I can’t remember much of the detail, but I do remember she wasn’t very keen to be photographed. I was intimidated. Can you imagine? I was photographing the great Susan Sontag, philosopher, cultural analyst, filmmaker, author of the seminal On Photography; her life partner, Annie Leibovitz, one of the most famous and respected photographers in the world.
I was a bit ignorant, to be honest. I hadn’t actually read any of her work. It was 2004. I was 25 and had just moved to Johannesburg after three years hard labour in the East Cape to join the brilliant but ill-fated newspaper This Day.
Writer Alexandra Dodd, who knew everything there was to know about Sontag, and I made our way to a house near Westcliff. We knocked on the door. To my surprise, Nadine Gordimer opened it. It was her house. “You’re here to see Susan? Of course, come in.” She was wearing an apron – we had clearly interrupted her in the kitchen. She led us into a bright sitting room and then disappeared back to what she was doing before.
Sontag joined us after a while. She looked tired. Only a flash of white was visible in the front of her jet-black dyed hair. She was already in the throes of her battle with cancer, which she would lose several months later.
I usually ask permission to photograph a person during an interview and then to shoot some portraits afterwards. I was taken aback when she refused. “Damn!” I thought. “What do I tell the boss when I get back to the office?” I can’t remember much about the actual interview. I was stressing about going back empty-handed. It didn’t go on very long, perhaps 30 minutes. It was deep, referring to material I hadn’t read.
When the interview was over, I nervously pleaded with her one last time for a few photographs. She glared at me, then she looked me over – really looked at me for the first time. Her glare softened and she smiled. She took pity on the scruffy, ignorant young man before her. “Okay,” she said, “but only a few.”
I was pleased, but now the pressure was on and I was panicking. I couldn’t see a decent background, couldn’t even see a decent image in my head. I was paralysed by fear and nerves. I can remember Sontag being self-conscious about her neck, so she fetched a scarf and wrapped it around to hide the drooping skin. It didn’t look good, but I took a couple of badly composed photographs anyway. I could see that she was uncomfortable, embarrassed even. Her being embarrassed made me embarrassed and guilty for asking her to pose. Finally, I asked her to turn awkwardly in her chair and rest her head on her hand on the back of the chair. The lighting was poor, she was kind of backlit and I didn’t have any reflectors or anything. I took a few very close-up shots. Then, mercifully, she said “I think you’ve got enough now.” Thank God it was over. I was cringing inside.
How did the pictures come out? Disappointing. In total I had taken about 10 photographs, which for me was very few. It was the early days of digital photography, and the sensor on my camera was smaller than the average smartphone camera today. Most of the pictures failed because I couldn’t keep the camera still. Clearly the nerves.
But the second, possibly worse, failure was still to come. Sontag walked with us back into the kitchen. Gordimer stood near the door with her back towards us. She was still wearing her apron. We all said goodbye, and as we walked out, I looked over at Gordimer and saw a giant meat cleaver in her bloody hand. She was hacking at a massive piece of beef. Any decent photographer would have lifted their camera and released the shutter. What a frame! What a portrait! Nobel Prize winner Nadine Gordimer, in an apron, chopping up a massive hunk of meat with a bloody cleaver. Maybe even with Susan Sontag slightly out of focus in the background. Imagine.
What did I do? I smiled and walked dumbly out of the house without even trying. The moment had defeated me.
Related article: A photographic essay on the Red Ants, by James Oatway