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ONE PHOTO – ONE STORY

29.06.2020

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Equipped with a Leica, the young photo reporter was once again in the right place at the right time. “Most of the time, I was just incredibly lucky,” is Lebeck’s often-quoted laconic comment. His legendary picture of the sword thief was taken on June 29, 1960, as Belgian Congo was celebrating its independence in Léopoldsville – now renamed Kinshasa. “In 1960 Africa was a riddle, a mystery. Within twelve months, France, Britain and Belgium had granted independence to 17 colonies south of the Sahara. For a young journalist like myself, this suddenly so self-confident continent offered an ideal opportunity for reportage,” the photographer remembers.

The open limousine carrying the Belgian monarch, King Baudouin, dressed in a snow-white uniform, next to the newly appointed Congolese President, Joseph Kasavubu, had already passed by Lebeck when a man suddenly pushed his way between the car and the escort, and snatched the King’s ceremonial sword – the symbol of colonial power. With quick reflexes, Lebeck framed the man charging towards him and took the shot; it was only after the picture had been developed, that he realised that he had captured a “decisive moment”. Without his picture, the world would probably never have known about the incident – it was the image of the sword theft itself that turned the image into a symbol for the end of the era of colonialism.

Lebeck was one of the leading photo reporters of his times. The sword thief was to become – in Lebeck’s own words – his photographic calling card, as well as his most important image ever. (Ulrich Rüter)

Lebeck was featured under Leica Classics in LFI magazine issue 6/2014. The exhibition Robert Lebeck: Portraits von Menschen und Ländern (Portraits of Peope and Countries) continues on display in Monschau up until September 13.

Image © Robert Lebeck
© Volker Hinz

Robert Lebeck

Robert Lebeck was born in Berlin of June 21, 1929. After serving in the war and being taken prisoner, studying and spending time in the USA, he began working as a free-lance photo reporter in the fifties. From 1955 to 1960 he worked for Revue, then moved to Hamburg in 1960 where he worked initially for Kristall. From 1966 to 1995 be was employed full-time as a photo journalist for Stern.
Lebeck has had numerous exhibition and received many awards, including the German Photography Association’s Dr. Erich Salomon Prize in 1991, and the Henri Nannen Award for his life’s work in 2007. The photographer passed away in Berlin on June 14, 2014.

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