peripheral vision

photography by Kate Wilhelm

peripheral vision blog

because making photographs exposes as much about the photographer as the subject

Archive for the ‘South Africa’ Category

Subotzky’s Ponte City

Sunday, February 13th, 2011


I’ve been a fan of South African photographer Mikhael Subotzky’s for quite some time now. When I saw the announcement last year or the year before that he was working on a project about Ponte City (I thought of it as the Vodacom building) in Johannesburg, I was excited. The building really does dominate the Joburg skyline, and when I visited the city, I was told it was “full of Nigerians.”


Yesterday, dvafoto featured Subotzky’s new website, which shows the working book dummy for Ponte City and the installation and details of every window, door and television in the building. It stuck with me all day yesterday and into today. I love this work. I also love that Subotzky’s showing it as a work in progress.



I cannot WAIT to get my hands on this book! It looks absolutely stunning. Truly epic, which is fitting for a building that carries such mythology.

Faith 47

Tuesday, June 29th, 2010

Faith 47 is a Cape Town graffiti artist I’ve been following on twitter for a while now. I think I discovered her after my trip, but I can’t be sure. I definitely came upon her when I was googling stuff about Woodstock. As it turns out, I’ve photographed some of her work without realizing it at the time:

mural in Cape Town
(a drive-by from my 2007 trip to SA)

longstreet 021
(also from 2007)

Yesterday, Faith 47 linked to a new video that features a series of her works centred on the Freedom Charter. I think the video might also show her creating the piece that is a sort of hinge in my series Where will I spend my happy days?
Freedom Charter 1955 on Frere St.

Anyways, watch the video. It’s beautiful. I love the pacing of the visuals and the music.

The Freedom Charter from rowan pybus & faith47 on Vimeo.

Then I discovered she has other videos there.

This one is about a piece she did in Woodstock, near Gympie Street, which has a terrible reputation for crime and disorder. I never went down Gympie Street myself, mostly because I just ran out of time. But supposedly when I was there it had been cleaned up, a clean-up that involved removing many of the street’s inhabitants. This video reminds me of Stephen Watson’s quote about how some cities “are clotted with words in the same way that certain landscapes are polluted by filth. Words proliferate here like layers in a landfill: all psychic space is overpopulated with them.” He was talking about New York City, but as I’ve edited my photos from Cape Town, I’ve often thought it applies there too. Anyways, watch this video too. Stunning work.

the cape of good hope from rowan pybus & faith47 on Vimeo.

representations of Africa

Thursday, June 3rd, 2010

With South Africa’s World Cup fast approach, there’s been a lot of talk of Africa in the media and on blogs. Just yesterday, I came upon two discussions worth passing on. AFRICA IS A COUNTRY reposted a piece by a London Lara Pawson writer about how Western media talks about Africa. She says, “I have almost reached the stage where I believe that any interest in that huge and complicated continent can only be false and without meaning. Africa has become perhaps a parody of Africa.” I recommend you read the whole thing.

Conscientious then pointed me to this post calling for new visual stories of Africa.

I think the CONTACT exhibition at Gallery 44 showed contemporary African photography working along similar lines. Unfortunately I didn’t get to see the show… life kept distracting me, but I hope there will be other opportunities down the road.

Where will I spend my happy days?

Thursday, March 18th, 2010

I’ve whittled my work from Woodstock down to a number that I can at least show you in a slideshow — albeit a long one. I still need to edit it further down, but I think I’ll leave that for a few months to gain some distance. In the meantime, here it is, with a working title of Where will I spend my happy days?

Woodstock has a reputation for being dangerous. One person I spoke to said his wife was held up at gunpoint there, and another one told me he’d been mugged there. Someone else told me it was seriously dangerous, like murder dangerous due to all the gang activity there. Another (coloured) person told me that he feels much safer in historically Black areas than in historically Coloured areas like Woodstock. The Manager of the Woodstock Improvement District, who provided me with a security guard to help me in my project, told me he’s sick of this idea that Woodstock is dangerous. But when I asked if that meant that I could wander the streets by myself with my camera, he said no way. When he saw my camera he guffawed, “Shue! You’re crazy if you think can you walk around by yourself with THAT!”

It strikes me that the South African idea of safety is… well, skewed to say the least.

Being a mother, I had no interest in putting my life or mental health at risk, certainly not for photography, but I didn’t really feel like I was doing that in Woodstock. The problem was that I didn’t feel like I could trust my own judgment because there were probably all kinds of cultural cues I was missing. My safety meter wasn’t calibrated to Cape Town. So I began with a question, but my explorations quickly turned into an obsession with personal security and how people carry out their daily lives under the constant threat of being mugged or carjacked or killed.

My original goal with this project was to make enough good work to apply for grants to return and finish it over a longer term. But I think my love affair with South Africa has moved from the honeymoon phase to the morning after, and I’m not so interested in returning right now. As I’ve been attempting to edit this work, I keep feeling like it’s just unfinished. There are gaps and missing threads that if I’d had more time I could have figured out how to fill but I just didn’t have time to work through all that. Sadly, it might just remain unfinished forever, which feels like a terrible disservice to the people who helped me and invited me into their homes: Sam and her family at the Woodstock Torchbearer, the Woodstock Improvement District, the manager and residents of the Haven Old Age Home for the Destitute, Dennis, Jeffrey, Carol and Nathanial, Elizabeth and Lindsay, and Vanessa, among others.

Where will I spend my happy days?

nothing left but the mozzie bites

Friday, March 12th, 2010


So we’re home now, waking up at 4 in the morning and falling asleep before a half-assed dinner. I’m working on my edit of work from Woodstock, and I think what I’ve learned is that I can’t do the kind of work I want to do in a week or two. This is a good thing to learn. Unfortunately, it means that my work form Woodstock feels unfinished and disparate. If I was able to work on it over months, I think I would have figured out the right thread. I may still figure it out from home. In the meantime, here are a few random shots.






And a few family/bricolage shots…




life’s a beach

Tuesday, March 2nd, 2010

The truth is, I am not a beach person. I burn easily, I don’t like swimming in cold water, and I don’t like getting hot and sweaty, especially if there is sand around to stick to me. I don’t actually mind getting hot if I’m walking around or doing something and have access to shade, but beaches don’t tend to offer much in the way of the shade. Maybe it’s too many childhood bouts of sunstroke.

Unfortunately my husband LOVES the beach: he loves swimming, he loves sunning, he loves it all. And my son, despite his very fair skin, is showing signs of taking after his father. So we went to Boulders Beach, which is a little sheltered from the wind and surf and therefore perfect for little kids. And you know what? I had a great day. There was enough of a breeze to keep us cool, and my son had a great time digging in the sand, and I enjoyed helping him make sand castles. When my husband and him took the beach ball to water’s edge for a while, I had a nice chat with my father-in-law, and I remained cool.

To get to Boulder’s Beach, we drove across the Cape Flats, where a lot of apartheid townships are. Some of the books I’ve been reading have mentioned Lavender Hill, which has probably stuck in my mind for its pretty-sounding name. But in fact, there isn’t actually a hill anywhere near it (it’s on the Cape FLATS), and it’s reportedly a pretty gang-ridden, hopeless place. People were forcibly moved there under the Group Areas Act during Apartheid, and I think it’s one of the poorest formerly Coloured townships. So we drove by it, and I knew it was Lavender Hill from the graffiti on the wall that ran along the highway: “Welcome to Lavender Hill where people are moved with love, happiness and diversity.” It was so well-done and cheerful-looking, if I hadn’t known better I would have been tempted to make a visit. There was also what looked like a circus tent next to the highway, which my father-in-law speculated is a temporary school.

On the way home, from up on the mountain, I could see a fire somewhere in the flats, someone’s life or some people’s lives going up in smoke while we enjoyed the beach. Fire is part of Cape Town’s nature, it’s even required for the fynbos’ life cycle, but not so much for human lives.

earth, wind and fire

Monday, March 1st, 2010

It was last night around 5 pm when I finally realized it’s insanely hot. And then I just couldn’t shake it. It had been really hot the day before too, but to a certain extent you kind of expect that when you’re in Cape Town in the summer, so once I dipped in the pool, I sort of forgot. But last night I couldn’t forget. At five, the car’s dash said it was 35 degrees Celsius, and it suddenly struck me that it was late enough in the day that it really shouldn’t still be 35. We had a leisurely dinner on a shaded patio and still we were hot and sticky. For once, there were no clouds over the mountain, and no wind. When I was putting my son to bed, he pointed out a bunch of lights up on Lion’s Head, all moving around and all different colours. I still don’t know for sure what it was, but I’m thinking it was hikers taking advantage of the windless, cloudless night.

I don’t think the temperature went down with the sun at all. We had the windows open wide all night but it only just started feeling comfortable when it started getting light this morning. Since there wasn’t even the slightest breeze, all the open windows did was let in the mosquitoes. My poor son gets terrible reactions to mozzie bites and he’s covered in them. He has three bites on his left ear, so it’s swelled to about twice its normal size. He refuses calamine lotion, so I just keep dosing him with Benadryl.

Anyways, it was crazy hot again today. This morning, I finally got a chance to wander the area I want to make pictures in, but it was already stifling by 9, and I really felt it. Approaching strangers for photos can be quite exhausting at the best of times, and in this heat I just ran out of steam. I have no idea what the forecast is, but I’m definitely hoping it cools a bit in the next couple days, so I can be more productive.
In one corner store, I met a retired journalist. He told me he was once invited to apply to journalism school somewhere in Canada, but when he went to apply for a visa, the Canadian embassy told him that the government had cut all ties to South Africa and wouldn’t let anyone in the country, not even if you were coloured or black. He said this would have been around 1968, and I was surprised and ashamed by that. When he was telling his story, I had thought it might have been in the 80s when the whole world had sanctions against SA.

When I got home, we went down the street to discover a fantastic cafe that we wish we’d discovered a week ago. Unfortunately, when something is just down the street here, your walk home is steeply uphill all the way. We melted in the door and almost immediately jumped into the pool

Afterwards, some cloud started appearing over the mountain and I thought that might be a sign of cool to come. Sure enough, a breeze started, and it’s now a fully-fledged strong wind, once again rattling our doors and windows and shaking our floorboards. I didn’t think I’d be so happy to hear the wind back, but it’s just an incredible relief.

We enjoyed a really great bottle of wine with dinner tonight, and when I was putting my son to bed, he said, “I love being in this country.” A welcome change from all the talk of wanting to go home. As my husband noted as we made dinner, “By the time we’re all settled in, it will be time to go home.” Such is life, I guess.

checking in

Saturday, February 27th, 2010

Today every time my son got upset, he cried, “I just want to be back in Canada.” Or “I want to get on the plane to Canada tomorrow!” When he’s happy, like if he’s just come out of the pool or we’re at the beach, he says, “I’m so happy to be in this country!” I understand exactly how he feels, alternating between “We only have a bit more than a week left, and we’ve barely done anything or seen anyone!” and “Oh wouldn’t it be nice to feel at home and safe again? That said, I think we’re finally getting our land legs here in Cape Town. We’ve been here for more than a week now, and it’s largely been spent dealing with rental car, cell phone and electricity issues. This is the downside of renting a private home instead of staying in a B&B or a hotel, I guess. The upside is having a whole lot of privacy.

Actually today and yesterday were quite nice. Yesterday we went to the waterfront, and went out on a short harbour cruise, because my son was superkeen to go on a boat ride, and then the aquarium, which he also enjoyed. Today we had lunch in Company Gardens and wandered through the South African Museum. The last couple of nights we’ve made dinner at home, and they were decidedly more successful than the fish biltong my husband barbecued in our first attempt at a home-cooked meal.

I also finally began my photo project today… no photos, but meeting contacts and getting oriented in the area I want to photograph. I’m nervous that it’s bigger than I can reasonably do in the short time left, but I might as well try to do as much as I can before we leave.

I’m reminded of an old boyfriend, who advised me one night when we were walking home from the local swimming hole and a thunderstorm hit. I was kind of freaking out, convinced we’d be struck by lightning, and my legs kind of didn’t work. When I told him I thought we were going to die, he replied that that may well be, but he wanted to get as close to home as possible before it happened. So we ran. And we made it home. It’s a principle that I’ve applied in many situations, and I may as well apply it here too.

I’d forgotten just how uncomfortable travelling is, especially with a young child. Though I think it would be A LOT more uncomfortable for me to attempt travelling this far without my son. I  like keeping my family near me. And we’ve never been big night life people anyways. I wonder what memories, if any, my son will retain from this trip?

I’ve posted a few pics to flickr, although we pay for the internet by the MB so not many. Plus, I haven’t actually been taking many photos yet. Here are a few:





There’s a few more on flickr, if you’re interested.

morning, day 2

Saturday, February 20th, 2010

Yesterday morning, I was woken first by the call of a hawdidaw, then by a rooster (who’s got a rooster in suburban Cape Town???), then I just laid there and enjoyed the rest of the morning’s sounds coming in an open window. This is always what I enjoy most about the first days of summer in Canada too: hearing the daily sounds of life. A dog bark, some traffic, and the wind in the leaves. Always the wind. I don’t know why they call Chicago The Windy City when there is Cape Town. Yesterday and last night it was windy; when my jet lag woke me in the middle of the night, I even heard things banging around – in our yard or the neighbour’s I’m not sure.

Sometime after I fell back to sleep, though, the wind must have died down because this morning it is still and already warm. Today we get our rental car. I’m nervous about driving in the city on the other side of the road, but I think it will be good for us to explore the area more independently than we have in the past. Last night as I laid awake, I couldn’t help but ask myself: why am I continually pushing myself outside my comfort zone??? Why can’t I just stay at home and chill out in my safe little world? Sometimes it almost feels like a moral imperative to me, like discomfort (not physical but emotional discomfort – the byproduct of intimacy and new experiences) is next to godliness or something.

My father-in-law has lent me some of his books by Stephen Watson, a Cape Town poet and professor at UCT. I’m reading a writer’s diary, which is just as it says. I chuckled at this entry, from 21 December 1995, written while he was in New York City:

“There are certain environments, particularly these post-industrial cities, which are clotted with words in the same way that certain landscapes are polluted by filth. Words proliferate here like layers in a landfill: all psychic space is overpopulated with them. At the same time they float free of all signification, losing their substances as a result.


Words, no less than human beings, need a certain amount of space in order to mean, to be. Failing that, the very feel of the language starts changing, losing its reality. One gets the emergence of phenomena like postmodernism which at times strike one as simply a way of shifting the word-garbage around when it’s grown too deep to be disposed of.”

And later, on 27 December 1995:

“[R]eliance on cliché is not only a reflection of a kind of collective crassness; it is also an index to a certain form of brutality. Clichés being the dead wood of language, they provide the verbal clubs with which people commonly beat others about the head.”

Now, I think it’s about time I woke my husband and son and we got on with our day.

bon voyage to me!

Wednesday, February 17th, 2010

Alright, we’re packed. All the zippers are zipped. Tickets and passports are in my purse. And we have almost two hours until we get picked up to go to the airport. So what now? Figured I may as well take a moment to blog.

I’m pretty excited about some of the contacts I’ve made. I’ve got a bit of a plan for a personal photography project while I’m there, which I won’t go into detail about here yet, since it might be a total flop and I might end up taking a completely different direction. I’ve also been in touch with Iliso Labantu, a collective of township photographers in Cape Town. I’m bringing my old D70s to donate to them, and it happens that they’re having one of their flash photo weekends while we’re there. So I’m planning to go to that, both to shoot a little bit and to help some of the photographers improve their shooting and editing. I’m so stoked. I’ve always believed that it’s better to enable marginalized people to photograph their communities and lives themselves than to photograph it yourself — not that it’s wrong to photograph marginalized people, of course, but it is problematic — so I’m just delighted to get this opportunity to see that kind of work in action.

I’ve also been in touch with a tribal fusion belly dance troupe, so I’m hoping to catch a performance and maybe a rehearsal.

And of course, we have some wonderful family to visit. And the summer. We’re so deep in winter that it’s really an act of imagination to consider what summer will actually feel like. I know intellectually that during the summer you can walk outside in barefeet but I can’t really remember what that feels like beyond really, really nice.

I’m really looking forward to staying in one city for our whole stay. In the past we’ve travelled around to visit other family, and while I’m sad we won’t see them, I’m relieved to be staying put.

See you on the flip side!

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