Stories about pictures

If you have been following along on Facebook on our 3700km road trip through the small towns of the Karoo, the Western Cape and all the way back to Johannesburg, you will have been following a story written partly in pictures – pictures taken, not for the photography but for the story, and on an iPhone rather than a camera.

This is a departure for me – I have tended to disregard the iPhone’s picture-taking ability, in part because my photographic interests lie elsewhere, and in part because I have never really taken the iPhone seriously as a photographic instrument.

My wife, on the other hand, takes exactly the opposite approach – she uses her iPhone almost all of the time, to capture the everyday moments of our lives, and only hauls out one of the large and clunky cameras I have lent her when there is a specific subject to be addressed. You can’t really take wildlife pictures on a phone, but you can take great pictures on a Nikon DSLR with a telephoto lens.

So, as I was saying, I used the phone a lot, on this trip, to capture the kinds of everyday images that could illustrate our travels, and – this is important – that could be uploaded easily to Facebook or Instagram, without complicated processing or file transfers. And I have to say it was liberating, and also quite satisfying: not only was the phone easy to use, and convenient but, with the controls afforded by the Halide camera app, it was capable of producing quite effective images, too.

All of this meant that I was free to snap away with the minimum of fuss; and free, too, to use the Nikon in a more considered and selective way, for only those images that I could see in my mind’s eye not as snaps or selfies but real ‘photographs’.

So, in future when we travel, I will use both of these tools, the phone and the camera, for the purposes they are best suited to and, in the process, I hope, will find a new kind of creative flexibility and freedom.

What then of the photographs?

The NG Kerk in Graaff Reinet

If you have been following, as I said, the story on Facebook, you will have seen the first of these more ‘serious’ images is the series of NG Kerk images I have been posting. And, of course, there is a story behind this choice of subject – not very complicated, but a story nonetheless – one I will return to.

To mix things up a bit, though, and to keep things interesting, I thought I would start this blog post, and those that will follow, with a set of images that I haven’t yet posted on Facebook, and rather than using the photographs to tell the story of our travels, tell the story of the photographs instead.

I will start in McGregor, a little Karoo town in the Western Cape, where we spent a couple of days on our way down south. The town itself is quite charming, set against the mountains in the dry Karoo, a harsh and arid landscape that manages somehow to support vineyards as well as sheep and goats. Like the rest of South Africa, it is also a place where poverty and inequality are starkly evident, but kept on the margins of what is still a mostly white, affluent village.

It would have been easy to focus, in these photographs, on the prettier, cottagey, quaint blah blah side of McGregor but what I wanted, even though time was limited, and we were on holiday, was to capture something else: a sense of the ruggedness and isolation of the area, for one thing; a recognition of the poverty and hardship that the area’s coloured population experiences; and something too about the almost abstract, spiritual purity of the place – the vast blue skies, the open spaces, the simple geometry and the forms of things.

Karoo Homestead, near McGregor

The image above, for instance, captures to my mind the almost lunar planes of the surrounding mountains, as well as the isolation of that small white homestead. Look, too, at the telephone pole and telephone line at the bottom of the picture – a symbol of connection, perhaps, a link to civilisation, but also, perhaps, a crucifix.

The next image, of workers’ cottages high on a mountain pass above the village, captures the same harsh landscape, the same isolation: but the cottages, with the laundry drying on the line, are not simply markers of poverty or isolation, they are people’s homes, lived in, occupied – remote but human.

Workers’ Cottages, near McGregor

The choice of black and white in these images was deliberate, of course: but in these next few images colour seemed the more appropriate medium for what I wanted to express – even though, in formal terms, each of these images would work well in black and white also.

First, ‘The People’s Choice,’ a shop on the margins of the town serving mostly the coloured community. I took several photographs of this, from different angles, taken by the bold advertisements, the splash of colour. In a couple of the images, I caught a man sauntering across the street and into the shop; in others, there was a glimpse of the poor streets behind. But in the end, it was this plain, frontal shot, with the man in the doorway and the bicycle propped against the wall, that seemed to me to make the most effective statement.

The People’s Choice

I mentioned earlier the – alongside the harshness, the isolation, the poverty of the coloured community – almost abstract sense of purity, simplicity, that you feel in this place; and these two images, I hope, abstract, detached from their wider context, say something about this.

Join me next time, for the next in this series of stories about photographs.

The Slow Road Back

Traveling at Sixty was the topic of my last post – a post about slow travel, about taking the time to observe and relax, think and reflect. Now, a week later, we are on our way back, after nearly two-and-a-half weeks on the road and over 2000 km (so far) on the clock, with a quiet stopover in Prince Albert yesterday and today and the road to Bloemfontein calling us tomorrow.

It has been a good trip. Seeing my mom, alone, would have made it worthwhile, after more than a year since the last time we saw her, and the days ticking by as we start gearing up for our return to Canada and her 90th birthday drawing slowly closer.

It has been good to travel again, too, to see the country, knowing we might not be this way again, taking the time to take it in before it passes.

The rest has done me good, too, the break from work, before the next few busy and intense months land with a bang on Wednesday.

And, it has been good for the two of us, for Rob and me, doing this together, finding connection in the shared experience and the shared memory of previous journeys.

So, we are lucky – more so, in this time of Covid.

We have been careful, and diligent in our sanitizing and social distancing and avoidance of too-crowded places, and hope to remain safe as we head back to Jo’burg, both on the road and off it.

And because we have been able to travel, while so many haven’t, we have been glad to share these stories and images from our travels with those of our friends and family who have followed us.

Thanks to you all, and stay safe also.

Here is a round-up of some of the iPhone photos from our trip.

Stories on Stones

At a time like this, when half the world is on lockdown because of the pandemic, when civility and decency and the very foundations of democracy seem at risk in the face of racist populism and rabid know-nothingness, when the planes are grounded and we can barely venture out of our houses, when our ‘advanced’ societies are humbled by a virus, there is something to be learned from stories on stones.

The World Heritage Site at Twyfelfontein, in Namibia, is a moonscape of waterless rock and stone, tones of orange and black against a blue relentless sky. The name – Twyfelfontein – means ‘fountain of doubt’ or ‘doubtful fountain,’ a reference to the spring that sometimes ran, and sometimes didn’t, somewhere near here. A name for our times, perhaps, and a reminder of our dependence on air, water – the simplest, yet irreplaceable things – for our very existence.

Yet people lived here, in this inhospitable landscape, somewhere between a thousand and two thousand years ago, people who possessed an art and culture, the traces of which are written in stone, in rock engravings, which are now a world treasure.

The engravings at Twyfelfontein offer a record of more than just a people, however. They offer a window on a natural environment, a world of mountains and grasslands that has long disappeared.

Look at the engravings, then look around, and think what has changed, what has been lost – how this barren terrain of sharp stones and rock once was home to elephant, giraffe, antelope, lion, rhino, hyena.

And think, that as this world has vanished, so too may our world, unless we face up to a challenge that is even more of a threat to us than the Covid-19 virus, the existential threat of climate change. A threat which – whether you are a head-in-the-sand climate change denier, or a believer in science and evidence – will take its course regardless of our opinions, just as the virus has, unless we take action.

But looking at these photographs also brings with it a simpler and more obvious message, a narrative of freedom and travel, and a reminder how travel shows us that our taken for granted worlds are not necessarily the worlds that everyone else lives in, and that the present is not the same as the past, nor is it the future.

More simply still, I look at these photographs, from our trip to Namibia in 2016, and I want to get out on the road again, big skies overhead, and the warm wind blowing.

Then I think of the heat – stunning, and the light – blinding – the hot climb stumbling over boulders, the views of the shimmering plains and the fortress-like mountains, the being intensely present in the moment, and I remember John Lennon’s saying that life is what happens when we are busy with other things, and I look down at the stones, and they tell me stories.

The Bosphorus Ferry

For a couple of weeks now I have been meaning to post these images from a ferry ride up the Bosphorus – there are plenty of sight-seeing trips you can book, to explore Istanbul from the water, but the ferry is the simplest and most affordable, offering a two-hour round-trip from Eminonu by the Galata Bridge for a really quite nominal sum.

But February was a crazy month, and there will be not much let-up until May, at least. Time and energy to catch up with this blog have been a little lacking, and besides, what little time and energy I have been able to muster has gone, instead, into setting up an account on Flickr and figuring out how to set up the right kind of albums to display my photographs.

Here is a link, by the way – please do head on over to Flickr and take a look – even better, sign up to ‘follow’ and receive my updates 🙂

The fact is, I have been looking for some time for the right platform to exhibit my photographs – more and more, I am drawn to photography as a means of discovery and expression – and Flickr seems to be the right jumping-off point to try and build a bit more of a profile as a photographer, and hopefully achieve a bit more exposure than has been possible with this blog.

The blog takes time to write, when sometimes all I want to do is display my photographs. But it serves a different purpose – not so much of getting my words out to the universe (who wants to read the ramblings of some old dude anyway) but to friends and family, and a few brave souls (thank you all!) who take the time to follow my meanderings.

The waters of the Bosphorus are crazy busy!

So, with all that said, back to the ferry!

It’s a great trip, zig-zagging from one bank of the Bosphorus to the other, passing by palaces and villages, offering intimate glimpses of local lives and local places, all unperturbed by the huge cargo ships ploughing their way north, or the busy fleets of smaller craft zipping along the shore. A study in contrasts, too, the ancient and historical framed by the soaring construct of the Bosphorus Bridge suspended across the water.

As always, click on the images to enlarge, and then scroll through.

On the return leg, you head toward the mouth of the Bosphorus again, and you see the beautiful Leander’s Tower in the middle of the channel, and a huge vessel bearing down at speed upon you…. Time to head back to shore, and the steep climb up the hill to the hotel.

Fish sandwiches by the Galata Bridge

For cheap, fast and filling you can’t beat a fish sandwich down by Istanbul‘s Galata Bridge. It’s a hugely popular snack, often eaten with a glass of pickle juice to wash it all down.

I recommend the sandwich, but won’t vouch for the pickle juice!

Istanbul Archeological Museums

Istanbul, formerly Constantinople, is as we all know a modern yet ancient and historic city planted at the crossroads of East and West.

So it is not surprising, I guess, given its history and place, that the collection of antiquities held in the three institutions that make up Istanbul’s Archeological Museums is quite extraordinary – from tiled friezes that once graced the walls of Babylon, to ancient sculptures of such delicate humanity that what you see is not a general representation but the person himself, as in the figure below, which I kept coming back to.

This next, far more massive figure, from atop a column I imagine, though stylised and formal, still holds in the curve of the lips, the mouth, something human and identifiable – contrast, for example, with the flat and two-dimensional figures in the relief with chariot and horses, or the head of a man before that.

And lastly – look at the intense use of colour, in this frieze from Babylon – and look at that lion! Is that not the very ‘lion-ness’ of lions, in the ricture of his snarl, the bristling intensity of his pose!

The Basilica Cistern, Istanbul

The Basilica Cistern in Istanbul is an underground wonder, an engineering marvel, dating back to the 6th century.

Guidebook photographs show serried columns eerily surrounded by water, echoed in their watery reflections. The water had been drained, unfortunately, when we were there, for repairs, so some of the magic was missing, at least to my eyes, but the place was impressive, nonetheless, a kind of netherworld, the sort of place you imagine might be a crossing-point to the world beyond this one.

A solitary oarsman emerging out of the gloom, offering to transport you across.

A little girl and boy chatter away, oblivious to the grandeur of the Hagia Sophia

My post last week tried to show something of the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul – a glimpse, I hope, of more than just appearances – what does this look like? – but photographs that, perhaps, maybe, if I am lucky, encourage us to ask, what does this mean, what does it represent, what does it say to us?

In this black-and-white image, however, it is not the Hagia Sophia that speaks to us, it is a little girl and a boy, chattering happily away, not overawed at all, scarcely aware of the architecture, the monumental grandeur, the weight of religion and history even as, off to their left, a woman with her hair covered reads what might be a Koran or religious text.

It’s one of my favourite images of the Hagia Sophia, perhaps because it brings it all down to the human scale, the intimacy of the moment, reminds us that, without these children there, all this magnificence is just a heap of stone.

A little girl and boy chatter away in the Hagia Sophia, Istanbul