Incredible Journey

Photo by Tracy Doyle


“He was an ordinary man who made extraordinary decisions under extraordinary circumstances.”

Verbally summarizing Nelson Mandela’s legacy comes easily for documentary photographer Matthew Willman. But earning the privilege of being commissioned by The Nelson Mandela Foundation to chronicle the last 10 years of the South African president’s life in pictures? That proved to be as professionally and personally challenging as it was rewarding.

Now, visitors to the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center can glean meaningful glimpses of the locations and events that paved South Africa’s ragged road to racial equality and fueled Mandela’s personal fight for freedom via Willman’s inspiring photographs displayed throughout the exhibit, “MANDELA: THE JOURNEY TO UBUNTU.”

The exhibit – its world premiere held at the Freedom Center in 2017 – reopened Sept. 1 and will run through Jan. 1, 2019. Sponsors are Thomas R. Schiff; Procter & Gamble; John and Francie Pepper; Macy’s; and The John A. Schroth Family Charitable Trust, PNC Bank, Trustee.

  “MANDELA: THE JOURNEY TO UBUNTU” also features artifacts from Mandela’s life, on loan from The Nelson Mandela Foundation. The Freedom Center, honored to offer the exhibit as part of the Foundation’s Mandela 100 commemorating what would have been the revered political leader’s 100th birthday this past July, hopes Willman’s work will inspire visitors to “Be the Legacy.”

“We want people to look at the exhibit as a learning experience, an aesthetic experience, and we want to increase people’s knowledge about Mandela and his relevance in the world today,” Willman says. “We hope this exhibit shows an ordinary man who rose up against tyrannical leadership and overcame apartheid. Mother Teresa once said that we’re not called to be successful, we’re called to be faithful, and Mandela was faithful to that task. And that task was to liberate his people, so much so that he ultimately gave his life for it. As he said in his famous speech in 1964, ‘It is not an ideal I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.’”

Willman, who grew up in Durban, South Africa, spent 18 months working on Robben Island near Cape Town, shooting photographs while revisiting the area that was once the site of the maximum-security prison where Mandela and 3,000 other anti-apartheid political prisoners were held for many years. The Freedom Center’s exhibit includes an exact replica of the 7-by-9-foot cell where Mandela was brutally jailed for 18 years.

Mandela’s incredible journey was defined by his courage and fortitude in the fight against apartheid, yes, but it was also a testament to the necessity for forgiving one’s enemies. Willman’s photos creatively and concisely capture Mandela’s continuous personal sacrifice and struggle to end apartheid, as well as his belief in the need for reconciliation with one’s opponents.

“Throughout his journey, Mandela wanted to show people not only the necessity for forgiving their enemies, but the way to forgive them,” Willman notes. “He once took a rock from the bottom of Lang Quarry where he toiled away daily [while imprisoned], and he held up the rock one day and  he said to thousands of former political prisoners,  ‘I hold this rock in symbolism of my forgiveness because I know if I do not forgive as an individual, my enemy that kept me in prison for 27 years and murdered my people, they will have me in bondage the rest of my life.’ And he placed that rock on the ground and invited all the other political prisoners to drop their rocks.” That historic pile of rocks is now known as the Stones of Remembrance.

The “MANDELA: THE JOURNEY TO UBUNTU” exhibit not only includes the Stones of Remembrance, exhibit-goers are encouraged to pick up a small rock from a nearby box, carry it with them throughout the exhibit, and then drop the rock back in the box as they walk away, symbolizing an act of forgiveness toward others in their own lives.

How does Willman envision “MANDELA: THE JOURNEY TO UBUNTU” influencing the common man or woman to follow in the hallowed footsteps of Mandela, who was at once a world-revered, anti-apartheid revolutionary, inspiring moral and political leader, and dedicated humanitarian and philanthropist? According to Willman, living Mandela’s legacy simply means people being accountable to each other in their lives.

The word “ubuntu,” Willman explains, is translated to mean, “I am because we are,” indicating a philosophical belief in a universal bond or sharing that connects all of humanity. In other words, our identity is found through each other.

“I sat with Mandela one morning about a year before he died, and I said, ‘Khulu [a shortened word for ‘grandfather’ in Xhosa, one of the official languages in South Africa], you are the great Nelson Mandela. There’s nothing more you need to do. You’ve done everything – you’ve liberated your people, you’ve fought the fight against HIV and AIDS. You can go well, my friend.’ Then I said to Madiba [the name of the Thembu clan to which he belonged, and a popular moniker reflecting respect for South Africa’s first black president], ‘What can I do? I’m just a white boy from Durban. What can I do to make a difference?’ He looks at me and he says, ‘Yeah, I know. If you want to be relevant, you must serve.’ I’ve written that on my heart.

“Serve. That’s how we live out not only Mandela’s legacy, but how we live lives that have value, lives that have meaning, lives that have relevance,” Willman says. “Serve your community. Serve your place of worship. Serve your school. Serve your family.”

Willman had dreamed of meeting Mandela since he was 15 years old. He set out with high hopes of merely shaking Mandela’s hand, perhaps having a quick picture taken with him. Later, he aspired to becoming Mandela’s personal photographer. He was relentless. Nine and a half years and 72 letters to the Nelson Mandela Foundation later, his original dream was finally realized.

“And within the space of half an hour, it was over,” Willman recalls. “I shook his hand, I got a photograph of me and him together, he signed my copy of [his autobiography], ‘Long Walk to Freedom,’ and that was it.  And then I fell apart. I thought, ‘What am I going to do with my life now?’”

About a week later, the morning after finishing a late shift as a waiter at a local fish restaurant, Willman, who was still in bed, got a call from Vern Harris, Mandela’s archivist.

“Mr. Willman are you sitting down?” Harris inquired.

“So, I sat down, in my boxers, smelling of fish, and – I’ll never forget it – he said, ‘Mr. Willman, Mr. Mandela has allowed you to photograph him.’ I said, ‘Thank you, sir.’” And, rather in shock, promptly hung up the phone. Harris immediately called Willman back to set up a test photo shoot for the following Thursday.

Out of the 200 or so photographers a month vying to become Mandela’s personal photographer at that time, how was it that he chose Willman?

“I think it’s because I had a vision for what I wanted to do. It was never about me, per se. It was always about my vision for looking after Mandela’s legacy,” Willman says.

The 60 to 80 photos and the accompanying artifacts from The Mandela Foundation that make up “MANDELA: The JOURNEY TO UBUNTU” do not attempt to tell Madiba’s entire life story. Instead, the exhibit focuses on eight key periods of Madiba’s life from his humble, rural beginnings to a life dedicated to political resistance.

“He was human. He got in bad moods. But he never disrespected anybody,” Willman says. “One thing I will say about Mandela is that the man you saw in public, on TV, or heard on the radio, was the same man in private. That says great things about a person’s character. He was exactly the same. It is a privilege to share his story.”


The National Underground Railroad Freedom Center is located at 50 East Freedom Way, Cincinnati, OH 45202. For more information, visit