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. 

Keepin’ It Curious


An email I received a few weeks ago was asking me to provide my most memorable travel experience. It was from the publishers of one of my books, Culture Smart: Switzerland. About to launch a new website for their global guidebooks, they were asking all their authors to summon up a favourite travel memory and say it in no more than a hundred words. The challenge for me was not writing a single memory in so few words but choosing only one memory. So, I didn’t. Instead I submitted a paragraph that described more than one trip and spanned a couple of decades. As you can probably imagine, doing that in 100 words was next to impossible but it has prompted me to flesh it out because somewhere in those scarce words, that implied so much, lay the thread that led me to the creation of a video and photo-sharing app that facilitates cross-cultural understanding for travellers and the culturally curious. Since Culture Dock is soon to be released, I figure it’s a good time to fill people in on its beginnings.

As a young woman in my early twenties, I sat on a university campus in Durban South Africa listening to an Afrikaaner band called the Kalahari Surfers sing songs of protest and saw South Africans line up under a marquis announcing a first showing of ‘Cry Freedom’ some five years after the rest of the world watched this film about their own country’s struggle. It was 1991, Nelson Mandela had recently been released from prison and I was experiencing a country awakening as music and art (and political parties) were being unbanned. I was hooked, enough to return within two years to work as a news photographer as South Africa lurched toward democracy. I spent a year holding my camera to marches and rallies and even an execution. I photographed Nelson Mandela the day it was announced he co-won the Nobel Peace prize with F.W. DeKlerk. I took pictures of a ninety year-old woman with crutches, heading to the polling station to vote for the first time in her life. There is no one memorable moment. They stack up, one on top of the other, each one breathing life into the next whispering ‘don’t ever forget this’; urging me to not ever stop learning more about the world around me.

But there is one trip that brought me to tears, not because of the beauty (or the horror) that I saw through my camera’s lens but because I’m now a mother and looking out at the world is never with a single gaze; it’s done with the knowledge our children too are taking this all in, learning from where we’ve been, what we’ve done and will be the ones that will eventually move this world forward.

In 2013, I returned to Johannesburg with my daughters, then age thirteen and fifteen. I introduced them to the family that welcomed me with open arms, into their home in Soweto; to Tsholofelo who was around the same age as my daughters when I first met her and her mother and grandmother. We spent a day with my old friend, the photojournalist Victor Matom, who teaches youth photography in Soweto. With him, we wandered dusty roads taking photos, engaged with people as Victor reached out his hand and gargantuan heart to passersby who all seemed to know him. All of this, and the smell of coal burning stoves, the vibrant clothing worn by women, the explosion of colour as the sun plied its way through a hazy sky toward the horizon stirred memories that banged up against the moment I was sharing with my daughters. We visited the Apartheid Museum where they saw the country’s dark history on display and events I’d attended before they were born.

To be there with my daughters could have felt surreal but instead it became one of the few times in my life when everything made sense. There were reasons I traveled, reasons this country seeped into my heart. I was showing my daughters a place that literally changed my life and the message to never forget this, to never stop learning about the world around us, was being amplified. Somewhere in all of that, the seeds of Culture Dock were born. At the time, I didn’t know if it was going to be a series of books, or a website, or the app it’s ultimately turned out to be. What I envisioned was a space that encouraged curiosity about the world that would be relevant to today’s traveler. Through much trial and tribulation an app called Culture Dock has been born. Its roots go back twenty-five years but took force in earnest three years ago when the idea of an app to facilitate cultural awareness first came into my mind. Through wrong turns, delays, technical glitches and a few other unexpected obstacles, the app will soon be rolled out onto what feels like a precarious world stage.

My intention is to begin a ‘global love affair’. As Canada takes the lead by sharing our rich cultural diversity for our 150th anniversary of Confederation, the rest of the world will be asked to join in. People as well as those in the tourism and culture sectors will be invited to upload photos and videos of local culture onto the app’s channels, sharing such things as local customs and traditions; geography and landmarks; nature and wildlife, you get the gist.

Despite all the crazy delays with the app, it’s helping me to now feel like I’m doing something productive, beyond liking a few posts I agree with on Facebook or feeling my temper rise with arguments that lack reason or empathy. You may be asking yourself who is this woman who thinks she knows what the world needs. I’m not assuming I do. I’m just someone who’s pulled the thread in my life and come up with a platform where I hope people will say ‘hey look what we like to do in our corner of the globe!’ Or, ask a question of someone who does something they may not understand. What I can say for sure is that I know my life has been enriched by people I’ve met who have grown up in parts of the world that are different than what I’m used to. I can tell you how my life expands when I’m curious about different traditions, customs and values.

One more thing, before I exit this expanded travel memory, it’s almost an aside but it happens to fit in perfectly with the points I’m making here. A few weeks into development of the app, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. I’m healthy now but I’m not going to let a bitch like cancer knock me to the ground without saying I learned a thing or two. In this life, we need to focus on the healthy parts. Cancer may run through us, through society; we may allow toxic substances into the system to try to kill it but it’s at the expense of our own life force. By focusing on the healthy parts, the ones that by far outnumber the unhealthy parts, it’s the only way we can feel empowered when life gets crazy. This is how we keep the energy flowing, keep wanting to live for a better day and in the process, we learn just how strong and empathetic we humans can be.

So, who’s up for a global love affair?

Visit Culture Dock and subscribe to our mailing list or follow us on Facebook to keep up with our news because it’s almost time to start filling the app with everything unique to your neck of the woods!

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

Women in Photojournalism

At the time I was reaching out to female photojournalists around the world with the quest of writing a book, two of their male colleagues had fallen in Libya. I worried that my queries were ill-timed. They were coming together in solidarity to mourn their loss. I didn’t expect a response for some time. I was wrong.

Within a day, the replies came. The first was Barbara Davidson who had just found out she’d been awarded her third Pulitzer Prize:

“Sounds really interesting, I’d really like to be a part of this book project. Keep me posted and thanks for thinking of me. Best b”.

Next it was Andrea Bruce.

“I would be happy to be included. Let me know if you want to chat some….at the moment I’m in Mexico.”

On her heals, Holly Pickett —

“Sure, I’d love to be part of your book project. I haven’t read the articles yet, been distracted today by the death of a colleague and I can’t really think about anything else. But if Andrea signed off on it, I know it’s a good thing.” Continue reading