In late summer of 2001, I visited my family at Roxeni, a small village hidden by hills in Alice, Eastern Cape. A few days later, I was invited to attend a cultural ceremony in another area. Since I had planned to spend more time with the elders that weekend, I decided to explore a bit. I drove through Alice, which traces its origins to the colonial period around the 19th century.
Just a stone’s throw away from the centre of town, Fort Hare University stood isolated from the rest of the town’s buildings. It told its endless stories, having produced many prominent leaders on the African continent. The historic Tyume River runs between the university and this rural town.
A camera as a key
The day of the cultural ceremony was cloudy with a slight drizzle. I arrived on time and walked on a long winding road to Ncera. The gathered men and women were in good spirits. They sang and ululated with joy.
Some of them were celebrating the return of their son from initiation school. As an indication of happiness, people greeted, hugged and kissed one another. A few hours later, I took a walk to the veld, carrying a camera in my small canvas bag and an induku (stick), which I used to beat back the grass and branches.
Just a few hundred metres away, I spotted a young boy tending to his parent’s cattle. For many years, the landscape, animals, people – even the neglected spaces – have had a special place in my heart.
The air felt fresh and inviting. I paused and gazed. For a moment, I became a spectator. The boy seemed comfortable with the surroundings. I was too.
For a better view, I sat on a leafless tree trunk diagonally opposite the grazing livestock. I wanted to remain invisible.
I pulled out an SLR, which I had borrowed from the Market Photo Workshop in Johannesburg where I graduated in 1999. This piece of equipment is useful for a beginner in the field of photography. It is weightless, noiseless: a simple object to carry around.
I loaded it with Tri-X 400 ISO black and white film, which was my favourite type, back in the day. The migration from analogue to digital photography at the turn of the 21st century did little to move me.
As I sat there, I realised it was not easy to find an area of modern life that had not been documented photographically – but I wanted to tell my own story.
As I pressed down the shutter, I could hear the sounds of competing domestic animals from a distance – chicken, dogs, pigs, goats, sheep and horses. My primary focus was to slice a single image from a life that told an ongoing story. I framed the subjects.
Click, click, click. I pressed down several times and then paused. The idea of not really knowing if I had captured the moment pleased me. When I returned to Johannesburg, I patiently processed the film in the small darkroom.
The experience of seeing the developing image humbled my soul.