I shot this in 2011, as part of a series of portraits of extraordinary South Africans, from Desmond Tutu to FW de Klerk.
The project – 21 Icons – was inspired by Mandela, but he didn’t agree to take part until after it was under way. I remember the day I got the phone call.
I was driving home from Table Mountain in Cape Town, having just taken the dogs for a run.
Mandela had seen the portraits of De Klerk and Tutu and decided he would like to be photographed too.
Winnie Mandela, his former wife, got in touch on his behalf. At first, I thought it was a friend playing a joke. It was pretty surreal.
Mandela had not been photographed for many years. I started documenting what would turn out to be his last years, shooting family life and birthdays.
I had incredible access. For the final portrait, to be included in 21 Icons, I knew exactly how to shoot him. I had wanted to use a mirror in this way since I’d first dreamed up the project in my kitchen in 2009.
He was in his 90s, though, and was fragile. We waited for 10 days, in his house in the Eastern Cape, until he was well enough to sit for the shoot.
He wasn’t ill so much as frail. He was so weak the mirror had to be supported.
I was very nervous. It wasn’t a complicated image, but the set-up was complex. Mandela made jokes with the team and with me.
He could make everyone in a room feel comfortable – that was his gift.
He could always make people smile, make you feel like you were the special one, and he was just a simple, lovely old man.
But the reality was, of course, that he was the father of a nation, a Nobel peace prize winner, and a revolutionary.
This portrait ended up being the last ever taken of Mandela.
It was printed in 60,000 newspapers around the world, and shared with almost a billion people.
It broke the record for a photograph sold in South Africa, with the money going to charity. And the 21 Icons project soared on the back of it.
I remember watching him with his great-grandson at a birthday party, this little chubby kid sitting on his lap pulling cake out of Mandela’s mouth.
He was 95 and turning down phone calls from Tony Blair, and all sorts of other people, completely focused on this little four-year-old kid.
There’s no other country in the world where people would let you into their home in the way he did.
Can you imagine trying to do this in the US or the UK? But Mandela was a self-effacing man: he said he stood on the shoulders of giants.
“Together,” he would add, “we are better.” I was born in Australia and the thing about the first world is we’re not huge on community.
But in the last 12 years of living in Africa, the most meaningful word I have learned is “community”.
Without community, we have nothing. You can hashtag whatever you like, but an online hashtag is not a real community.
A real community comes together and creates value, creates symbiosis, settles disputes.
Mandela didn’t have an Instagram or a Facebook account. And he changed the world.
Adrian Steirn is the founder of news platform Beautiful News.
Adrian Steirn’s CV
Born: Sydney, Australia, 1979.
Training: No formal training as a photographer. Studied law.
Influences: ‘Yousuf Karsh has been a huge influence as a photographer; Muhammad Ali and David Attenborough have inspired me too.’
High point: ‘My work with Mandela, the 21 Icons project and creating Beautiful News.’
Low point: ‘There was a point my career when I was shooting photos for the wrong reasons.
I caught myself, fortunately, but it was a period when everything that was beautiful and pure about photography for me was placed in jeopardy.’
Top tip: ‘Don’t overthink it. The more the camera can simply be a tool for your own self-expression the better.’