The Photographer at Sea
By Ismail Lagardien
The Wupperthal project is going to take much longer than I anticipated…. Very soon I will need the advice of a publisher, or someone who knows about publishing. I have received some recommendations, and will work on that. The last time I tried to speak to a publisher, Tafelberg, they were terribly rude and dismissive. I will look elsewhere, this time. I should provide some introductory points about the project.
Pak Huis Pass. The road from Clanwilliam to Wupperthal over the Cederberg Mountains (Copyright - ilagardien©l’engagé)
Late in the Southern autumn of 1987, I travelled to Wupperthal, a village that lies deep in a valley of the Cederberg and stayed there for several weeks. When I do get the book done, the journey and the visit will be situated more fully in its social and historical contexts. It suffices, for now, to say that I was a journalist at the time, and South Africa had entered a very dark period; a national state of emergency had been declared and media regulations were especially repressive…. Nonetheless, Wupperthal lies about 25 kilometres (as the crow flies) from Clanwilliam – which is a straight drive up along the West Coast of South Africa for a couple of hours – but getting to the village is a difficult 75km trek across two mountain passes, much of which is along dirt roads, over the Cederberg Mountains and down into the valley where the Tra Tra River gently flows besides the fields worked by villagers.
The village is home to people whom the state had (first since the mid 1950s) classified as ‘coloured’, which relegated them to somewhat lesser beings than those classified ‘white’ and afterward (after 1994) as second class citizens with restricted social and economic opportunities when compared to people the current state has classified ‘African’. While I have not taken the literature seriously enough, South Africa’s ‘coloured’ people have been described as having been ‘not white enough’ during apartheid and ‘not black enough’ in the contemporary period. One research paper concluded that the coloured community has assumed a type of ‘in-between’ status located between those wielding power and those with none. I am not quite sure how that works, other than the fact that, for instance, those classified coloured are increasingly under pressure to surrender any positions of leadership or authority over people classified African. It’s all terribly confusing sometimes, and always infuriating, but there has been a morality shift that we have to accept….
The problem is that I never actually engaged in coloured politics, as I assumed a black political identity from a young age and associated myself with the Black Consciousness Movement, so I am insufficiently equipped to provide any clear position on coloured identity in South Africa. And anyway there very many people who serve as identity brokers, as it were, in the sense that they seem to derive great pleasure and build their credibility on telling others what race they are, where these others belong in the ordering of society – and what they may or may not say. I am reminded of a passage in Gayatri Spivak’s seminal essay, ‘Can the Sub-Altern Speak’, and which I will mangle in paraphrasing: In some cruel twist of fate, in the context of settler colonial production, the subaltern could not speak until 1994, after which the coloured community, once part of the (subaltern), but now not African, slipped deep into the shadows of discourse, place and community in South Africa, and now remain silent - simply because they are considered to be ‘non-African’. Where they were not white enough under apartheid, they are, indeed, not black enough under the current regime. Or, as a friend told me: ‘You coloureds are double-fucked’.
The book will certainly deal with the issue of colouredness, but not directly or on my terms. I don’t care much for it, but, as with race – where it may be true that there really is no such thing as race, but it does not mean there are not racists – because I don’t believe in colouredness, does not mean that there are not people who believe themselves or others to be ‘coloured’ and base their social relationships on this given/adopted identity. The issued will be carried mainly on the voices of the people I photographed 25 years ago, (and whom I will photograph again) and the interviews I will conduct with them over the coming months.
The project, for convenience let us call it The Children of Wupperthal, began somewhat fortuitously. In the Northern winter of 2007/08, I came across some old negatives and pictures that I had kept stored in a box. I began to digitise the pictures and negatives slowly over the next two years. Among them were a set of images I made in Wupperthal; the pictures were mainly of women and children. When I scanned the images, memories of the time they were made flooded my mind. It was a difficult period of my life. I had sought refuge in the village after a few months of difficulty with the security forces who persecuted journalists. There was nothing too dramatic or serious about the problems I had with them; many people lost their lives at the time, so I am wary of sensationalising my own situation…. Anyway, as I unpacked and scanned the images, I began to wonder what had happened to all the children I had photographed, and how their lives had changed since I first visited the village.
When I first came back to South Africa in the winter of 2011, I began to make enquiries…. which resulted in my first visit to Wupperthal on 11 October – almost exactly 25 years after first visiting the place. I have managed to locate two of the young girls I photographed – both are now adults with their own children – spent some time in the village meeting some of the elders, and made a few photographs.
As we found during our first visit (I was accompanied by AGRB, a fellow journalist and close friend), the village had a very deep sense of itself. The people were at home. Much like then, they fear that the village may die someday, ‘because the young people don’t want to stay’ in a village that has two SABC TV channels, no 3G signal and which has limited resources, in general. But that, ironically, was what I was told in 1987.
‘Die dorp gaan vrek,’ one of the elders told me then, for the same reasons.
One big thing that has not changed is this: When I first visited Wupperthal in 1987, the villagers through I was a ‘white man’. When I reminded one of the young women whom I photograph of that we had a laugh, after she asked, in all seriousness: ‘If you’re not white, then what are you?’
Ismail Lagardien. On the steps of the only store in Wupperthal. October 2013.
A generation later, Wupperthal is still alive; it’s people still battling on in a village owned, as it were, by the church, and where, in the lexicon of the state, there are no ‘Africans’ and no ‘whites’ just the in-between people…. All of that will be explored and explained in the book. SSK∞