Born in Lancashire in 1934 Ian Berry moved to South Africa in 1952. Roger Madden, a South African photographer who had worked as an assistant to Ansel Adams, vouched for him as an immigrant and taught him the technical basics of photography while employing him as an assistant. Berry worked for Madden for a year, becoming an enthusiastic amateur himself. From there he proceeded to work at a photographic studio, driving around the country photographing small-town communities. During this period he met Jurgen Schadeberg, another European immigrant and photographer. A newspaper employed Schadeberg and he and Berry spent their free time photographing weddings.
Schadeberg was employed by Drum magazine and was offered a position as photographer at the new African Sunday newspaper eGoli. He turned down the offer, but recommended Berry. EGoli closed down only ten months after Berry's employment and he moved on to a new position at the Benoni City Times. Soon he also left this position to open his own studio, but became bored with the restrictions of studio portraiture. Berry decided to make his living as a freelancer, travelling around Africa. He contacted Camera Press in London, who displayed interest in him, sold the studio and returned to the UK for a brief time before starting his travels.
Due to financial constraints Berry was forced to return to South Africa and took a position with the Rand Daily Mail. Here, under editor Gander, he developed his knowledge and understanding of South African politics and covered the Treason Trial for the newspaper. Eighteen months after starting at the Rand Daily Mail Berry heard the Tom Hopkinson, the previous editor of the British magazine Picture Post, was coming to South Africa to take over as editor for Drum magazine. He contacted Hopkinson and secured a position at the magazine through Schadeberg, who was employed as picture editor.
During the next few months Berry was exposed to a great deal of political violence, starting with the Sharpeville massacre. When Hopkinson decided to leave the magazine Berry decided to go too with the hopes of joining the photographic cooperative, Magnum. As soon as he was independent he started sending images to Magnum's Paris office.
Ian Berry left South Africa in 1961 and in 1962 he relocated to Paris where he became an associate member of Magnum. On his return to England, five years later, he became a full member.