Mandela’s Cape Town for the Wall Street Journal

I took a look at my schedule in August and noticed I had no work booked for two weeks.  I’d just had a conversation with my mailman who asked me when I was planning on taking my next big trip, and so inspired, I took this blank space on my calendar to be a sign that I should book international travel that very instant.  After taking several things into consideration, such as cost, projects and the whereabouts of my fellow photographers, I settled on Cape Town, South Africa.  Two days later, I was off.  Photographer Charlie Shoemaker graciously hosted me while I spent the next two weeks researching and shooting and feeling newly inspired.MandelaCT_01I let my clients know I was there in case any good assignments happened to pop up while I was in town.  It just so happened that the Wall Street Journal was doing a travel piece on Cape Town, but instead of the usual tourism fluff (stay here, shop there, see this, eat that) it was a tour of the area with history in mind.  Nelson Mandela, former political prisoner, former president of South Africa, and hero to many around the world, left a few indelible marks around town.  He was imprisoned for many years on Robben Island, a World Heritage site and my first stop on a whirlwind tour of Mandela’s Cape Town.  As our ferry pulled away from the waterfront, an auspicious rainbow arced over the city.  MandelaCT_02I heard a lot of languages spoken on the tour.  The site draws visitors from all over the world. MandelaCT_03I’ve never been one for tours, and always prefer to stand back a bit and gain perspective.  MANDELAOur tour guide was himself a former political prisoner at Robben Island.  He is seen here describing conditions in one of the group bunk areas of the prison.  Each such room had a different mural painted on the far wall. Santa holding a giant bag of cash was most definitely my favorite. MandelaCT_05This is the room where Mandela was kept by himself.  Everyone wanted to see this space and take pictures of it and with it.  The hallways were narrow and people clamored for access in such a way that detracted from the power of the place. Such is the tourism grind.MandelaCT_06Many of the guides live on the island. I’m still trying to wrap my mind around it.  To be a political prisoner for decades only to be freed and then end up back at the prison to teach tourists about your life there- and to have to re-live it in a fashion every day… Hurts my brain.MANDELAThis is an installation back at the V&A Waterfront featuring South Africa’s four Nobel Laureates.  This kid looks like he’s waving at Mandela, but in reality, he’s hitting the statue as hard as he can.  I witnessed a lot of strange tourist behavior here.MandelaCT_08These painted rocks have been placed around the trees lining the streets outside Parliament.  As you may know, Mandela has been very sick, and people left these durable messages of love for him around town. MANDELAThis bench for non-whites only is a relic of Apartheid.MANDELAThis is the iconic Long Walk to Freedom statue outside the gates of Drakenstein Prison.   MandelaCT_11This is the house on prison grounds where Mandela was kept for the remainder of his incarceration and where he met secretly with the president. MandelaCT_12Selfie.  The reflective windows were installed to deter snipers.  The government at the time was terrified of what would happen if Mandela was assassinated.  MANDELAThis is the Afrikaans Language Monument in Paarl. It was easily the lily-whitest place I visited while in South Africa.  The ostensible relation to Mandela?  He taught himself the Afrikaans language while in prison to better communicate with his captors and oppressors.    MandelaCT_14Pretty fabulous view. MANDELAIt was at this point over two days of shooting that I went to the townships- places that have historically suffered the injustices of poverty and crime and everything that comes along with being an oppressed and invisible population.  Mandela and others used to foment political action and unrest in these places.  Some things have changed, other things have stayed the same.  My fantastic guide for the day, Iain Harris of Coffeebeans Routes, took me to Langa and Nyanga Townships where I was tasked with conveying everyday life.  We didn’t have a lot of time, but the light was with us and this was easily my favorite part of the entire shoot.MANDELA MANDELAThis is a dompass.  It functioned as a sort of internal passport for Black South Africans during much of Apartheid.  The more I learned about the era, the angrier it made me.  I’ve heard comparisons of Apartheid-era South Africa to the American South under Jim Crow, but Germany under the Nazis seems more apt in many ways. MandelaCT_18This is Mteto, our neighborhood guide in Nyanga.  Despite showing up drunk and popping into shot houses during our walk to keep up his buzz, he was great.   MandelaCT_19I shot this whole assignment during my last two days in Cape Town and up to that point, everything had been very beautiful, but a bit muted.  The townships were an explosion of color and vibrance and life and I cursed myself for only learning of this with hours to go before my flight home.   MandelaCT_20There are just so many stories to be told, but with a language barrier and a time-crunch, I was limited to simple photos in glorious light. MandelaCT_21This might be my favorite photo I took while in South Africa.  Or ever. MandelaCT_22I left out most of the literally hundreds of insanely cute kid photos I took.  Everyone wanted me to take their photo.  I really wanted to resist at first, since the whole deal feels quite cliche, but I took the pictures even though I couldn’t quite articulate why at the time.  Now I realize- they were asking me to acknowledge their existence.  They didn’t want prints or even to see the photos on the back of the camera.  Just acknowledgement.  Who am I to decline such a request?  MandelaCT_23I want to go back and spend lots of time with the meat ladies.  I only got to see them in passing, and uh, they apparently work in Dutch Master Renaissance light.   MandelaCT_24It wasn’t just the kids who wanted me to take their pictures.  Lots of adults would smile and ask and then give me their best “hard” look when I raised the camera. MandelaCT_25Two days of shooting won’t even begin to give one a firm grasp on South Africa or Nelson Mandela’s legacy.  It’s all so nuanced and ten people will tell ten different stories about the same thing.  I hope to go back soon and seek the answers to some of the questions this trip raised.

One thought

  1. breathtaking colors, gorgeous light and you somehow avoided cliche south africa pics despite being so limited on time. i hope you get to go back and get a chance to explore more, your pics are inspiring as always

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