me and Alec Soth

You know that scene in the movie Annie when they get her back from the orphanage and everyone starts dancing around Daddy Warbuck’s huge mansion, singing, “We got Annie! We got Annie!” Well, I’m doing that inside my head. Only my words are, “I got in! I got in!”

I got into the Magnum Workshop in Toronto with Alec Soth!

How much do I admire Alec Soth? A lot, a lot.

When I was 20 or so, I loved Al Purdy’s poems. In fact, I loved his poems from the first time I read them when I was around 16. When I was 20, he was still my favourite living (then) poet. He had a reading here at The Albion Hotel, my local watering hole, and I just couldn’t believe my luck in getting to hear him read. Then I got an opportunity to go to the Harbourfront Tribute to him (I think it was 1996? 1997?), and I didn’t think it would get better than that. And then I got to go interview him at his home in Sidney, BC.

This is just like that.

Only this time, I won’t fuck it up.

Eek! Not only am I going to hear Alec Soth talk (presumably about his approach and experiences), but I’m going to meet him. I’ll probably even get to carry on an actual conversation with him. I wonder if he’ll sign my book?

Sunday’s fun

So yesterday I photographed the Tri-City Roller Girls. I was nervous as hell, because I’ve never had to pose and direct such large groups in such short time before, but it was a lot of fun. Of all the ways I envisioned the day, the one scenario I never envisioned was standing behind three strange men in front of urinals. But I did.

Unfortunately, I was laughing so hard I couldn’t hold the camera steady and it’s a bit unsharp. What can you do?

There are three teams in the league, and I photographed all three.

Tri-City Thunder is the travel team, made up of players from the other two teams.

Vicious Dishes

Venus Fly Tramps

All in all, a great day.

Where will I spend my happy days?

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?

Araminta de Clermont


I didn’t end up making it out to many galleries in Cape Town, but we did go to the SA National Gallery, where I fell in love with Araminta de Clermont’s Matric Queens (the complete body of work was exhibited at another Joao Ferreira Gallery in October 2009 with the name Before Life).


I’m sad that she doesn’t appear to have her own website, but I did find a couple of great audio slideshows of her work. This one features Before Life, the pictures of Matric Queens, and this one features her earlier work about former prisoners and their tattoes, Life After. Go check both of them out. You won’t be sorry.


nothing left but the mozzie bites


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…





So it’s our last day here. Our flight leaves just after midnight tonight. I am NOT looking forward to getting on an airplane with an overtired, overheated, overexcited little kid. But what can you do? We have to go home, and we’re definitely ready to go, I think. This morning was cool and cloudy, but the sun is coming out now. Yesterday we withered in 45-degree heat. Well, it was only 35 degrees Celsius inside. It made me realize how divorced we are in Canada from the outside world with all our central heating and air conditioning and screened windows.

Overall, I’m glad we made the trip and it was the right thing to do, but I have to say that it was definitely harder than I expected. It’s a long time for our little guy to be away from home and the familiar, and I don’t know if I’ll be keen to do it again any time soon. I didn’t realize when we left, but I think my expectations were just way too high after our last two trips here. This trip was much more real, and real life is boring and itchy and annoying in addition to the warmth and sunshine and honey.

It strikes me now that I’ve done a lousy job of documenting the trip for my son’s memory. But everywhere we went we’d already been to with him when he was one, and it felt like I would just be taking the same pictures over again, only with him bigger and longer. Perhaps I should take a minute this morning to write down the experiences I want to remember, for myself or for my son, before the delirium of the long flight home erases them.

First, the car guards. They’re men who don flourescent-coloured vests and they wave you into your parking spot and then keep an eye on your car while you go about your business. Then you give them a few rands when you come back. I’ve always wondered what they would actually do if someone tried to break into your car, and I hope it’s nothing. But I suppose just the eyes can be a bit of a deterrent. Mostly, I think it’s an opportunity to help someone out in a country with an unemployment rate estimated somewhere around 40 percent (though the government’s official number is 22 percent – I think they count the streetside vendors and car guards as employed).

When we went to the museum in Company Gardens, we parked on a back street. There weren’t many people around at all, but there was a car guard there, with a bucket of murky water for washing the cars I guess. He had a couple friends hanging out with him, and when we returned, they were all clearly drunk and pouring more vodka from the bottle. The car guard was quite taken with our son: “I can see that he is a Man of God. You are a Man of God. Praise Jesus Christ. He is a Man of God, a good man….” He went on like that for some time, until eventually I’d strapped our son into the car seat and we were in the car. I’m glad they were happy drunk, but since it was only about 2 in the afternoon, I’m not sure the cheerfulness would endure the whole night.

The other night we ate at an Indian restaurant in Upper Woodstock, called Chandani. They have a fountain in their front stoep and our son pulled us out there throughout the meal. A car guard stood at the gate, and immediately he called to my son: “I have something for you, my brother. What’s your name?” And the car guard pulled out a necklace he made to sell, and he put it around my son’s neck. It was a leather string with a few beads and a leather cross on it. My son loved it. The car guard told him he sells the necklace to buy milk for his children, allying my son to his cause. He wanted 50 rands for it, but I didn’t have that and I wasn’t about to pay that for it anyways. When I made to take it off my son’s neck, he said we mustn’t do that, so we negotiated. In the end, I gave him the change in my pocket, which totalled 10 rands.

Later, during another trip to the fountain, he told me his name was Robert and he’s from Sudan. He has a wife and two little kids aged 1 and 3, who are waiting for him to earn enough money to stay at the Loaves and Fishes shelter in nearby Observatory. It costs 38 rands. If he doesn’t make that amount by 11 pm, they will have to sleep rough. Having a foreign accent generally brings out everyone’s sad stories, and they might not always be true, but even if this story is not true for him, I’m sure it’s true for someone.

The amount we spent on dinner for 7 of us that night would have paid the monthy rent for two of the independent-living residents in the Haven Old Age Home I photographed in Woodstock, and would have paid for Robert and his family to be sheltered for 24 nights. The disparity in resources here is shocking and shaming. And the currently strong Canadian dollar can’t explain it all, because many South Africans spend similar amounts on dinners out.

As someone said in one of the books I read here (I can’t remember which one), you have to have a thick skin to live in Cape Town.

I think my son might most want to remember the helicopters that put out fires on the mountain. One day I returned home from a morning of photographing in Woodstock to see several helicopters with their red water buckets dangling. They fly down to the ocean to fill up the bucket with water, then they fly back to the fire and dump the water on it. Apparently while I was away, there was a fire right behind our house on Lion’s Head. My husband and son could even see big flames. So they watched all the activity, and when I came home, my son said sadly, “There’s no more helicopters. There’s no more fire for them to put out.” His lower lip stuck out. I don’t think he really gets the problem with fire.

So now we will pack, and maybe pick up a few mementoes from the trip, and I’m hoping to get some small prints for the people who were kind enough to let me in to photograph them in Woodstock and give them back. And then, I suppose, waiting. Waiting for the airplanes to take off, waiting for them to land, waiting to open our front door and – fingers crossed – say we survived.


Only two days left in Cape Town, and then back to Canada. From facebook, it looks like people at home enjoyed a lovely spring weekend, while we melted here. It’s been seriously, oppressively hot. I try not to complain, coming from the land of snow and ice and all, but even long-time Capetonians are complaining. (Which reminds me, one of the servers at a restaurant we ate at a week or so ago was shocked to hear that parts of Canada also get oppressively hot and humid in the summer. He seriously thought it was cold and icy all yea-round.)

So I’ve been working on my project, which is about Woodstock, an area of light industry and modest homes quite close to the central business district. I suppose the project isn’t so much about Woodstock, as it is situated in Woodstock, and perhaps about the things that draw me in in Woodstock. Many people have told me that Woodstock is seriously dangerous, and others, who live and work in Woodstock have told me it’s completely safe. But they all agree that it would be crazy for me to walk around with my camera by myself. So I don’t. I’ve had wonderful help from people. I find the South African idea of safety fascinating. I suspect that Woodstock IS safe by South African standards, and the people who say it’s not just haven’t been in a while. There’s a lot of work been happening there to clean up the place and get rid of the drug dealers in the last several years, and there’s lots of new and cool development happening there.

But of course, I’ve found I’m just not that into the new development. I’m more interested in encountering regular people and their daily lives, and the bits of graffiti, both good and bad. I came with an idea of what I wanted to photograph, but as usual, that’s not necessarily what I end up photographing. I’m not too sure yet how the project will end up. I think I’ll need time and distance from which to reflect and figure it out. This morning I’m heading back for my last time.

We leave late tomorrow night.

life’s a beach

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

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.