Pulling the Thread

“One day it will be Christmas! Not some day… one day.”

The photojournalist Victor Matom’s booming voice resonates across the New Nation news room. The year is 1993 and his country, South Africa, is lurching toward democracy; anticipating the first all-race elections only months away.

Victor worked freelance for the paper I was volunteering for. He took the time to show me the kids he was teaching photography to in the townships and introduced me to a woman named Ethel Mabala who was caring for over 100 children in a her small home in Soweto. We happened to be among the first on scene when right-wingers were gunned down in the homeland of Bophuthatswana, weeks before free and fair elections were declared. We didn’t spend a lot of time together yet when I left, he was a figure not easily forgotten. I felt the crush of his handshake, recalled his infectious laugh long after my footprints faded from the red soil of his land.

Victor Matom outside Sifikile, Aug, 2013

Victor Matom outside Sifikile.  August, 2013

As a youth, Victor would sneak into “whites only” book stores to read books on photography. Saving any money earned, he diligently put his coins toward the purchase of his first camera, bought when he was eleven years old. He’s now 53, an accomplished photojournalist and for the past three decades has been doing all he can to help young people in Soweto with the guidance he searched for in his youth.

When I left in 1994 after working for just a year in South Africa, a fellow volunteer, an American named Lisa Thornton and I helped Victor by donating small instamatic cameras to his students. I left intending to stay connected and lend support, if needed, to Victor’s ambitions to teach his craft to those who would otherwise never have the opportunity. Anyone who’s been following this blog, is aware my life took a different direction. Threads were lost but Victor and I somehow, sporadically kept in touch.

I didn’t know where the journey of this book would lead when I first began. I certainly hadn’t pictured myself taking things full-circle and returning to the country where I once worked as a photojournalist so long ago. But, this is a journey of lost threads and honoring connections. So this is what I did. I returned.

My teenage daughters and I sat with a handful of students in a small room at Sifikile, the school built for Victor and his students with the help of a Japanese organization. It’s situated in an area called Orlando West in Soweto a short distance from the home Mandela lived in prior to his arrest in 1962. Not far away are several other homes of leaders in the antiapartheid movement including that of Archbishop Desmond Tutu. Sifikile translates to “We have arrived” and Victor tells me the reason is that “I was self taught and now we have arrived where we could be taught and learn the proper way.”

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Some of the students of Sifikile outside the school with Victor and my daughters. Aug, 2013

Victor’s school still operates on a limited budget. The structure may have been built for Sifikile yet no assistance with supplies was offered. A jump to digital cameras would undoubtedly keep costs down but for now, the school is still using analogue equipment. In this digital age where image-making is part of everyone’s experience of the world, what was being learned by these aspiring photographers was undeniably significant.

Using precious and expensive film, students aren’t even tempted to take a casual shot. Much thought and skill goes into their photography. Without Photoshop or Lightroom for backup, they strive to attain the best possible exposure and composition and often do. But here’s the rub. The expiration date on the paper used to print their images, as well as the chemicals used in the darkroom, have long expired. What they witness in the world; the artistry they’ve brought to it becomes fogged and distorted by supplies that continually let them down.

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Victor takes us through a squatter settlement near the school. Here, he teaches young children photography when he has supplies.

As I flipped through the stack of images, I found myself beyond comment. The photos spoke of a dedication that rivaled some of the most established photojournalists I’ve spoken to over the past several months. As these youth learn their craft they have to detach from the end result, a print that would undoubtedly prove to be unpredictable. Great attention was given to the act of framing their world and spoke of a theme that’s been running through my life for some time now. I was being informed about how to be in the world, to trust the process; make meaningful connections and be open to learn without assumption or even expectation. I feel a need to cling to the authenticity of this, where, …well, it just seems to often be missing.

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