If a photographer cares about the people before the lens and is compassionate, much is given. It is the photographer, not the camera that is the instrument.”
Zurich, Switzerland. 1999-2009. Position: Hausfrau
I lost myself in the average day. In a world that presented no apparent threat, I was dysfunctional. Mind numbing tasks caused me to forget myself, leave body parts strewn throughout the house. Chores then became an act of survival, my female form eventually taking shape as the day progressed. Once I found my legs, I managed to walk throughout the house collecting things. Toys introduced an ear; girl’s pants, a nose; newspapers unveiled a breast. Just in time for my husband, as he walked through the door at the end of the day, I’d found my fingernails, eyelashes and lips. I’d come to him, slightly rising to my toes and brush my lips with his – careful not to let them loosen and fall to the dirty floor. I had clumsily made order of things but the puzzle was never right. Pieces were always, always missing.
SUV’s pulled up to the school; kids piled out and hours later they all pile in again. What’s happened in between? What’s happened in between the drop off and pick up, while my husband walked through a parallel universe, gone to work by the time I had awakened. I’d moved to Switzerland but inhabited yet another foreign territory, that of a hausfrau and of motherhood and I was unsure of my footing. I recall, quite early on, wondering if this would be the day someone asks me where I am from. If so, I’d explain that I’m from Canada. And when the kind mother replied saying how beautiful it is there, I’d agree. From one beautiful country to another I’d travelled, or so it seemed… if you don’t count the journey in between.
Perhaps she’ll ask about my husband. Wonder if he’s Canadian or Swiss. But I’ll be getting carried away, letting my imagination run wild at this point. The Swiss don’t pry – aren’t prone to small talk either. But I’ll forge ahead, imagination usurping culture. I’d tell the woman that I met him in South Africa. Surely here, the conversation will fall silent and I’ll ache for continuity. Is it so hard, I’ll wonder, to say such simple words? If the ever so kind mother would just find it in her heart to say, ”Oh, isn’t that interesting,” my feet would fill the shoes around them, trust the ground beneath the soles and I would, just like that, be standing right there in the world again.
What happens in between? In between the story I hold inside and me asking you what bank it is that your husband works for. Inhaling deeply, I feel like my 8 year – old rushing in the door at the end of the day head filled with a tangle of thoughts. With distracted mind, I capture her words as they fly in the air; hang them on a line like laundry that needs to dry and be sorted then put in its proper place. But I can’t expect that from a stranger – such hard work for my words. I’ll choose the easy way out – blame language or culture for our awkward moment and say only what’s necessary. With cold toes and starting to shiver, I will have said good-bye to my daughter outside the school, and as I catch another mother’s eye, I’ll smile. Maybe she’ll be the one who surprises; opens a porthole for this incongruent being; pulling me ever so gently through. Yes, she’ll be the one to ask: “What is it you did in such a place?” Allowing for that space where the language of my past can be interpreted. Encouraged, the breathless child will speak, relying ever so much on her to understand what the hell I’m talking about. I was a photographer for a year on a newspaper during the country’s first democratic elections.
“Did you see anything awful?”
Socks fly out of my mouth.
“It’s a pretty dangerous place isn’t it?”
Underwear and bras catapult from my teeth.
“Were you at all frightened?”
Shirts and blouses swirl in their glory above my head; a tornado of laundry threatening to lift me off the ground.
The school bell will ring with each article stopping mid-flight; hanging suspended in the crisp fall air. She’ll walk away, a child tugging at her sleeve and all will come tumbling down. I’ll gather it up, the costume that covers my life, grateful, for a time, that they keep me safe and warm.
I worked on a black independent newspaper in Johannesburg called New Nation. Still completing my university degree, I would read and write about the restructuring of the military at night; awaken to run alongside both soldiers and marchers, cameras dangling around my neck, as the country lurched toward democracy. The camera was a passport into places I normally wouldn’t be able to go. Initiating personal contact wasn’t a personal strong point yet I love to engage people always driven by a desire to learn. I didn’t realize until now, some 17 years later, how it completed me. The camera was a limb that had been missing since a very young age — a crutch perhaps but it connected me to people living completely different lives in an intimate way. Something I’ve never before shared is that I was more at home on the streets of Johannesburg and in those war ravaged townships than I was anywhere else in the world. The idea of this embarrasses me somewhat; makes me think there must be something wrong with someone whose insides felt like they matched a place so messed up. Somehow, and I think this says everything about what photojournalism can be in the world – I felt permission to be bold.
After the gig in South Africa, I was consumed by thoughts of the effectiveness of photojournalism; how meaningful a connection do we make with people through the taking of a photograph? What change can happen because of a single image? What affect emotionally does it have on both the photographer and the viewer. The photojournalist Susan Meiselas has said, “We have the potential to expand a circle of knowledge, we are linked globally and we have to know about each other. Photography gives us that opportunity. “Beyond the photos I’d taken, I felt there was a story to tell. I also couldn’t ignore the people who were constantly saying, “You should write a book!”
Following the publication of Black Taxi: Shooting South Africa in 1996 the thread connecting me to photography unraveled and eventually lost its grip. I moved to Switzerland where my husband was from; had children and became a hausfrau. I was more a writer than a photographer, more a mother than a writer. I felt I’d done a lot and it was time to settle down. Looking back I wonder how I allowed something that was so important to me to become compromised. I stepped completely into motherhood and marriage yet images from the past literally kept floating to the surface around me. I could blame it on my lousy filing skills because layered amidst shots of my children walking in the Wald on my desk were those of women’s marches on the streets of Johannesburg; street kids with glue tucked up their sleeves and civilians piled deep under a military vehicle cowering from sniper fire. The dishevelment must have been indicative of how I’d dealt with my life – neither filed away completely nor hung on a wall – just left as a constant reminder to deal with it.
A coal burning fire during a solitary moment, would, once in a while bring reminders. Smoke, seeping into my senses would develop in my mind, images of black and white: Soweto at dusk and along with it comes the smell of Sophie’s coal stove as workers return on the trains from the city. The haze, nestling in cranial crevices, instigates the rhythm of township jazz; awakening the ringing in my ears from bullets that have flown too close. It floats over a still body the moment that life is lost. I exhaled it all into motherhood, knowing fully that the world can be changed through our children, through the values we teach them. I’d gone from right-wing gatherings to pro-democracy rallies; I worked the grounds where colleagues had been shot down; photographed a man seconds before he was executed, placed my camera aside for a time to dance as a man who spent twenty-seven years in prison become president of his country. I had the memories, I even wrote the book, yet felt little connection to that time in my life and the one I was living. Where I’d been, what I’d experienced mattered. More than this, those living in ridiculously trying circumstances mattered. I just couldn’t articulate such thoughts. Not well.
The genesis of this book lay in the desire to remember the person I was before my marriage shattered around me. There is a simple explanation and one not so… I love photography, I loved when I was a photographer and there was no other time in my life I felt so enlivened – so myself. However, I can’t say I would have gravitated to the themes of this book had I not been moving through the destruction of a divorce. Somehow, along the way, I forgot that I could choose to surround myself with people, ideas and conversations that inspired me − more importantly that supported the person I was at heart. This book is me, choosing to do so and I hope in the process becoming a better person, a better mother and (sorry, I just don’t know a better way to put this) to just not let the s**t stick to me. Anger and fear, have a way of turning us into people we’re not. These women I’m about to meet and those they photograph I believe are honouring their core beliefs and that’s a beautiful thing.