The man behind a searing image that helped shine an international spotlight on apartheid-era violence more than 30 years ago is being recognized in South Africa Wednesday.

South African President Jacob Zuma will pay tribute to former photojournalist Sam Nzima and bestow on him the Order of Ikhamanga, which celebrates citizens who excel in the arts, culture, journalism or sport.

Nzima, 75, is best known for his June 16, 1976 image of Hector Pieterson, a 13-year-old who was one of the first to die from police gunfire during the Soweto Uprising.

Working as a photojournalist for daily newspaper The World, Nzima was assigned to cover what he thought would be a peaceful demonstration by black students protesting an order that Afrikaans be an official language taught in non-white schools. An officer ordered the students to disperse and, when they began singing instead, the police began firing on the students.

Pronounced dead

Nzima witnessed a boy shot and picked up by another youth, who began to run away with the boy in his arms. 

The photographer was able to snap six images of the scene before he and another newspaper colleague rushed the injured child to a clinic. There, the young Pieterson was pronounced dead. Hundreds of black students were killed in ensuing incidents across the nation.

Nzima had removed the film with the images of Pieterson and hid the roll — wisely because when he later encountered police, the officers forced him to expose the film inside his camera.

"A lot of people ask me, why didn't I help Hector Pieterson?...It was not my duty. A journalist must do his job. My job is to take pictures," Nzima said in an interview on Wednesday. "This picture was an eye-opener for the whole world."

Facing police harassment and fearing for his life after the attention-grabbing images were published worldwide, Nzima decided to end his career as a photojournalist. He left Johannesburg for a small eastern town.

A symbol of the Soweto uprising

Over the years, his image has been included in exhibitions in the U.S. and across Europe. He was also invited to speak to students at a German school named for the slain Pieterson, who became a symbol of the Soweto Uprising.

"It has been 35 years now, but when I look at the picture, I still remember everything that happened on that day," he said.

Nzima is being recognized alongside others receiving national honours on Wednesday, dubbed Freedom Day to mark the anniversary of the first democratic elections held in South Africa.

With files from The Associated Press