My Big Break presented itself in the spring of 1988. I’m not sure if one gets a Big Break, it’s more a series of smaller ones that culminate into what looks like The Big One. But this seemed large at the time.
I was sent by a daily newspaper to cover an election in a rural Afrikaans stronghold an hour or so west of Johannesburg. The journalist I was assigned with, met me outside the photography department’s main entrance in a taupe Toyota Corrola pool car.
Light conversation along the way revealed that this too would be the young journo’s first time on the frontline; the frontline that day being two political factions at each other’s throats, one an extremely far-right group and the other just far-right. I suspected our taupe Toyota Corolla, along with our English accents weren’t going to fare well in that environment.
My brain did one of those springy zingy coily things as we rolled into the small town with the late afternoon sun skimming the veldt; I was in a time warp. I recognised the look and feel of the locals and the environment as it was not too dissimilar to what I grew up with in the deep south of Johannesburg. However, these folk seemed a few years earlier than what I remembered, like before I was born.
The journo and I parted company as the speeches and heckling begun, wishing each other a happy hunt, and if all hell broke loose to regroup back at our taupe Toyota. I don’t recall who kept the vehicle’s keys.
My first exposure of the day came dangerously close to ending in tears when four colossal men noticed me attempting a shot of a speeding vehicle crushing their party leaders poster into the dusty corrugated road. I was surprised at the speed to body weight ratio they achieved as they bolted towards me. Time has a way of embellishing events, but I’m certain there was a dust cloud hovering above and slightly behind the stampeding hulks as they thundered across the ground. I was told I’d be a dead man if the image appeared in print. I was right, my English accent did me no favours as I promised the ‘meneers’ (sir’s) that I would trash the negs when I returned to the newsroom later that evening.
A bit rattled I walked off to gather myself and stumbled into the place where the Ouma’s were gathered, discussing sewing patterns and swopping homemade jam recipes. I thought if I could garner a couple of smiles I would be able to start afresh. But no emotions were forthcoming.
I changed tack and walked over to the Oupa’s, thinking what man wouldn’t slap a stranger on the back after a few brandy and Coke’s? It was at the moment I started to lose faith in country hospitality that I spotted the lone warrior and thought if I got one shot that day this was it. Mentally prepared for the beatings that were sure to follow, I pointed, shot and asked permission all at once, not giving him much time to realise he had just been immortalised. Surprisingly he said Dankie (thanks).
I don’t recall what shots made print the following day; there was so much happening in the dying days of Apartheid it became a blur of political rallies, detentions, missing persons and bomb blasts; it was an interesting time to be breaking into a new career.
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