About Postcards from the Road

 Being a historian and criminologist as well as a journalist, my photography grew up in the gritty social realism of a country at war with itself. The images were peripheral to my writing, taken with no skill, a good deal of bravado and always of people.

 I staggered out of the 1980s near burned out into a new country in the making. In truth, I’d had it with people, their politics and the acrid smoke of near revolution. In a way, Mandela’s calm presence at the helm gave me permission to step away into a job that left my lefty friends aghast with its political irrelevance – a travel photojournalist at Getaway magazine. Some comments hovered in the vicinity of ‘traitor’.

 My first assignment, clutching a Nikon containing inordinately expensive Fuji Velvia film, showed me I really knew nothing about photography. The editor looked up rather sadly from the lightbox displaying my attempts and said: ‘I suggest you use a tripod. Oh, and think a bit about depth of field. And framing. Ever heard of visual noise?’

 Sheer embarrassment set me on a course of technical exploration into the mysteries of f-stop, ASA and other arcane settings. These I practiced against the vast, conceptual canvas of Africa into which I was sent almost every month for more than 10 years. Privilege is a word that hardly covers the extraordinary opportunity.

 I knew nothing of art – I still don’t, really. What I was discovering – being permitted to discover, almost surreptitiously – was how beautiful Africa was. I escaped into landscapes, then creatures and back to people. Aware, always, that it bordered on cliché, I was working with the softness of pre-dawn light, the iridescence of the landscape in the setting sun, the flash of life in an eye, the natural performance of children and the sheer photogenic magnificence of living creatures. I have a strong sense that Africa is changing fast, losing wilderness, losing culture, gaining Western homogeneity, passing. I have the same feeling about the memories of old people and have hundreds of hours of their recorded stories. These things fill the books I write as a hedge against their extinction.

 Almost all my photographs are visual narratives designed to work with words. I write with imagery and photograph with syntax and description. But I am aware of the danger. Photography has so often been used as a medium to depict harsh social reality that it’s almost embarrassing to see it in the context of beauty. And yet it was through the camera that I emerged from the human vortex of social struggle into the magnificence of form and the natural world.  For me beauty is the universal seen.

 Photography is hard work, but it should not appear to be. It should suggest that beauty and form are commonplace. Edward Weston wrote that he started to photograph as a result of his ‘amazement at subject matter.’ These photographs and others , which you can see at an exhibition at the David Krut Projects Gallery in Montebello, Cape Town from October 13, are because I was there, I saw and was amazed.

 

Battle zone on the road to Sumbe, Angola

It says: ‘UNITA. We want. Because.’ Was there more below? I didn’t check, didn’t even see the writing on the front wall, fascinated by the bullet holes. Was the writer on the far wall the defender and the near wall the victor? The area was decimated by slavers for hundreds of years, then by Portuguese colonial masters. What they wanted was freedom and there was no need to qualify ‘because’.

 

T-shirt house, Lucira, Angola

I asked why their home was so pretty. They said it was because the shirts were all different colours. ‘They were donated to keep us warm. But Angola is hot and we need shade more than warmth,’ a woman said as she cut up another T-shirt.

 

Beside the orange tree: Cape Town

I’d never realised that the circles of light passing between leaves were the shape of the sun. A partial eclipse gave me moons and reminded me we were in a solar system of flying balls.

 

Prayer flags in the Kashmir Himalayas

One of his students asked Buddha, ‘Are you the messiah?’
‘No’, answered Buddha.
‘Then are you a healer?’
‘No’, Buddha replied.
‘Then are you a teacher?’ the student persisted.
‘No, I am not a teacher.’
‘Then what are you?’ asked the student, exasperated.
‘I am awake’, Buddha replied.

Around the corner from Franz Kafka’s house, Prague, Czech Republic

‘Alas,’ said the mouse, ‘the whole world is growing smaller every day. At the beginning it was so big that I was afraid, I kept running and running and I was glad when I saw walls far away to the right and left. But these long walls have narrowed so quickly that I am in the last chamber already and there in the corner stands the trap that I must run into.’
‘You only need to change your direction,’ said the cat, and ate it up.’
— Franz Kafka

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