The story is always more important than the picture
I was born during the state of emergency in South Africa in the 1980s and witnessed our country’s difficult birth into relative democracy in the 1990s. My time abroad has shown me that structural injustice is a global phenomenon. I’ve always wanted to use my work to show people that something is deeply wrong with our society. I’ve realized though, that more often than not you can make people look, but you can’t force them to see. Photojournalism needs to find a new home off the printed page of the newspaper and new ways of engaging with audiences. I’m experimenting with different forms of visual journalism in order to find new ways of communicating the urgency of our societal and environmental problems. I think photojournalism needs to move away from simply illustrating stories and start embracing authorship and longer forms of “telling.” I think the internet is the key and although work is harder to find than ever, we will endure if we can adapt. The story is always more important than the picture.
The photos included here are not my favorite pictures, but rather a collection of some of the pictures that have been important to my development, both professionally and personally. I’ve deliberately left out the most of the work I’ve done in Asia because of this website’s focus.
My relationship with photography began when I was still a teenager in Durban and I came across the iconic Nic Ut picture of “The Napalm Girl,” Phan Thi Kim Phuc, running in agony down that road in Vietnam. I suppose in some ways it really was the catalyst which led me down the path I’m still on to this day.
My mother sacrificed a lot in her own life to raise my brother and I, but things like cameras were totally out of our means while I was growing up. I got my first camera at my matric dance. My date and I arrived at the dance a full 45 minutes before anyone else and I was given the “eager-beaver” award. Not quite the homecoming king, but the little gift bag they gave me had a disposable Fuji camera in it and I was thrilled, though I didn’t have a clue what I was doing.
Much to my mother’s umbrage, I remained fixated on this “journalism and photography-thing” as she called it. I tried to convince her that it was a viable career option and, having seen the work of other South African-Indian photographers like Omar Badsha and Ranjith Kally implored her that it was actually possible for me to make a success of it in this country. She relented and after school I enrolled at the university currently known as Rhodes in the Journalism and Media Studies program. During my time there, I did a photo essay on the Grahamstown Seventh Day Adventist Combined Primary School in the township of Joza. It was a special place because of the principal, a very strong woman named Cynthia Hobongwana. I spent several days there and this picture is of her leading them in aerobics in the little courtyard outside the school.
Not long after I graduated I was lucky find a job in Cape Town at a tabloid called The Daily Voice. Tabloids get a lot of stick, but I really loved working there and I learned so much. My boss was a great photographer and teacher, Leon Muller. On the Sunday shift, which everyone hated, he’d bring us koeksusters, still warm from his wife’s kitchen, to lift our spirits. The tabloids also cover the working class communities of Cape Town the way the broadsheets never could. People welcomed us into their communities and their homes because The Voice was seen as their paper. This picture was of a funeral for a young girl who’d been killed in the crossfire during gang violence on the Cape Flats. Her classmates marched through the streets in the rain praying for peace, both in the community and for the friend they’d lost. A part of me will always be in the Cape Town, because that’s where I really learned journalism.
Not long after, I joined the Cape Argus as a staff photographer. At any newspaper some assignments end up meaning more than others. One that was close to my heart was that of the people of Symphony Way in Delft, on the outskirts of Cape Town. People who had previously lived in improvised shacks and wendy-houses, so-called “backyard dwellers”, moved into incomplete N2 Gateway houses the after being granted permission by Frank Martin, a local councillor, only to have their occupation deemed illegal and the order given for them to vacate. They refused and so the heavy machinery of the state was mobilized: Stun grenades and rubber bullets, police in riot gear and the infamous Nyala armored car. As the police formed up to drive people from the houses, this woman ran out and started swearing at the police. In this picture she dropped her guard for just a second and in that moment her body language showed both her fear and her courage. A little while later, some others from the community dragged her out of the no-mans-land and soon after the violence began. Over 1,000 homes were under eviction and the former residents relocated to the pavement on Symphony Way, just across the road from the houses they once lived in. Here they become known known as the “pavement dwellers” and many families remained there for almost two years until they were evicted to the Symphony Way Temporary Relocation Area, a relocation camp made of corrugated iron shacks commonly known as “Blikkiesdorp” (Tin Can Town). This picture was never published.
After a few years of daily press work I made a big change and moved to South Korea to teach English. Asia was good to me, I travelled, paid off my student loans, bought my own dslr camera and was lucky enough to make contact with a local press agency who gave me the occasional gig shooting soccer, my other great love besides photography. After this I spent time doing NGO work and other photography in southeast Asia. While on an assignment for The Life Skills Development Foundation in Chiang Mai, in northern Thailand, I was introduced to an indigenous Karen woman who was a subsistence farmer suffering with HIV but still working the fields to provide for her son. Despite the language barriers, we bonded very quickly, and I produced a multimedia story on her. The project was linked to a crowdfunding campaign and, with the support of The Life Skills Development Foundation in Chiang Mai, the NGO that had facilitated our first meeting, eventually she was able to get the thing she most wanted: a kitchen to prepare proper meals for her son. That project gave me meaning in photography outside of the media. It made me really realize what photography can do outside of the printed page.
Eventually though, I needed to see my family, to get back into journalism and to return to South Africa. In 2015, I started working as a photography trainer at the Market Photo Workshop in Johannesburg, the city which has subsequently become my home and where I now make a living as a freelance photographer. This image was made after a shack fire in Plastic View, an informal settlement outside Pretoria. A huge fire had destroyed more than 300 homes and killed five people on one of the coldest nights of 2016. The struggle for survival is the same the world over. People need food and water, land and homes. I found these two girls sleeping on a mattress in the remains of their home. I have no idea where their parents were. They were resting after a harrowing night and i didn’t want to disturb them. This image was never published.
In my opinion, the most important news event to happen in South Africa since the massacre at Marikana has been the rise of the youth through the #FeesMustFall student movement. In 2015, I was assigned to my alma mater in Grahamstown to cover the campus protests. It was the evening of October 21, 2015 and everything seemed to be settling after a day of peaceful marching through the streets. But when the news of police brutality against their fellow students outside parliament in Cape Town started to filter through the campus via social media the students started to reappear. First in a trickle and eventually in a surge of defiance, unity and strength. I couldn’t help but feel proud of them for speaking truth to power, with discipline and organization, about the class and race divisions in South Africa and in their university. A decade earlier, as a black student from a working class family on the same campus I had felt similarly. But my generation lacked the courage and resolve of the class of 2015.
The next year it was on again but this time I stayed in Johannesburg. The feeling was different though. Less unified and seemingly more factional and political. It was certainly more violent. This picture was made in downtown Johannesburg. Outside of the frame a Nyala APC was on the rampage, the police within firing rubber bullets at students on the street. Ironically, I was at this angle because, in the melee, the police couldn’t distinguish between protesters and non-protesters: they fired at anyone in their crosshairs who looked like a protestor – basically anyone who was black. So I ducked for cover too, not far from this young woman. At one stage journalists were targeted by private security and on another night myself and six other colleagues were rounded up by security guards and repeatedly pepper sprayed and assaulted.
The next picture was one of the hardest I’ve ever had to deal with. Not far from where the previous picture was taken, but on a different day, police threw stun grenades into a crowd of students, who had gathered in Jorissen Street. I captured the moment one of these grenades went off and just as a young woman fell during the stampede. The grenade went off right under her and set her jeans alight, giving her second degree burns across her legs up to her lower back. She ran off seconds later and when I found her later as she was being carried away by her comrades, they threatened me and told me not to get any closer. I struggled as to whether i should even publish this picture, but colleagues encouraged me to do my job. The backlash was intense. A lot of people accused me of exploiting her, one detractor even accused me of “exoticizing black pain.” I found the girl in this picture through Twitter a few days later. I needed to know what happened to her and if I could help. She is my own personal Napalm Girl.
This last image is where I am now. Some people only know my work from the images of terrible violence I’ve captured but, in truth, I prefer doing longer, gentler, more considered work. And I prefer working in black and white. It’s just not always commercially viable for independent photographers to work on long projects these days. Last month I was blessed to win the Ernest Cole award for Photography. It has allowed me to work on a book and exhibition from a project I’ve been trying to finish for almost two years. This image is from that series entitled: Broken Land.
For the next two years I’ll be looking at the effects of mining and climate change in Mpumpalanga, where open-pit coal mines scar the face of the earth and coal-burning power stations belch noxious clouds of CO2 into the atmosphere; where policy-makers decided that coal-powered electricity was more important than food security, water and human rights; where CEO’s and shareholders make a fortune from the resources ripped out of the earth, but the people of the land itself are plagued by respiratory illness and still live in dehumanizing poverty, as if the struggle for equal rights in this country never happened.
It’s a strange addiction this “journalism and photography-thing” my mother warned me about. The media industry world over, and photojournalism especially, is in the midst of an identity crisis and still trying to figure out where it needs to go in the digital era. But despite the twitterbots, fake news sites and unscrupulous photographers who stage and doctor their photographs, real journalism still exists and its role in society, though nebulous, is still vitally important. It’s a brutal industry to try make a living in, but there’s work to be done, stories to be found, hard truths to be told.
I still believe in the still image’s ability to make us give pause, to force us to look, and to implore us to think beyond our own perspectives. And I’m still in love with the lonely impulse of delight, the privilege and the responsibility, that making photographs affords me.