Mark Cook stands out on the pavement of ZK Mathews Road in Durban, South Africa. Cook irks ill informed Durban city officials with his ‘willing seller willing buyer’ of private items from his home garage.
“Listen” is a collaboration between Nick Wium, the band Shizam, and Marianthe Panas. A power ballad singer, Marianthe’s mature, interpretive singing and incredible vocal range has made her a sought-after performer. Panas is supported by Bernelee Frick, who delivers a sensual rendition of Cher’s “Welcome to Burlesque” and an emotionally stirring “You Must Love Me”.
Jessica on a red sofa and Mark Cook with his private garage sales, 2 environmental portraits by John Robinson.
The environmental portrait is a telling photograph of a person or group of people, it gives the viewer insight into an aspect of these people’s lives. In a FaceBook world of hyper happy selfies the environmental can introduce into the conversation a sense of calm and connection between the Subject and the viewer.
The environmental portrait has always been my first love in photography; and I offer environmental portraits in the Durban area done on A3 cotton rag art paper of yourself and or group for ZAR 1000.00 per print.
The men are drinking quarts of Black Label upstairs while the woman folk are rubbing down my host’s wife with peanut butter and tomato sauce in the courtyard at the back of the building in a well humoured anticipation of an addition to the host’s family.
The man talk is of a celebrity visit to South Beach; and there are strong views on this issue: will South Beach be graced to this magnitude or will the area once again be left out in the cold?
The blue walls of this building contain dramas that could feed a T.V. series for a season or two. Outside in “piss alley” the road is controlled by the Congolese, inside the building my host’s brother rules the realities of life. The building has about 14 flats rented to people who cannot afford beach front apartments on the golden mile… Little big eyes and her peanut covered mommy come back from the courtyard and her daddy is shocked by what the women have done to his babe.
The fast beats of tech music fill the background of beer and men talk all afternoon, the brothers are close and the under current of the talk is coping with life and concern that hurt is kept away from the family. Hurt and life is interrupted by asking for this or that tune to be played. Our ‘beer talk’ is mixed with two plates of cake, pretzel sticks, sweets and cookies and a bowl of sugared pop corn from the baby shower in the courtyard.
I place a blanket over the little girl who is soon to be ‘big sister,’ not even strange visitors and cartoons on the T.V. can keep her upright. My bicycle ride home is delayed by a swapping of movies and series for .jpg files of family pics I have done for the host in the past.
My ride home on Lady of Loreto, I named my bicycle after a patron saint of flying, is stopped for the fuel of a mutton curry pie on Maydon Road past the back of the Durban Port to my room in Woodlands in south Durban.
Left to right: Teddy, Jason, Cindy and Leele. 2018, Anton Lembede Street, Durban, South Africa.
Teddy is standing in for Jason and Cindy’s soon to be expected addition to their family, Cindy is now just short of seven months pregnant. I have so much hope for this small family unit, Jason and Cindy have such a strong bond, and are soon to be married too…
A friend of mine has agreed to marry Jason and Cindy when the time is right.
Photos Jenny Matthews from her book Women and War.
Visual literacy can be described as the art of reading or writing with what is presented in a visual format as against the written word. A photograph is a 2 dimensional crop of what is; and there is a lot that surrounds me…
All of what you are colours how you see all that is around you. I have presented the same picture of a Swedish doctor working in a Sudanese internal displacement camp to different people. These different people have interpreted the same photograph differently accordingly to their world views. One person commented on how thin the people in the camp were, another commented on how pale the medic was and a third pointed out that there are also African doctors working in the Sudan… While the ‘language’ of photography transcends all the languages of the spoken and written word, it’s not an exact language as a photograph can be interpreted in so many ways, it’s a lawyer’s nightmare in this regard. The subtext of a photograph is also affected by the angle of view of the photographer, by what is in focus, in the foreground and what’s small and insignificant and in the background for example. The message of the photograph is affected by many things.
As much as the world view of a reader of a picture filters the message of a photograph, the world view of the photographer also affects their resulting images. I am an African photographer and I have never been to Norway, but I have seen pictures of the Norwegian fjords and pasture lands. This image of the fjords has coloured my perception of Norway as a whole; and if I got to photograph in their country I feel that the images burnt into my mind will affect my resulting images too. The pictures of the Norwegian fjords were taken by my ex wife’s father on his holiday there, the photographs of the landscape were ‘chocolate box’ in essence. I went away after seeing these images of the fjords and pastures thinking this maybe why the Norwegians too donate so much to my Africa. The social documentary photographer Dorothea Lange said that photographers should work by looking at that which they instinctively respond (Dyer, 2005).The photograph is also as much subjective to the individual photographer as it is also truth.
The photograph cannot exist if not for the camera itself first being present in the Sudan or the Norwegian fjord for example. I use cameras to make photographs to message a truth to my visually literate readers but have found out that the presence of a camera itself can alter the very subject that I have come to message to my readers. Jenny Matthews in her book Women and War talks about photographing survivors of a rebel attack in Mozambique, in Matthews’ first photograph the woman looks like a war weary refugee, in her second image the woman noticed the camera and she became the beatific mother, both moments happened, both images are truth. In the second photograph the camera itself changed the resulting picture. The woman in Matthews’ example became normative in that she put forward a face that she felt appropriate for a photograph of herself when she saw a camera pointing at her.
As a narrative photographer I have to have a handle on the dynamics of what surrounds me when I use photography to message to readers of my images…
I always carry my Leica M6 around with me because it has become a habit, it is my comfort blanket of sorts; and there is always a roll of colour film in it and a spare roll in my shoulder bag. Without my camera on me I have no chance of shooting a decisive moment, with my M6 on me I may just be in with a chance as it where. Decisive moments are not only in places of high drama and action worthy of front page news, often the best of them go past unnoticed. The photographer just has to be at the right place at the right time, that place can be anywhere that life is being outworked. But I am not writing about just getting out there and snapping pictures, this is about playing it forward.
I liken narrative photography to walking carefully through a flower bed, I want the telling pictures but without plowing up the space that I am working within.
The other day I took a long walk to clear my head and to put the city behind me; and the beach does that for me. I am working on a body of beach scape pictures, it’s a move from the person centric portraits of my South Beach work to a more environment centric focus of local beaches. I made a dent in the project with a few new images, but then the rest of the afternoon was quiet time for me to just absorb the space around me. I could have loaded a fresh film but the feeling to sit on the outskirts of the day’s activities and just look at what was was stronger.
Cuttings Beach is an 1.5 hour walk from where I stay in Durban South, it is just beyond a cemetery and a wetlands and between the Mondi paper mill and the SAPREF oil refinery. It was a Sunday that I felt that just looking was the better option. A large group of believers in the local Shembe faith were there alongside the normal subsistence fishermen who have made this place a home from home. By just sitting on the side I got to look deeply and enter into a conversation with one of their church elders, I came away with an understanding that will be of use next time I am communicating more fully aspects of the Shembe faith.
That day I made more then one new friend and made concrete for myself the concept of walking softly through the fields of photographic flowers.
As a narrative photographer I don’t want to be so busy taking pictures of all that is around me at the expense of first engaging with aspects of these subjects. How can I my photographs narrate fully if I as the author don’t first engage with the spaces? I want to dig below the surfaces with my images; and my conversations that Sunday opened up these narratives for future readers of photography. Instead of just a picture of an ‘unaware of it’s fate’ chicken on an African beach I can have a deeper outworking, by now knowing somethings more of the goings on of Cuttings Beach, Durban, South Africa.
Vous ne vous souvenez peut-être pas de moi, je suis venu une fois à votre bureau à Bamako pour prendre votre ressemblance avec mon appareil photo. Je me souviens de ce que vous m’avez dit ce jour-là, je me souviens de ce que vous avez dit au sujet des photographes volant l’esprit de leurs sujets. Je me souviens que vous étiez résistant à moi en prenant le vôtre, à la fin j’ai pris plus que juste votre esprit; J’ai également apporté avec moi un peu de votre perspicacité aussi.
– You may not remember me, I once came to your office in Bamako to take your likeness with my camera. I do remember you for what you said to me on that day, I remember what you said about photographers stealing the spirit of their subjects. I remember you were resistant to me taking yours, in the end I took more then just your spirit; I have also brought along with me a bit of your insight too.
In 1997 and 1998 I was the Photo Editor for Finance Week, a South African business publication, I was in Cote d’Ivoire and Mali doing a story on the gold mining company Rand Gold Resources. While working on the company sites was smooth flowing, photography on these West African streets was another matter. At the time I was more used to working on the streets of South Africa where ‘shootas’ are generally welcome, photogs have also been responsible for opening up to the world the underbelly of the South African government of the time. I also guess at the time I did just not know the importance of just being more human when taking up a camera.
The idea of ‘stealing the spirit’ was new to me then, at the time I just took it as an oddity – a local African belief and not of real importance.
I know different now, merci Madame!
The soul does not just let go of the spirit, without unclamping first no spirit will float free into the perception of the viewer. You can see the unclamping of spirit in the first hostel scene in the film The Bang Bang Club. It’s an alchamy. For myself, I feel it’s a God given thing, I feel out the place, get my camera s*1t together, look hard and the moment materialises and then it is just one click. Sometimes moments come in batches. It is the wrong time for chimping; as if there ever was a right time…
You can help this alchemy along, just be human; the soul softens it’s grip on the spirit when the perceiver shows that it is actually just as human as is the soul.
Portrait photography is hard work; and for the subject too. The other day I was working out in the sun, midday and in mid summer, I am shooting singles of 6 South African paddling champions. We take our shoes and socks off and stand in the cool water of the Blue Lagoon, relief floods through our bodies and the spirit floats free. Click click click. Each of the portraits is unique, I have already got my camera s*1t together, in each portrait the background is the spot where this body and mind beating race ends, and where each of my subjects paddled into fame. My thanks go out to the ‘Duzi champs for being such great sports.
Hate, fear and love are also 4 letter words; and by another 4 letter word, if I don’t grapple with their out working each and every day of my life.
H is now a friend of mine; she lives just off South Beach with her husband and works in her brother’s restaurant at the top end of Dr Pixley KaSeme Street across from the old grave yard. She makes a petite Ethiopian coffee that my homeopath should never know about, and with its clove infusion is my favorite shot of down town coffee. Her brother’s restaurant is a scent filled alcove, without a menu he serves meat and salad on a plate of injera; a sour flatbread from their home in Ethiopia. H’s coffee is roasted and brewed on charcoal in front of me, she serves it in fine porcelain that her friend G sells alongside the coffee beans from the highlands of their homeland. It is because of local ‘hate of other’ that the brother has said no to photos of H here, it is out of respect for him that H quietly shook her head to me when I took out the M6 just off this road in down town Durban.
F is fearful and is still the victim of a brutal hijacking about 3 years ago. F can’t go out at night alone, and has panic attacks in dark places.
Fear is so debilitating, it’s a part of the psyche of many people who I know around me. As an age we are preoccupied with the concept of ‘safety’, America has a department devoted to the safety of their homeland. South Africa is devoted to the issue of their ‘crime’. For all our other advances we are not a people of can do but a people of can’t do due to our fear. I would like to be able to take F for a walk along a down town street, to sample coffee with clove, I feel that it will be awhile yet before F is ready to browse for porcelain on Dr Pixley KaSeme Street. F’s fear is real, I can see it; there is nothing put on about it.
I will always love X, L and Y. But I lost my temper with L a long time ago, I did apologise and I am so sorry for what I did.
L is deeply hurt and I have to love from a distance. I live with these consequences and now know that love is not a fluffy thing. Love is deep like a river, it has a power of its own, and I have to love for all of us for now.
I will never stop loving and doing what I can for X, L and Y. I will continue to walk along side F and maybe one day we will go browse for porcelain together. I will be a friend to H and all others in little Addis Ababa on the top end of Dr Pixley KaSeme Street.
Names have been changed to protect all those involved in this down town walk of mine.
The camera relies on a tripod of devices to support light drawing of whatever is in front of it’s lens at any given moment in time. As a photographer I have always been more excited by the representation of moments in our collective lives. The three devices that this dark chamber relies on are aperture, shutter speed and the light sensitivity or ISO of the film or digital sensor. As a photographic trainer, it takes me about 4 hours to teach these 3 basics to another.
But it has taken me about 20 years to to fathom out other magics of the representation of the moments around me…
While feeling my way to representing the magic, I find it works for me to be in contact with my feet…
It’s important for me to feel with my feet, heavy boots don’t do it for this photog; I have become more in touch with my feet and like to grip the ground below my lens with my toes as I rake up the souls of those people around me. Canvas takkies or sneakers work the best for me. I call them shooting shoes, “you can feel at home in a pair anywhere”, I often as not take them off during a shoot too. For the heavy boot enthusiasts out there; consider that the special forces unit, the Selous Scouts also had a thing for lite footwear in their bush war in the 1970s.
Dancing is also important for me. A few years before my divorce went through, I did a duet in a ballet production of the faerie tale Beauty and the Beast at the local university theater. When I did that duet on the stage, it was just about my partner, the music and the story that we together represented for our audience. Doing a portrait session is much the same; the subject has to trust the photographer, only by working or dancing together the subject and the photographer can produce a telling photograph for the viewers to absorb for themselves. If I ever get together with a woman again she too must be a dancer…
We did not go onto that stage without knowing our movements, we practiced for weeks. In photography too: I first must be familiar with my subject, then I am in a place to fully use the moments that come to my eye and represent the the subject for my viewers as I perceive them. Know your subject area, start with what you know and move outwards from there.
I don’t have to be in exotic lands to produce wow pics for my viewers. I walk the streets of my own city of Durban, South Africa. I use this insider information to my exotic viewers advantage.