishes a revised version of his earlier proposal for the World Wide Web
  • 29 November: The UN Security Council passes a resolution that authorises military intervention in Iraq unless it removes its forces from Kuwait and frees all foreign hostages
  • 1 December: During the Channel Tunnel construction, workers from the UK and France break through to form a continuous tunnel linking the two countries