Going Back to School

For someone sitting in the centre of a bar on a busy Wednesday afternoon in a student town, I hadn’t seen anyone in well over an hour. The poorly-lit, dark red bar counter must have seen at least 30 people step up to lean against it since it had supported me, but I hadn’t seen any of them. There were people seated on my left, my right and there were two people sitting opposite me, all in active and exuberant conversation, but I couldn’t tell you what they were talking about. My new pack of cigarettes still had it’s plastic wrapper around it. My untouched beer was warming up. I didn’t make a sound and I didn’t hear one. All I saw, all I could see, were images.

Like this image.

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And this one.

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And these ones.

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But now, I had settled on this photo.

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I love this photo.

I really love this photo.

To everyone else in the bar, I was on my laptop between a group of people having a lot more fun than I was. Despite the fact that these people were right, they had very little idea of what these images meant to me, and why they were suddenly so much more important.

Earlier that day I had attended a masterclass hosted by South African photojournalist Jodi Bieber. Make the cover of Time Magazine and know I will attend any event you host within 5km of where I live, I guarantee it. I had researched Jodi Bieber the evening before and found her photo projects entitled ‘Soweto’ and ‘Between Dogs and Wolves’. I don’t know what quality of work I expected from someone who has been as critically successful as Bieber, but the photographs in these series weren’t just phenomenal. They were personal.

They captured elements of Johannesburg’s grimy and industrial nature that I have tried to encapsulate since I began photographing Johannesburg earnestly in high-school. She had done it. She had framed the dark and dichotomous flavour of Johannesburg’s vibrancy, places most people couldn’t imagine were part of the cities skeleton but that were in fact it’s frame. And I realized that element of Johannesburg was one thing I had never captured, one of a great number of unique worlds that I had accessed, adored and abandoned.

And so I fled to a bar, and then to Facebook, and then to my own images. In the face of my failure to capture those parts of the world I had been privy to, in the face of all my expectations and potential  unrealized, I looked to the one world that I did capture. The world of the South African rugby-crazed High-School boy.

I had spent years among these boys, and I had successfully captured them in my own time in high-school. The uniform bodies, the rugby aesthetic, the almost nationalistic fury and explosive potential of a thousand young and bristling schoolboys, these more so than the students themselves were my real subjects, and in my time in high-school I had been able to capture and represent them. And since then, I have successively let every world and dimension I have been privileged enough to be able to see disappear.

This is why I was on my laptop looking at old high-school rugby photographs in a bar, and why others may have seemed happier than me. I had retreated into my past to look on nostalgically at the world I was able to capture and my success as a photographer in truly capturing something, in the same way Jodi Bieber had captured a Johannesburg most people who live in the city know nothing about.

The only thing I remember Jodi saying as she showed us her photographs was how important it was for us as writers and photographers to undertake projects, to conceive of our own ideas for stories or images and to create, create, create. Even though I was in my bar, looking at my images of a world that only I had been able to capture, it was Jodi’s voice in my head, compelling us to continue creating when all I had been doing since graduating high-school was consuming.

In my unopened cigarettes and untouched beer, I already seemed to commit myself to a change in this regard. And while my camera remains in the same position it has been for the last three years, I remain very positive about beginning again to represent the wonderful and unique realities I am privy to at this moment.

And this is because, while my camera has been collecting dust, I have been developing the skills of phrasing, pauses and creative narrative skills, narrative skills like linking the unopened cigarettes and untouched beer mentioned earlier to the broader sentiment of producing rather than simply consuming.

And so, I begin again.

To see a collection of Jodi Bieber’s incredible work, visit her website at http://www.jodibieber.com/

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