About the Project

The Photographer Who Woke Up from the Dead: Mohlouoa T. Ramakatane
Project Grant

The archive of photographer Mohlouoa T. Ramakatane, the renowned portraitist of Lesotho, sheds light on Lesotho’s history and cultural memory as distinct and separate from those of South Africa. This project digitized 2981 photographs and negatives from Ramakatane’s 50+ year career. The images include portraits from his studio as well as photographs from across the country, and of the Lesotho Royal Family. The collection also contains evidence of his activist work in Lesotho and South Africa, including materials from Sharpeville, South Africa.

Project Lead

Paul Weinberg, Curator of the Photography Legacy Project

Host Institution

Photography Legacy Project

More Information

Collection Description

Mohlouoa T. Ramakatane (b. 1937) has been well regarded as the portraitist of Lesotho. For many decades, many people have come through his photography studio to have their portraits taken; he was even the official portraitist for the royal family. One of the most remarkable experiences of Ramakatane’s career and life was after his time photographing Sharpeville. While travelling through the town, the photographer was shot and left for dead. By the time his family came to identify him at the mortuary, Ramakatane suddenly became conscious. After an eventful career, Ramakatane has expressed his support to digitally preserve his work with this project.

The Ramakatane archive provides a unique perspective of Lesotho’s social history and visual culture from a period spanning nearly 55 years. His photographic work is an exemplary portfolio of “vernacular photography.” The collection contains a hefty total of approximately 10,000 negatives, prints, article fragments, magazines, calendars, and some of Ramakatane’s personal papers. These materials serve as vital resources for Lesotho’s articulation of identity, sense of history, and memory.

Ramakatane’s photographic archive reflects the evolving identity of a nation. A particular aspect highlighted in the collection is Lesotho’s identity tied to South Africa. For instance, the history of Lesotho and its socio-economic operations are largely linked to South Africa. For most of the twentieth century, Lesotho workers migrated to South Africa to work in the mines. Since then, it was the main source of income for Lesotho. Today, approximately half of Lesotho’s working population work as migrant workers in South Africa.

Due to Lesotho’s unique relationship with South Africa, much of its history is often underrepresented. The Ramakatane archive emphasizes Lesotho’s history and cultural memory as distinct and separate from those of South Africa. In addition to being a resource for documenting key moments in Lesotho’s history, this collection will be helpful in several scholarly disciplines, particularly African history at large, historians of photography, and current work in vernacular photography.

More About Ramakatane

Provided by the Photography Legacy Project

Mr. Ramakatane as a young high school student soon learnt that taking pictures was a lucrative business. He still has the brownie camera and his first photograph which he sold for 25 cents. Slowly, slowly he built a up a business. As the oldest, much of the proceeds in this period went to support a family of eight siblings with their education and survival.

In 1958 he came to Soweto in South Africa to complete his schooling. It is here his life took a dramatic turn. He continued working as a freelance photographer and was soon caught in the political and social fast train of South African black life. He was a talented football player and played for the famous Orlando Pirates until he injured his hip. He photographed the Sharpeville massacre with Peter Magubane, hiding in a 44 gallon drum. He recorded the events that changed world opinion about South Africa. He was shot and injured in that dramatic day and left for dead. His family who came to identify him, found him lying on a slab in the mortuary. He had been shot in both legs, and his a bullet grazed his head. He still has a bullet in his leg. When they said his name, he woke up from his concussion! He somehow in all the mayhem managed to retrieve his film and his photographs were sent to the United Nations where they were published. (Sadly these negatives were burnt in the fire two years ago housing his archive.) This incurred the wrath of the South African state and he was a politically marked man thereafter. He spent 4 months in detention and was a Rivonia treason trialist with Nelson Mandela and others. Like the others on trial, he was expecting the death penalty. The defence lawyer at the time, George Bizos when he found out that Ramakatane was a Lesotho citizen, pleaded for his acquittal and facilitated his extradition back to his mother country. Ramakatane was spared a life on Robben Island and picked up his camera again shortly thereafter.

In Lesotho he set up a famous studio in the city centre of the capital, Maseru called City Centre Studios. It is here where thousands of ordinary Lesotho citizens sat for their portraits. His large collection is a vast body of social history which includes, migrant workers, their wives (a common trend during the time when most able bodied men from Lesotho went to the South African mines), couples, babies, and family portraits. In 1965 he also became the official Royal Family photographer, a position he still holds today. The activist in Ramakatane drove him to edit and produce a magazine called Public Eye. An article he wrote questioning what the government is doing to avert poverty of the people of Lesotho led to him being held in maximum prison for two years without before being released. Ramakatane returned to his studio, taking portraits of the people and the royal family, and plying his entrepreunurial skills as well.

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