Start with the Corners

…or reason #1 for starting an app called Culture Dock.

Have you ever been watching a film and you hear one line that feels like it’s being spoken directly to you? Each word hits you, like you’ve tapped the ‘pronunciation’ button on Duolingo, the one with the turtle next to it so you can slow it down and take the opportunity to really understand. I was watching the British ‘rom-com’ Man-Up on Netflix when this quip from a bar stool, between friends, became less a line in a movie and more a manual for life:

You’re an emotional jigsaw, you need to piece yourself back together. Start with the corners and look for the blue bits.

The date was March 19th and I’d just finished my last round of radiation following surgery and chemotherapy for breast cancer. My hair had grown in about half a centimetre and the strength in my body had begun to return but not much else in my life was operating cohesively. We had started development with the Culture Dock app  but with all the recent challenges, I was losing site of why I embarked on such a massive project.

It wasn’t the first time I’d looked for markers, not the first time I’d felt like my body parts were scattered all over the place, needing to be put back together again. But, it was the first time I’d heard an inspirational quote that was, at the same time — so damn functional.

‘I’ve got this’ I thought. The ‘corners’ represent the reasons I created Culture Dock. Once I remember these, it’ll all makes sense. Right?

The first corner is easy. I’m in Johannesburg, South Africa and I’m way out of my comfort zone but for the first time in my life, I’m doing something that I decided to do on my own, that I’m passionate about.

A few weeks, prior, I’d shown my portfolio to the editor of a newspaper. The publication called New Nation was black owned and edited and almost entirely black staffed. With deep roots in the anti-apartheid movement, its editorial team had found their place in the struggle as journalists and photojournalists fighting injustice with pen and camera. I was a skinny little white woman from a ski town in the Canadian Rockies, presenting portraits that I’d taken in the kingdom of Lesotho that my photojournalism instructor would have called ‘smiling peasant shots’.

“These are very nice’ the editor Gabu Tagwana, said to me, “but have you taken any action shots?”

I must have presented as a curious story to him, one he wanted to see play out because despite my feeble answer that “I’ve shot plenty of photos of ski racing in the mountains of my home town”,  I got the job.

I’m covering a rally in an area then known as the Western Transvaal. The right-wing Afrikaner Weerstandsbeweging (AWB) is granting freedom of the city to its leader, the notorious white supremacist leader Eugene Terre’Blanche. Accompanying me is another staff photographer, Andrew Tshabangu. As we photograph the ceremony, Andrew stays close and at one point quietly asks me to ‘not venture too far away’. As he does this, he raises one eye above his camera to tell me, rather shakily, ‘These are the photos I’ll never forget’.

In defiance, not far away, Umkonto we Sizwe (MK), the military wing of the African National Congress, is granting freedom of the township to Joe Modise, the founder of MK. From marching bands and grey uniforms with swastika-like emblems, Andrew and I slide into a stadium full of black South Africans. It isn’t long before he ventures off, my eyes following him as he explores freely with his camera. I stand, feeling exposed on sun- parched grass with bleachers, packed with people, on either side of me. Fists rise in the air and without music, Nkosi Sikelel‘ iAfrika, fills the stadium. As the booming voices belt out the pan African liberation anthem, it resonates in a place deep inside me and I remember what I came to do – take pictures.

I fall into a rhythm, moving with the sounds and personalities of a country stiffened by fear and bolstered by courage. It’s the beginning of the most incredible year of my life. With camera in hand, I feel grounded but also open and curious. I find in this, the most incredible way to exist. We don’t have to be in such extremes to have our sense of curiosity about the world jolted. I’ve since learned I can return to familiar stomping grounds, lift my camera and see things I’d never noticed before.

My first corner of this jigsaw puzzle life isn’t a place or a thing, it’s the memory of a feeling I don’t ever want to lose. It was hard to find, at first because it got lost in the messiness of raising young children in a foreign country and living life as a hausfrau for an unintentionally long period of time while my husband climbed the corporate ladder. That long lost piece snapped into focus in a single moment when he walked out on me saying, ‘I don’t want this, I want to travel, see other cultures.’ Must I mention that we met in South Africa? That I’d written a book about the culture of his home country, Switzerland; that I’d been waiting for the day we could again travel and enjoy seeing more of the world?

Pardon the well-worn cliché but It seems I’m on a streak of turning lemons into lemonade; turning heartbreak into words and words into apps and apps into platforms that help people understand one another. But, I haven’t yet got that far. I guess you could say, I’m still looking for the blue bits cause there’s still work to be done.

I invite you to read more about the Culture Dock app and to make a contribution to our crowdfunding campaign on Start Some Good. Thank-you to all who’ve already pledged their support and shared this campaign on Facebook. Every little bit helps!

Stay tuned for reason #2! 

Purchase my photographic memoir, Black Taxi: Shooting South Africa, about the year I spent working as a photojournalist in Johannesburg during the lead up to South Africa’s first democratic elections. 

f/16

9603907-camera-lensf/16, is a memoir. It began as a book about women who are photojournalists but evolved, out of necessity and the encouragement of some incredible people, into a narrative that also includes me. And, so too has the title evolved. f/16 is a setting on a camera’s aperture. There’s something known as the “sunny f/16 rule” that assists with correct exposure of difficult subjects. This aperture setting also allows for increased depth in an image. f/16 also represents the sixteen women who are photojournalists whom I spoke to over the course of a couple of years. They are the pillars of this book, holding their focus on the world while I, in a sense, had to learn to read the light, all over again. It took me awhile to figure out my own approach to writing about women in the world (the photographers and those photographed), but I have. Today, I thought I’d share the prologue. Just days before the idea for this book began to take hold, this is what was going on:

Prologue

Dragging the heavy cardboard box outside into the sunshine, I struggle to remember what’s inside. This was the box left behind, stored away in a friend’s basement after packing our belongings and sending them off to Canada. Kathrin gently reminded me of its presence when I arrived. ‘Perhaps while you’re here, pick a sunny day, take that last box outside and go through it to see what you need’. I’m staying at her home near Zurich while my two daughters visit their father who still lives here in his native Switzerland. The box had been taking up space in their basement for a year and a half now. She was right, it was time for me to deal with it.

box 3With a knife I slice open the packing tape and tentatively peel back the flaps. On top is a decorative hat made by one of my daughters in art class. This must be the box of things too fragile to ship, I’m thinking as I gently remove the hat, wondering what lies beneath. Peering in I find, layer upon layer, the many paintings and drawings made from kindergarten through grade school. The ones I could never throw away.

Beneath the art, at the box’s core is something solid, heavy. It’s a black case that I immediately recognize. I remember. The strength mustered to drag the box into the fresh spring air dissolves as I anticipate the case’s contents. Sitting down on a cement wall, perching its bulk on my lap, I gently unzip its sides, causing photographs to fall to the pavement at my feet. Precious images of little girls in princess costumes, riding bicycles and holding pet rabbits; those of daddy and his daughters with the majestic, powerful Alps as backdrop splay around me. Mixed in are other images. One of my ex-husband in the mountains of Lesotho in Southern Africa from the time we’d met. Others, a right-wing Afrikaaner with arms in the air, moments before his execution, and one of me in a flack jacket flanked by South African soldiers, confront me.

Finally, scattered on the box’s floor are heaps of photos and negatives, all taken at any given time over the last eighteen years. After I remove each one individually, I sit motionless, staring at the chaotic stack in front of me — an abandoned game of cards after all hands have folded. If only it had been a game. This was the box of things too difficult to bring forward; it was all that was just too much. Moving ahead without them for a time created a buffer, one that allows me now, one image at a time, to endure. In a long game of solitaire I hold each photo for a time, allowing memories to wash through me. By recognizing pairs and sequences that no one else could have possibly seen, I am bit by bit, being pieced back together. Not until I’m finished do I begin to understand, it was I who held the camera. There was someone who existed outside the frame of all of these photographs who was strong enough to stand in the world bearing witness to all she loved and all she feared.

Putting most of the photos neatly back into the box ready to be shipped, I choose several of my kids with their father, some of the children alone, and a handful of my ex father-in-law who recently passed away.  I put them in a large envelope. Tomorrow, I’ll give them to my daughters, to give to their father. I don’t know why. It’s the only hand I feel I have left to play.

Please also visit the book’s Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/WhatItMeantToMeMemoir?ref=hl

It Matters

I’m not going to tell the whole story here — these pages are not meant for this.

From the onset, I didn’t want to make this book about my divorce — no messy details I said. This is going to be about my life as it is becoming; not what it was and certainly not what someone else is trying to make it. And, I stand by that. Today though, I walk the edge.  I’ve awoken to more s**t — stuff from my Ex I thought was of the past. Legally, I’m trusting things will be OK but it’s been enough for me to question how I will accomplish all that I need to. It’s a stumbling block that’s all.

I’ve been writing today about the amazing photojournalists I interviewed over the last few weeks. Keeping focused on their words helps ground me but I still have more to meet; many more stories to pull together. Continue reading