Fading Rainbow

VANESSA SMEETS

Madiba_goodbye

FREEDOM: Is this goodbye? A democratic South Africa struggles to say goodbye to the man who freed her, as balloons, cards and posters fill up his hospital wall in Pretoria. PIC: Vanessa Smeets

In 1991, I came to a hateful, racist country that was on the verge of revival. Coming from Zimbabwe, I was shocked to see no black, Indian or coloured children in my class. “Where are they… the children of colour?” I asked my teacher one day. She looked at me confused. “Didn’t your parents tell you? We are separated here. We are different.”

Different? My black friends in Zimbabwe all spoke English. They taught me the beauty of an African sunset, those were the only colours that mattered.

I spoke fluent Shona. I could sing the national anthem, which has the exact same tune to the South African one, Nkosi Sikelel ‘iAfrika. The television spoke of a civil war rising between the ANC (African National Congress) and the IFP (Inkatha Freedom Party).

Madiba_Bang Bang Club

BANG BANG SA: Greg Marinovich and other photojournalists documented South Africa’s gruesome civil war as the Bang Bang Club, now a major motion movie under the same name. PIC: Internet

My parents were glued every night to the screen: “Maybe it’s time we go back?” “But we just got here.” Chris Hani’s gruesome assassination in his driveway rocked the country the most. He was the Communist Party leader and yet, being so popular, there was hint he had a good chance at winning the next elections.

The unrest and murders were documented by the Bang Bang Club in photojournalism that shocked the world. The ANC’s leader, Nelson Mandela (a Xhosa), was set free. For years, the country had labelled him “a terrorist.” Today, he is known as our most cherished “freedom fighter.” He was even condemned by Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, who later visited him as our leader.

I was only eight years old when Nelson Mandela took the oath in April 1994, next to FW De Klerk, to rebuild our country and her people. Yet, I remember it like yesterday. A man of peace stood before us. He was imprisoned for 27 years for treason. He was only allowed to send one letter every six months and get a visitor for only 30 minutes once a year.

Madiba_De Klerk

PEACE: The Nobel Peace Prize was awarded in 1993 to Nelson Mandela and FW De Klerk (who was his predecessor and deputy president) for “The peaceful termination of Apartheid.” PIC: Internet

It takes a lot to stand against your oppressors, learn their language and finally lead them. It takes a Godly man. He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize alongside De Klerk.

My dad took us to the Union Buildings the week after our first democratic elections. There was still confetti all over the lawns. Our new flag was flown proudly above the arches.
“Do you know what this man and flag mean for all of us?” Dad asked us.
“Not really…”
“It means we are all free. We are free to vote. We are free to take the same bus. We are free to go to the same schools.”

The rainbow flag fascinated me the most: the red for our blood-shed, the white for our peace, the yellow for our riches, the blue for our two oceans, the black for our tribes. The green “Y” shows two parts becoming one. Eleven languages were a result of our separation known as “homelands.” I even remember taking my domestic worker regularly to check her pass, a few years before. “I am different to you,” she showed me. “I have to be in bed at a certain time, I cannot go to certain places.” She had eyes, ears, a nose and curly hair like me and I also had to be in bed by a certain time, it was hard for a young child to understand.

Little by little, my father’s prophecy came true. Black, coloured, Indian children trickled one by one into my school. The children played with each other’s hair the most, it was fascinating to finally meet them. Nelson Mandela’s real first name is “Rolihlahla” meaning ‘pulling the branch of a tree’ and that’s exactly what he stood for. He took a poisoned tree of South Africa and gave her new branches: the branches of courage, forgiveness, patience and peace.

People were worried the TRC (Truth and Reconciliation Commission) trials would open old wounds. And, while they did, our new country (thanks to Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu) bled less in her quest for peace. Most perpetrators were given amnesty or asylum elsewhere.

Madiba_collage

SPORTS’ HERO: Nelson Mandela reunited South Africa using sport. PICS: Various sources GRAPHIC: Vanessa Smeets

Nelson Mandela saw the one thing that united us all: sport. While the black people of South Africa loved football (or soccer, as we call it), the whites preferred rugby. As documented by the Hollywood movie Invictus, Nelson Mandela stood at the Rugby World Cup in 1995, shaking hands with our Springboks. They sang the new national anthem proudly that day, after much practice, and took the cup home for us. That golden cup represented a golden era for South Africa that would forever be known as the “Madiba years.” Father of our nation aka Tata Madiba, for his clan name. He was our oldest elected president at 75. But, he’s not only “father of the nation,” he’s keeper of peace and guardian of our rainbow nation.

Today, I am struck with the realisation it’s time to let him go. Yet, like so many other South Africans, I am unable to free the man that set us free. South Africa stands uncertain: what will happen to the ANC? To our peace?

My only wish is that his last memory of us will be positive. Despite our xenophobia, crime and incessant complaining, that we can rise above and meet his ideals again: a country bound by love and forgiveness. You divide a nation by fear and hatred. Those who fear and hate, they flee. He gave us courage and taught us forgiveness. The problem with every rainbow, is that it slowly fades, but its beauty lives on. Mandela painted that rainbow for us.

In 2004, with his help, we were given the chance to host the 2010 FIFA World Cup. It was the biggest challenge to ever face South Africa; our stadiums were small or worn down. But, somehow, his smiling face grabbing onto that trophy motivated us.

In 2006, I interviewed eight 8-year olds for a newspaper article about what they would give him for his 88th birthday. Their answers were beautiful: “eternal life,” “immortality,” “freedom” and “happiness.”

Madiba_wall

FREEDOM BABIES: Mandela has touched both our oldest and youngest citizens. Pretoria Montessori Pre-school’s art illuminates his hospital wall with messages of hope and love. PIC: Vanessa Smeets

Today, I am teaching four and five year olds what he means to us. These freedom babies have still a lot to learn about his legacy. Their messages on their art for his hospital wall reveal, however, that they finally comprehend what he stands for:
“He is the grandfather I always wish I had.”
“Our country will be so sad without him.”
“He was the best president we ever had.”
“Mandela means freedom for us all.”
“It’s thanks to him, I can go to school with everyone.”

It’s the biggest full moon of the year. In a way, she consoles us: “Don’t worry, South Africa. Rest assured, his light will shine on.”

EXTRA SOURCE:

 

As close as it gets: James Nachtwey

VANESSA SMEETS

“I have been a witness and these pictures are my testimony. The events I have recorded should not be forgotten and must not be repeated.”
James Nachtwey

James Nachtwey

PEACE AMONGST WAR: James Nachtwey takes a break from photographing the horrific... PIC: Online

In the Killing Fields

When legendary photographer Robert Capa claimed: “If the picture wasn’t good enough, you weren’t close enough,” it’s as if he had James Nachtwey in mind.

Nachtwey has been to some of the most war-torn places in the world: Bosnia, Sudan, South Africa, Iraq and Afghanistan, amongst others. He is often on scene with soldiers, terrorists or war-crazy citizens. It was only while photographing a bomb explosion, skin melting off his arm that he realized his obsession with getting the right shot had taken over his life and sanity. Nachtwey suffered for years from post-traumatic stress disorder. In various interviews, he describes his nightmares as simple recollections of what already had been, only now the mangled corpses were screaming out in pain, asking for help.

Rwanda Hutu Camp Genocide

SCARRED: A survivor from a Hutu death camp; Rwanda/ 1994. PIC: James Nachtwey

Echoing Silent Voices

His horrific experiences turned Nachtwey into a recluse, unable to communicate properly with his family and colleagues. Nachtwey has since admitted that he is slowly recovering and jokingly claims: “Somehow the only way to replace such morbid pain and anger is to be fascinated by that which is even more morbid. It is a never-ending love-hate relationship with what you are witnessing.”
When Nachtwey speaks, his voice is as steady as his hand on the camera. There is a monotony to his voice that makes him sound like a Shaman amongst photographers. It has become more than just a profession, but a passion. His colleagues in the documentary War Photographer describe this as a passion-turned-obsession. Even after the shot is taken, Nachtwey will spend hours cropping and changing levels of light or saturation on Photoshop. Nothing, however, is manipulated, but only aimed at getting a better account of what happened. Nachtwey has claimed for years that the credibility of one’s pictures is all about your own account and testimony on the field. His photographs are often on eye-level, to make the viewer feel as if he/ she was there.

Sudan Famine

DESPAIR: Nachtwey's account of the famine in Sudan during the 1990s helped open the world's eyes to what he calls "the weapon of mass extermination." PIC: James Nachtwey/ site

Cream of the Crop

Zimbabwean photojournalist Richard Con* hails Nachtwey as “the most legendary photographer of all time,” stating:

“When Mugabe’s militants tortured me for ten hours to get my photos, I thought of Nachtwey in that documentary claiming every bit of torture, whether expected or not, is worth it. But yet, I’ve come to realize people act in front of the camera. When I photographed civil war in South Africa around the same time as Nachtwey, I realized men become savages to seem more amazing on film. That is when I had enough…”

CNN foreign correspondent Christian Amanpour describes Nachtwey as “a loner…a mystery” with an incredible drive, yet compassion, for those he photographs. Nachtwey insists in the documentary that a photographer must never force him/herself upon the scene. He has learnt the most effective photographs come from respecting your subjects. Their grief somewhat becomes your grief. When they cry, you take a few pictures and offer them tissues and a few kind words. After all, they have offered you an intimate look into their personal world.

Illustrating Pain

Susan Sontag criticises photographers in Regarding the Pain of Others as insensitive, yet Nachtwey has learnt to creatively use the pain of others. He will, for example, photograph only half a crying face for more effect, as if the subject is still searching for some guidance or reassurance that will make them whole again.

Some have criticised this symbolism, while others have hailed it as ‘genius’ and ‘works of art.’ Nachtwey, however, does not see his pieces as ‘works of art’ but as fragments of people’s pain, suffering and daily life. He boldly claims:

“I do not want my works to be hung up in people’s homes as masterpieces. How can someone’s extreme pain be a masterpiece? Each piece is sacred, an intimate bit of his/ her life.”

nachtwey war photographer

BANG BANG: The documentry War Photographer, produced by Christian Frei (2001), is a bitter-sweet reflection into Nachtwey's passion, life and relationships with his colleagues. PIC: Online

Nachtwey’s signature trademark of photographing everything in black and white has shown the importance of composition over colour. “Jim” as he’s known amongst his friends has been in the business since 1980. He was first part of Magnum photo agency, then co-founded his own agency VII with other worldwide photographers.
Greg Marinovich and Joao Silva describe Nacthwey as “the missing member” of their Bang Bang Club in their book with the same title. Nachtwey covered some of the civil war between two tribes in South Africa: Xhosa (African National Congress Party) vs Zulu (Inkatha Freedom Party). Nachtwey was the one who carried wounded Marinovich to safety in 1994 and helped carry the body of his dead colleague Ken Oosterbroek. The movie with the same title is currently on circuit.

Being taken as a serious photojournalist demands days, weeks or even years of being in war-zones, amongst the dying and grieving for only a few published pictures. Yet Nachtwey has learnt over the years that such few published pictures can change the lives of those you are photographing, as well as the lives of those who see them:

“Sometimes, one picture will touch one person then another and suddenly I am swarmed with people offering money, food or shelter. It is then that I realize even just one picture was all worth it.” 

EXTRA SOURCES:

Documentary: War Photographer (2001) produced by Christian Frei
http://www.jamesnachtwey.com
Book: Bang Bang Club by Greg Marinovich and Joao Silva
Various interviews of Nachtwey on YouTube
Personal interview with Richard Con*
Class notes

Zimbelican Adventures (2): Lost in Translation

VANESSA SMEETS

Ich bin in der Übersetzung verloren… Ja, I often find myself lost in translation…

sex and the city

GIRL POWER: Ive employed the ladies from Sex & The City to help me out with my German. Completely dubbed, with English subtitles, makes for fascinating learning skills. PIC: online

SEX AND THE CITY

No, it’s not what you think. Haha… German is a sehr schwierig (very difficult) language, so difficult that I bought the entire Season 1 and 2 of Sex & The City to help me out (besides my official classes, of course). Shortly afterwards, I realised my vocabulary will be very limited. Oops (or Hoopla! as you say in German). It really was the ONLY series they had in the shop. And it was my favourite series ten years ago, so it helped a lot with feeling all nostalgic in a new town.

STRANDED

bus transport

LETS DO THE BUS-STOP: Public transport is amazing in Germany. You can be at any mall, train station, neighbouring village or big town in just a couple of minutes. Just take the right bus-line. PHOTO: Vanessa Smeets

I’ve finally figured out the public transport system. Hurra! Busline 2, 3, 4, 5 and 6 all go in similar directions and eventually back to the student apartments. So, when I had a late night class and none were immediately available, I did a crazy thing and took Busline 1. IDIOT!

I found myself stranded in the countryside on the coldest spring day, in the rain (nogal!). The bus driver shook his head at me and drove me to his final destination, where he swapped seats with a new driver.

The new driver grunted at me, whispered something in German, then Turkish and took me to where I had originally got on. I was patient now and waited for the right busline, which eventually came 45 minutes later.

Cold and wet, it was an amazing feeling to be home again. I may decide to do such future excursions on a sunny day. At least then I’ll be able to see my experiences.

POST-TRAUMA STRESS DISORDER

Yes, I had a traumatic experience at the post. No, it didn’t come from the sharp edges of envelopes or the messy desks filled with people’s unwanted letters and bills. It came from the DHL owner. I tried posting 24 postcards (for those who had been kind enough to send me their addresses) and a present. The cost came to 19, 77 Euros. I knew I had the exact amount and started digging in my purse. I couldn’t find the darn 2 cents to make up that 7… He soon lost his temper and shouted at me. In future: somehow calculate what each little stamp and gram will amount to… Really now 😉

internet cafe

GERMAN ENGINEERING: You can wait for your washing, while chatting online. PHOTO: Vanessa Smeets

SEEING ORANGE

I fell in love with a specific restaurant’s freshly pressed orange juice. I still don’t understand why they keep giving me the wrong one. I’ve given up in trying to explain, but the synthetic one has really left a sour taste in my mouth. Arghhh, and asthma attacks at night.

Rule here is: once it’s placed on your table, you can’t send it back. Keep your eyes and oranges peeled…

HELP-LESS

Do not invade people’s personal space. In South Africa, it may be good manners to help a little granny across the road, but here I would advise you not to. I was at the Internet Café, when the granny next to me couldn’t find the print button. The owner showed her once, but she soon forgot.

I put my hand on her mouse to show her the difference between right-click and left-click and she scratched it quite viciously!

I was in shock. She then printed her stuff and walked away. Not even a ‘Vielen Dank’ or an apology.

German sunset

TASTE OF AFRICA: The beautiful sunsets of Tübingen remind me of home and make every day worthwhile... PHOTO: Vanessa Smeets

THE SILVER LINING

Despite these unpleasant few incidents, I have managed to find English classes which more or less fit into journalism. The one on War Photography I’m enjoying very much. We have to write response papers, do a presentation and do a written or oral exam (depending on what your major is). It feels great to know lots of background info on the topic and inform the class about the amazing foursome from South Africa known as the Bang Bang Club. Can’t wait for the movie this April! Sigh…

The other class is called Technological Utopias and asks us to see the pros and cons of living as part of the Technocratic Generation. I was thinking of doing another class on Shakespeare’s poetry and one on racism, just to fill up my time. But, a better idea would be to work for the local newspaper and finish my children’s stories. Yes, it has taken me nearly 12 years to tell the stories I used to tell my brother before he would go to sleep. Nothing leaked about the subject matter just yet 😉

Oh, and not forgetting these Zimbelican stories too… Time to check out the clubbing scene and blog about that, now that all the admin is finally done! PROST!

Obsession behind the lens

VANESSA SMEETS
famine africa

MAMA AFRIKA: Finbarr O’Reilly’s depiction of famine-stricken Africa won him World Press Photo in 2006. COURTESY: Finbarr O’Reilly/ World Press Photos

There’s something exhilirating in holding your first camera. You feel invincible. People in front of the lens may be smiling, crying, shaking or playing, but you are absolutely still and focused. You wait and watch. There you see it – that split second that makes the photo stand out above the rest. Click.

Content, you take it home and watch it over and over again on your PC screen. It has a unique story; maybe it was the last tear drop escaping a child’s face as she fell. Or, maybe it was the smile she had as she realised her ice-cream escaped the fall unscathed.

Johann van Tonder, photojournalism lecturer at Stellenbosch University’s Journalism Department, lists the three characteristics that set photojournalism apart: a subject, a subject which stands out and a story told by the picture.

Often, people mistake photojournalism with art. You may take a pretty picture of a child, an insect or a flower, but if it doesn’t tell a story, it is NOT photojournalism.

The best photojournalism picture often has a heart beat. It is able to speak to the viewer. It even has the power to move, intrigue or disgust him/her.

The Bang Bang Club by South Africans Joao Silva and Greg Marinovich captures the thrill, pain and glory (or lack of it) photojournalists go through. Their friend, Kevin Carter, won a Pulitzer prize for his photo of a child stalked by a vulture in famine-ridden Sudan. He was criticized for being insensitive. People in his own profession called him a coward for taking the picture, rather than helping the child. He became increasingly depressed and eventually committed suicide. As Marinovich points out in the book: “That image is engraved and burnt into your mind forever.”

GENIUS: James Nachtwey covered the Bosnian war, amongst others. His black & white technique proved that composition can be more powerful than colour. COURTESY: James Nachtwey

James Nachtwey has similar views in a National Geographic documentary made about him and his work. Nachtwey has been to some of the most war-ridden places in the world. His experiences in Bosnia turned him into an insomniac and recluse. He couldn’t confide in his wife or children. He found solace in taking even more horrific pictures. When his skin began to melt while taking a picture of an explosion, he realised his obsession with the right shot and addiction in getting it was taking over his life.

“Nothing prepares you for the pain afterwards,” says a former Zimbabwean photojournalist. His PC is filled with images of bruised bodies and raw flesh; after ZANU-PF officials threatened him and his colleagues as they tried to get rid of journalists in Zimbabwe.

They were harrassed and beaten; their camera straps used to strangle them.

There’s a price to pay for being a serious photojournalist. It demands determination and courage. It includes long hours, days or years of being in threatening places for a few published pictures. But the best photojournalists know that there is power in their profession. It is the power to paint a more realistic world, one defined by the eyes which were brave enough to look first.

stalked child

PULITZER PRICE: South African Kevin Carter was criticised for taking a photo of a starving child being stalked by a vulture. Many believe the criticism led to his eventual suicide. COURTESY: Kevin Carter/ archives