Madrid Segue

The documentary series on Netflix, The Story of Cuba Libre, tells the deeply engrossing story of Cuba’s long struggle for freedom, first against the Spanish, then the Mafia, the Americans and their own dictators. Along with our guidebooks, our investigations into cigar purchases, talk of rum and mojitos, music and sightseeing, Rob and I have been watching the series as part of our homework.

One of the things borne forcefully home in the early episodes, of course, is the painful impact of Spanish colonialism on Cuba’s people and history. It was only a few short weeks ago, after all, that I was in Madrid, wandering the narrow streets of the old town and marvelling at the vast white monolith of the Royal Palace. Watching the documentary, it is only too easy to see where all that fabulous wealth came from.

One of the images from that trip to Madrid is this photograph of a group of people, tourists presumably, gliding down a lane on their Segways. To my eye at least, there is something oddly out of place, almost darkly comic, about the picture, and so, if you’ll pardon the visual and verbal pun, I offer it also as a segue from Madrid to Havana.

We leave first thing on Saturday.


Looking ahead, behind


The road along the Namibian coast, where the desert runs into the sea, is dotted with crosses, marking the places where someone has died. You wouldn’t think there would be so many accidents along this deserted highway, but the road is straight, and untarred, people get bored or distracted, or perhaps they have had too much to drink, and the next thing they know, perhaps the last thing they know, is they are spinning into oblivion.

This image, from our first trip to Namibia, marks just one of those lives lost. For me, coming at the end of a year in which the war in Syria, the destruction of Palmyra, Brexit, and the election of the most grotesquely unfit man ever to hold the office of United States  president dominated the headlines, the image also says something about a year of waste and desolation.

On the public, political, historical stage, that is. Looked at from a purely personal perspective it has, in contrast, been a year of wonders, starting with my son Jonathan’s marriage to Hayley in South Africa in April and then, in July, the miraculous arrival of our first grandchild, Joshua. Life not only goes on, it flourishes, with more grandchildren hopefully to come, and the future stretching way out in front of them, to the end of the century. In the midst of so much unhappiness and suffering, we are blessed and fortunate.

There are also, as some of you know, some rather large changes in store for Rob and me in 2017. In just a couple of weeks’ time I will be on my way back to South Africa, to start work with a new, 4 ½ year contract on an EU project. Located in Treasury, the project will focus on capacity building support for the South African government’s employment promotion initiatives; the work will entail providing support across a range of departments in the areas of technical and vocational education and training, small and medium enterprise development, and active labour market policy, through a combination of training, research, workshops and colloquia, study visits to the EU etcetera. My job is not to do all of this of course, but to help government departments identify their needs, put together technical proposals, and bring in the necessary advice and expertise to help them. It should be interesting –  challenging, but varied, and pretty darned relevant given South Africa’s “triple challenge” of poverty, inequality and unemployment.

Rob will follow a month or two  later, once she has finished her current show, and has had a chance to catch her breath and get herself sorted. Needless to say, we are looking forward to welcoming our Canadian and US family and friends to South Africa! And of course, we are thrilled that we will have the opportunity to spend the next few years back in my home country, with my mother and family.

So, after a year of public dismay and personal happiness, let me wish one and all a wonderful time over the holidays, and the very very best for the New Year. And let me end, personally and symbolically, with this image of an infant and his parents, under the Christmas tree.






‘Loving’ – Distilled

Richard marries Mildred, and that – in another place and era – would be an end of it. But not in Virginia, in the fifties, not when Richard Loving is white and his beloved is African American.

Miscegenation – in the pejorative language of the time (a language I remember all too well as a South African more or less of that epoch) – is verboten, and the Lovings are drummed out of town and out of Virginia. Until, that is, their case is taken by civil rights lawyers, all the way to the Supreme Court, and the miscegenation laws are struck down.

Moving at a slow country lick, this is not, as you might think – at least not overtly – a political movie, nor is it a court-house drama. It’s ‘just’ the story of the Lovings – two very ordinary, simple people, who love each other. It’s not politics, man, it’s humanity – a corrective, perhaps, to a time when the personal was always political. Remember that?

Though in the time of Trump, that is one wheel that may be about to come full circle.

Director: Jeff Nichols

Verdict: See it, but not when you’re in a hurry.

Whisky sour – what else? Budweiser?

Thinking of Havana

A good deal of what we loosely think of as ‘travel photography’ is of the Facebook-posting or family album variety – ‘this is where we went, this is what we did, this is who we were with.’ It’s straightforward, innocuous, innocent even: ‘my hols’ as a diary in pictures or travel journal.

Then there is ‘travel’ as genre, an altogether more complex, and comprised (compromising?) form of photographic endeavour. Its most familiar format is the travel magazine or travel article, and its premise is promotion – promotion of destinations, scenes, peoples, cultures. Its intent is to impress, to amaze, to shock or surprise, and ultimately to sell, in the many different senses of ‘selling.’ Its stock in trade is ‘the other,’ as in ‘look how different/fabulous/wonderful/weird/exotic’ this is.

And then, perhaps, at the opposite end of the scale to the Facebook selfie, and standing outside of travel as genre, there are the images taken by the thoughtful photographer who happens to be travelling, who finds himself (or herself) in locations that are outside of his usual experience, but who remains, primarily, a photographer – an observer and image maker. The premise here is not promotion but photography; its focus is the image, not the other.

How to tell the two apart – the travel genre from the work of the traveling photographer – is of course the question, one which has vexed me much as I think about how to approach the complex subject of photographing Havana. For Rob and I have booked ourselves a five day holiday in Cuba, flying out from a wintry Toronto on the last day of the old year, and waking up in Havana on the first day of the new. Havana has been on our bucket-list for ages, and with our move back to South Africa now imminent, this seemed the time to do it. Who knew, when we booked, that we would be arriving soon after the death of Fidel Castro, in a time (one imagines) of questioning and ferment, however subdued things might seem to be on the surface.

How to disentangle oneself from the familiar tropes – Havana as time-capsule, political drama, history-in-amber – and enter with some openness and integrity into so different a milieu and experience will be a question for both of us, just as visitors and observers. How to make images that are honest, alongside the inevitable album variety, that say something as images, and speak to what is seen and experienced, will be even more of a challenge. After all, how many images of Havana are branded already into our collective consciousness?