Photos John Robinson
I am 36 Kilometres into a 40 plus Bicycle Ride Through the Durban Docklands to the Beachfront and Back. The mid-winter sun had just ducked it’s round behind the Berea ridge, and I first feel the squiggly grind of a flat front tyre on tar as I stop at the Bayhead and South Coast roads intersection.
As I am walking my bike south across the intersection down South Coast Road and home in Woodlands, I am looking for a secluded, lighted space to repair my front tube. I have all the tools for the job. I have a puncture kit, inspection dish (used ice cream container) in my pannier at the back and water in my caged drinking bottle on my Giant Talon frame.
As I walk my bicycle down off the rail overpass at Bayhead and South Coast Road, the road curves to the right and the high arc lights over an entrance to a container depot are a beacon to me. I have repaired many tubes as a cyclist, and here I have light, a workspace and if this tube can be fixed and I will be able to ride away into the night.
I lower the tube valve first, into the water in my ice cream container, the telltale bubbles spew from where the valve and tube intersect. S***, this tube cannot be fixed.
The headlights of trucks bear down on me as I walk on with my ‘cycle at my side, at times I just stop and lean away as trucks rumble past, there is no space for me and oncoming night traffic, across the road there is a pavement. A gap in the traffic allows me to change sides.
Here it is just the bright lights of trucks in route to the harbour and the night glow of the changing shifts of workers in safety gear walking past.
South Coast Road proper is just ahead with its ladies of the night and the Woonga addicts looking for the cash for their next hit. The ladies and I have a mutual respect going from my many night ‘cycle trips through in these parts of the city, the woonga addicts are another thing entirely.
I pass a parked truck on its traffic side, the pavement side is a bit long and dark, as a nightwalker/cyclist I try to make myself a hard target for anyone who has unsociable outcomes in mind. I am now walking on the road as the two young men come out of the shadows I have just detoured from while walking on the traffic side of the truck just now.
“You have nothing to fear here, you cycle past here during the day, you are one of the community” I carry on my way as they keep up with me on the pavement in the bright beam of my bicycle headlight and the soft glow of my iPhone in its pouch fixed to the bike.
“What is that there?” The tall one of my two new friends asks as he notices the glow off my mobile phone, I reply that he actually doesn’t see anything there. I press my hip up against the ‘phone pouch as I get in the way of Number Two as he tries to wrest my phone away from me. Number One threatens to poke me with a knife that I have yet to see in his hands. “I am going to poke you, I am going to poke you with a knife”
I do not care what Number One says about giving me a poke with a knife, my eyes are glued to the hand in his pocket where the said knife is supposed to be. Number Two is having trouble trying to get hold of my phone that is still firmly in its pouch, my hip is still blocking his way. I keep my firm grip on the bike, My headlight comes out of its holder in our joint scuffle and hangs by the cord that is for this very purpose.
The momentary sense of ‘being mugged’ is quickly replaced by a deep awareness of the situation around Number One’s hand in his pocket, of my close surrounds and a sense of my own physical strength and resistance to the endeavours of Number One and Number Two on this dark Durban road.
A voice calls out to the two parras, (Short for parasites, South African slang for street criminals) “Get away from him.” My guardian looks at me through rimless glasses, he speaks English with a heavy Afrikaans undertone. “Come in here, they won’t follow you in.” Number One and Number Two spring away from me and tumble over themselves into the night. I follow my guardian into the truck washing depot where he works and away from the spot where Number One and Number Two went empty-handed.
In the seclusion of the washing depot, I turn off my ‘phone and headlight, I want to proceed on my way home without calling any more attention to myself. My guardian and a woman who also works at the depot agree to walk with me as far as a tuck shop at the next intersection. Walking as three is better than walking alone. Patience signs to me that this is where she and my guardian stop.
South Coast Road is a dual carriageway here and walking along the centre island makes me a harder target for any others that want to take their chances with the man walking with a flat wheeled bicycle in the night. As I walk I keep a lookout over both shoulders to keep aware of what is around me. There is only one more contender on the pavement to my left but he does not come across the road to the centre island where I am walking. “…I want your bike” he says to me, I just wave back to him and carry on my way.
It is a six-kilometre walk from where I felt something wrong with my front wheel to my room in Woodlands. Apart from a few curious dogs, my walk is just a slog up the hills of this part of Durban. I have plenty of time to think about what has just happened to me.
- Never ride without a spare tube, tools for simple bicycle repairs, a puncture kit and fruit and water for energy and hydration.
- Always wear shoes that you can also walk in.
- Muggers don’t have a plan b, do the unexpected. Give muggers a way out and they will take it.
- Be calm and stay calm and focused, I don’t know when my angels will come.
- Dogs on the roads are usually are only curious about what is coming past their territories, don’t take their barking personally.
- It is always easier to ride up a hill then walk up the same.
When Telling a Story, Intercession, Photography and Writing all Play a Part in Getting the Story Out.
Intercession |ˌɪntəˈsɛʃ(ə)n| the Action of Intervening on Behalf of Another: he only escaped ruin by the intercession of his peers with the king. The action of doing something on behalf of another: prayers of intercession.
Photograph |ˈfəʊtəɡrɑːf| A Picture Made Using a Camera, in which an image of what is focused on to light-sensitive material and then made visible and permanent by Chemical Treatment, and or digital process: A photograph of what is in front of you.
Writer |ˈrʌɪtə| A Person Who has Written Something or who Writes in a Particular Way: the writer of the article. a person who writes books, stories, or articles as a vocation or occupation: she was a prolific writer | he a writer of short stories.
I got into photography when I saw how I could put some light on some of what I saw around me in the city of Johannesburg in the 1990s. I am a photographer because through it I can tell something of what is around me, I am not a camera or photographic technophile. When I saw how I could go into a situation with a small camera and come away with tangible aspects of what was there I was officially hooked. As a photographer, I don’t feel that there is such a thing as a boring situation but there is such a thing as a boring story told.
I then started to write for myself when I needed extended captions and some short-form writing to go with the pictures I was making. Robin Comley said to me one day that in the perfect world our pictures would talk for themselves, we agreed in the end that writing could add some context but we never should double-speak to the viewer as it were. The picture and the text can work alongside each other but never repeat each other as a writer and a photographer work together on a joint job. As a writer, I am picture strong, I can get the feel of what I want in the text. I love working with a good editor can get that feeling all in line alongside my images.
After many years in this craft and after many years of hardship for many photographers in getting stories published in a ‘visual’ world, I have given much thought to what I might actually be in all this…
I am the go-between, the messenger, a soother and sometimes the grit in a shoe. The intercessor speaks for the other, the intercessor speaks to another too. The intercessor goes in between for two parties or viewpoints. Sometimes my work can be soothing like an applied balm, and at other times these perceptions can be uncomfortable truths that also need some of the light of the day.
Like any craftsman, it is not enough to just make nice chairs, for example. The craftsman has to keep a note of how his ‘chairs’ are fitting into the rooms and doing all the jobs that they were intended to do. As a photog, I have to keep a firm hold on my position-at-work as I frame images and link words for others to view and read.
What I Love About Looking at Paula Lycan‘s Work is its Ability to Travel Through Time. These photos feel incredibly contemporary, depicting queerness in a way that is both sensitive and political. But there are also references to the early beginnings of queer photography, the textural and sensual darkroom prints of people like Peter Hujar. Paula’s construction of the visual language of the darkroom also feels like a very fresh take on visualizing queerness. Reclaiming the labor and physicality of the darkroom tangles into the physicality of the body present in Paula’s images creating a poetically intricate narrative. – LENSCRATCH
When Any Camera Intrudes Into a Person’s Space that Person Becomes Normative or in Other Words, Adopts a Pose That They Feel Is the Right Way for Them to be Perceived
Unless you take out your camera in front of an inanimate object or a person without any prior knowledge of cameras and photography there will be a change in your subject when they realize they are being photographed. The photographer has always hankered for invisibility.
When any camera intrudes into a person’s space that person becomes normative or in other words adopts a pose that they feel is the right way for them to be perceived by the photographer at hand. Big setups like those with a camera on a tripod and studio lights will give off a more formal feel from the subject while small cameras and less of a studio setup will give off a more informal feel from the subject at hand. In both situations, the intervention of more of the joint humanness shared by both the subject and photographer can lessen the normative behaviour of the person or people photographed.
If the photographer comes away from behind the camera body by using a waist-level viewfinder and or engages more with the subject, the subject will in turn relax and give more of their spirit to the resulting photographic images.
The subject too must be able to trust the photographer to give of their self into the same resulting photographs.
Drink some coffee.
When photography was born, the early cameras were bulky and very noticeable. The image through the lens was transferred onto a large sheet of glass and from this glass plate, a contact print was made. Candid photography was not generally possible. It was only with the start of production of the small rangefinder camera in 1932 and later SLR cameras that it was possible for the photographer to focus accurately and fast candid photography with a small camera was also born.
With the advent of digital photography, the world is awash with the photographic images of everybody and all their neighbours too. The days of many people feeling the need for the services of a person who understood the art of photography are largely over. Everyone now thinks that they are a photographer in their own right. In this wash of people taking pictures of themselves and their friends, the narrative photographer can at last hide in plain sight. The photographer can be invisible in plain sight in this wash of image takers while continuing documenting life as he or she uniquely perceives.
The Leica M6 camera is a small analogue rangefinder camera, it is what I use for most of my personal photographic work. The Leica M6 is a small quiet rangefinder camera and in many ways, it is just like the first rangefinder cameras of 1932 which could be used without much attention called to its self unlike the bulky cameras of those times.
Alongside my Leica M6, I am now starting to use my iPhone 6 phone camera for some of my personal work too.
With the wash of many people taking selfies with mobile phone cameras in public places, I have found out that I can use my mobile phone camera for street photography with drawing close to zero attention to myself while doing my stuff as a narrative photographer.
In many ways, the modern mobile phone camera is the Leica M camera of its day. My iPhone 6 camera is hiding in plain sight in the midst of all the other mobile phone cameras clicking round about…
People Behave In A Normative Way In Front Of The Camera.
The camera produces a photograph which is a representation of what is in front of the camera lens, this photograph is not a painting that is first interpreted by the eye and mind of the artist and then painted onto a canvas or other surface.
When taking pictures the photographer must feel as at home with the camera in hand, as with the very fingers when picking up a mobile phone for example. Get to internalise the aperture, shutter speed and ISO of your camera and photography. Photography is about the images photographed as brushing teeth is about mouth hygiene and not the toothbrush its self. There are many people around that are more interested in the technology of photography and the camera then the moments seen with it. I feel photographers must keep the main thing the main thing…
Taking a photograph is as much about what is cropped out as much as what is left in the camera frame. A photograph is also about the position of the photographer and the camera introduced onto the scene or moment captured too. When a Photograph is taken the photographer has left some aspects of the scene out of the picture entirely, made other things seem small and insignificant in the background and highlighted other aspects of the scene in the foreground giving them more prominence.
Stop for some coffee.
The act of photographing needs the photographer to introduce into the scene a camera body and lens. This act alone lets the subject know that they are now ‘on camera’ as it were and the photographer is there to record their activities while there. The mere introduction of a camera into a situation can cause situational changes once it is out there… Pierre Bourdieu says the introduction of a camera into a subject’s setting introduces a reaction from the subject, people behave in a normative way in front of the camera. There are decisions that the photographer has made during the moment in time it was captured.
The social documentary photographer Dorothea Lange said that to know ahead of time what you were looking for meant that you were only photographing your preconceptions. Lange said that you should rather work by looking at that which you instinctively respond. Certain moments just catch the eye…
Durban Beachfront in Total Covid 19 Lockdown.
South Africa is taking the call of President Cyril Ramaposa seriously, freelance photographer John Robinson cycled the length of the Durban beachfront in total isolation, meeting no one except for a few security guards and police. The public pools of Wedge Beach now have a post-apocalyptic feel to them.
A Moment Caught, Needs Visual Devices to Work as a Photograph…
Susan Sontag said a photograph is a three-dimensional moment in time that is seen and then captured and cropped into a two-dimensional frame. Though the three-dimensional moment is seen by the human eye the moment it is contained in the two-dimensional frame of the photograph it needs visual devices to work as a photograph for the same human eyes now gazing on it in it’s altered form.
The two-dimensional frame of photography is noticed the moment we take a camera up to our eye. The unframed world seen by the human eye is sharply cut into a small rectangle with defined edges and corners that is not natural to the normal human vision. These defined edges affect the final picture. You can emphasise the vertical with a portrait frame or you can emphasise the horizontal with a landscape frame. It is within this vertical portrait or horizontal landscape frame that we position the content of our photograph.
By positioning the main focus of our image using the general rule of thirds, we can be in a strong starting point in photography. By dividing the length and width of the camera’s rectangle viewfinder into thirds we have four points of pleasing visual strength. By placing the focus of the image on one of these points and not dead centre of the photograph the image will have more interest in the human eye.
Drink some coffee now.
The camera just faithfully records what is in front of the lens, the photographer must crop and use the defined edges of the image to hold the photograph together. The human eye can concentrate on an area of interest, the camera cannot…
Along with the edges of the frame and the rule of thirds, the photographer has a list of visual devices that will lead the eyes of the viewers of the photographer’s images.
A pattern in photography is made stronger when it is broken. Without a halt in the pattern, the photographer might as well just photocopy a piece of wallpaper. A crowd scene with a lone flagbearer makes a spot on which the human eye can rest. Without the flag bearer in the swirling crowd, the eye of the viewer will soon drift elsewhere.
A line in a photograph can be a divide between elements, a chain of elements that together form a visual linear link through a picture. A linear element leads the viewer’s eye around the image. A linear element can be straight, curved or jagged and can affect the overall feel of the photograph too.
We live in a world of colour. Photography heightens the effects of the colours that we are surrounded by and to some extent take for granted in our daily lives. Colour can link elements in our pictures. Warm colours like red and orange come out to the viewer while the cool colours like blues and greens move away from the viewer. The light by which we take our pictures is not neutral either, it can be hard or soft. Hard light heightens colour and soft light mutes the same. Colour is reflected by light and by doing so it takes on some of that colour in the end photographed quality.
Contrast is described as the state of being strikingly different from something else, typically something in juxtaposition or close association. In photography, the strikingly difference can be light and dark, texture, colour or pattern.
In closing we must remember that all of the above are just devices and not the subject of our photographs, these devices well used can make our pictures much stronger but they are never the subject matter of a photograph that has something to say for itself.
Finish off the coffee and have an open discussion.
The Sensor or Film in the Camera is the Light-Sensitive Surface That We Draw On…
Photo John Robinson
Photography means light drawing or drawing with light. The sensor or film in the camera is the light-sensitive surface that we draw on, it’s like a sheet of paper if you like. The camera is a pencil or pen with which we draw our drawings with light or photographs as they are commonly called. Light is the lead or ink with which we draw.
An underexposed photographic image is a bit like a sheet of paper with only faint lines or marks on it. An overexposed photographic image is a bit like a sheet of paper that is black with lines and marks on it. The trick is to let a combination of light, dark and shades between leave an image on the sensor/film that we call a photograph.
The photographer controls the ‘marks’ the camera makes on the sensor/film through the ISO, aperture and shutter speed settings on the camera its self.
As we are drawing with light we set the ISO setting on the camera first. The ISO setting sets the sensitivity of the sensor or the sensitivity of the film we are using to the brightness of the light we are going to work with. It is no use to the photographer if the sensor/film and the light brightness is miss-matched. If the light we are working in is bright daylight an ISO of 100 or 200 is a good point to start. If the light we are working in is general shade or indoors an ISO of 400 or 800 is more inline. If the light that the photographer is working under is low light an ISO of 1600 or 3200 will be more appropriate.
Have a coffee break now.
By first matching the ISO to the lighting conditions, the photographer will have a fuller range of apertures and shutter speeds on the camera at hand to work with.
Aperture or f stops and shutter speeds work in tandem, they work together. For example, A photographer is working in the general shade at 400 ISO at f4 and shutter speed of 1/60 of a second and is getting a good exposure. The photographer can change to f5.6 and 1/30, by increasing the aperture by a stop and decreasing the speed of the shutter. The photographer will still get a good exposure but increase the depth of field and with the decrease of shutter speed will gain more movement in the photograph.
In a second example, the photographer could have changed from f4 and 1/60 by a stop to f2.8 and 1/125 and again get a good exposure but this time decrease the depth of field but increase the freezing of movement in the resulting photograph.
By understanding how ISO, aperture and shutter speed work together, the photographer is in a position of strength and can make a well-exposed picture with more of the depth of field and ‘movement’ aspects in mind. To know more about quality photography, I am at your service.
HIV and TB, And Now Covid 19 In South Africa
Photos and Words John Robinson
Gogo, you kept us strong when we were bitten by the whip, and we are still strong. Though we are not a nanny state people, through you our elders, we are strong. Though we are not of orderly streets and straight lines. In this Gogo, we are strong.
We know of viruses and microbes in our midst. The devastation they cause runs deep on our pathways, soaking our fields with premature endings that alter the ways of our left-behinds totally, but Gogo, you have made us strong.
Gogo, you have done your bit, you have been strong for us. If it is your time now, pass with peace of mind, you have made us strong. What you have taught us over the years is with us now in this new thing. All your grandchildren are strong now.
-I have had an inner peace that the people of Africa will come through the Covid 19 pandemic stronger than many others with better resources. The difference is in our collective strength through the bitter experience with the viruses and microbes of our daily lives… John Robinson