I met Juhan Kuus five days before he died.
He was a thin, wiry man with a thick South African accent, regarded by many as one of the greatest news photographers in the world.
He fearlessly documented South Africa’s brutal civil war at a time when journalists could be jailed – or worse – for trying to tell a story.
And he knew what the harder side of life was like. Despite shooting iconic images like the one you’ll find below, Kuus was living in a homeless shelter by the time I met him in a magazine office in Cape Town.
It was an ordinary Tuesday. I had seen his photos before I met him but hadn’t worked up the courage to call him. As an aspiring photojournalist, I was incredibly intimidated by him.
But as I leafed through paperwork and Kuus flicked through pictures with my editor, I could see he was quirky, not scary. I was desperate to pick his brain.
And pick it I did. After I boiled his tea (rooibos, two teaspoons of sugar, no milk) and he finished up with my editor, the two of us sat in a rectangular room adorned with posters and artwork and talked for two hours.
Some of his stories were adventurous and thrilling. He was also passionate: several times during our conversation, he went on tangents or rants.
Other stories were scary or sad. He told me about fatally shooting one person and wounding multiple others during a scuffle in the townships outside Cape Town. He was there taking photos when things turned for the worse.
Importantly, he elaborated on the personal cost of documenting the fringe where violence and cruelty live with a camera.
When he had to leave, I wanted to talk more. As we walked down the stairs together and out of the door onto Strand Street — him to find a cigarette, me to fetch some lunch — we exchanged email addresses and promised to get together soon so we could chat. He hurried down the winding road and I took a sharp right.
And then he was gone.
I found out about his death on a post-it note a few days later. It was a correction stuck to the rough copy of the magazine, the one approved by high editorial staff before the content goes to print.
“***the late Juhan Kuus”, the correction read.
We’d been running an announcement that he’d won another photo award on behalf of the publication.
I felt so irrationally sad, considering the length of time that I’d known the man. But in an age where everyone has a camera, everyone is a photographer, I knew that the world had someone incredible stolen from them.
It is so easy to take a photograph today. With an iPhone, with a point and shoot, with a laptop. And once that photo is taken, it’s easier than ever to alter it, to crop parts out, to sharpen it or use contrast. Whatever makes your selfie look the best.
Juhan touched on this concept of ethics and the truth behind a photograph on the Facebook page for South African street photography, writing:
“Quite frankly, many a time I do not know what I am looking at. Personal computers and Adobe Photoshop has changed and has broken all the rules of what is real, what is not and what is trust.”
Juhan makes important points, and we should listen to them because he was a true documentarian, a person who understood the importance in telling a story the best way he knew how. He took the time to leave the shelter every day to take photos, to pursue not just a passion, but a duty.
I’ll never be certain, but I suspect I am the last person Juhan ever met for the first time. I only spent two short hours with him, but I have thought of him more times than I expected to in the months since he passed.
And I can’t speak for him. I can only tell you what I took away from our conversation, and then the subsequent hours I spent researching his life and his work, and it’s this:
Millennials should think about photography more critically than we do. It seems like it’s just a filter, just an Instagram post, just a snapchat, just a mobile upload. But no matter how oblivious we choose to be to what we’re doing, we’re capturing lives and moments. That means we’re capturing history, too. And we all know that life is so bitter and sweet and short and unexpected. Why alter it to the degree that we do?
Juhan was 62 years old when he died in Cape Town.