Nelson Mandela, the revered statesman who emerged from prison after 27 years to lead South Africa out of decades of apartheid, passed away on December 5, 2013. Few men in the history of mankind have had more impact on a nation and inspired the world like the former president.
Shortly before he retreated from public life in 2011, Mandela participated in photographer Adrian Steirn’s 21 Icons project — a photographic and short-film series profiling the men and women who shaped modern South Africa.
“We were lucky enough to have incredible access to Nelson Mandela,” Adrian says. “He was shown the concept of the project about three years ago, and he really liked what he saw. He saw the photographs, a lot of these people were his friends. And it was something that, I think, he really wanted to be involved in.”
Adrian, one of Africa’s pre-eminent photographers and filmmakers, sat down with Madiba (as he’s affectionately called by South Africans) at his boyhood home in the nation’s Eastern Cape Province. His admiration for Mandela and what the statesman had achieved in uniting the people of South Africa post-democracy, inspired Adrian to create 21 Icons.
The photo shoot would become one of the last portrait-sittings with the former leader.
“We were very nervous,” Adrian recalls. “We had the lights set up, Madiba came down and he was so good natured, so good humored. He made the crew feel at ease, and I think that any nerves that we felt were gone. He could see that we were very emotional, and he helped us through the shoot, and it’s something obviously that I’ll be eternally grateful for.”
The concept of the portrait depicts Nelson Mandela’s face reflected in a mirror.
“The theme ‘reflection’ was all about looking at South Africa now, reflecting on where it had come from and the part that Nelson Mandela had played in that process,” Adrian explains.
Adrian described the photo shoot as both lighthearted and deeply emotional. One moment Adrian never forgot is when he showed Mandela several portraits from the project on his iPad. One in particular of F.W. de Klerk struck a cord with the former president.
“When Madiba saw de Klerk — who was the last apartheid president and released Nelson Mandela — he stopped and choked up,” Adrian remembers. “It was very emotional because Nelson Mandela is an old man, he doesn’t talk much, he conserves his energy… and for him to see a photo, for that to spark a memory and talk to the entire room — that’s really what kicked off the emotion for us.”
“It’s one thing to be sitting there with Nelson Mandela, talking and having a portrait-sitting with him,” Adrian adds. “It’s every photographer’s dream… but for him to address us in that deeply personable way and to give us insight into what he was going through during his periods in jail — it was unforgettable. I mean, I did look up at one point, and the entire crew was just crying… it was very emotional for us.”
When asked about Nelson Mandela’s legacy — the man who inspired his series — Adrian’s eyes lit up with emotion.
“I think the first thing he [Nelson Mandela] will tell you is that he’s a human being just like every single one of us, but what he’s come to symbolize for us is the best of humanity,” Adrian says. “He symbolizes forgiveness, he symbolizes a country’s future, he symbolizes all that is good. I feel that Madiba wants us to understand that there’s goodness in all of us. He’s the first thing to tell you: He’s human, he’s made mistakes. But, I think the one thing that he symbolizes for all of us is the goodness in humanity.”
Visit Adrian’s photostream and the 21 Icons project to see more of his photography. Also, check out the Nelson Mandela Tribute gallery, featuring photos of sculptures and other dedications in memory of Mandela.
**Update – A photographic portrait of the late Nelson Mandela has been bought by a private art collector in New York for $200,000, the highest price ever paid for a local portrait on Dec. 3.
The money will be donated to the Nelson Mandela Children’s Hospital, currently under construction in Johannesburg, and to the World Wildlife Fund. The construction of a children’s hospital has been a long-held dream of Mandela’s, and before he fell ill, he had campaigned for funds for its construction. The state-of-the-art hospital is scheduled to open late in 2014 and will be a 200-bed facility providing world-class pediatric care.