“Memories don’t live like people do,” Johnny Bristol once sang, “as they always stay with you, whether they’ve been good or bad.”
That’s not true of course, as my mother would find out to her cost when dementia claimed her in her twilight days. So sorry Johnny, you’re wrong pal. They can fade, they can become jumbled, uncertain, and yes, they can indeed leave us, Johnny, just like people do.
But when they do go, when they leave us, what do we become?
I would often watch my mother grapple with that very same conundrum, as the person who she was would randomly resurface from time to time. The woman who I knew and loved, my mum, would sometimes suddenly float to the surface of the dark dementia sea that had taken her under. She’d weep as she begged for us to tell her what was wrong with her - but we never could. Then she would be gone again, swallowed up and reclaimed beneath the waves, from whence she came.
Dementia is such a very cruel way to die, as it takes not only one’s memories but also knowledge to perform even the most basic of intuitive skillsets, hardwired by synaptic plasticity since birth. All is made moot by dementia - sadly, even breathing.
Memories are where I turn now though when the future seems so unclear. I run and hide into a past world of certainty, snuggling up under its duvet-like presence and re-running past times again and again like an old film which bears no surprises yet still provides joy in its telling.
I spoke to a friend on the phone last week, and she told me that during the last 3 months, 2 old flames, from a long time ago, had contacted her in hopes of rekindling the fire, so to speak. Yet for them, there was to be no return to that long conquered country known as the past.
That country which is calling so many of us now.
Once, in a distant past, when I thought that I was becoming the man who I believed I wanted to be, I waited in the hallway of a house, made golden by the early morning sun of a December morning in South Africa. Waiting patiently, as trepidation and a sense of guilt-laden excitement churned away inside of me. Glancing down at my phone to check the time and then beginning to send a text I would never send, as I stopped to open the front door and look outside forlornly before closing it back once more, waiting for Timmo to arrive.
The quick beep of a car horn startled me, and instinctively I stooped down to grab my camera bag and tripod by the door and then rushed out to see Timmo waiting outside. As the heat hit me, my arm raised in a half-hearted salute of sorts. I struggled with the camera bag and tripod in tow. Throwing my tripod into the back of the car, then locking it and then crashing into the passenger seat; we headed off to Khayelitsha Hospital, Cape Town.
Timmo was a doctor heading off to a day of helping as many people as he could to live while knowing that at Site B he was sometimes the only trauma doctor on call and so decisions on who was treated and wasn’t were quick and final. For the past few days I had shadowed him and his work, and I could see the toll and the strain it was taking on him. On my first day, after walking into triage and seeing a woman in the corridor with a hole in her face, he let me sit in during his consultations with patients. This involved me, with patient permission, sitting in the room as around five or six people came in, one by one, to be told about their HIV / AIDS status.
I sat behind Timmo, like a theatre patron of a sordid play, watching as some people cried hysterically while others laughed. “Well”, one gentleman said, reclining back in his chair, his hands raising to clasp behind his head, his navy blue Fila tracksuit searing itself on my memory, “I better tell all my girlfriends then.”
One man fiddled with his hat in his lap, shaking uncontrollably. His daughter had been missing for six weeks, and he had already been diagnosed with Parkinson's. He too was positive. So too was a woman, whose skeletal frame and zombie-like mannerisms foreshadowed her results. No one in that room needed to read her the result to know her future.
I had visited South Africa for the first time in 2005 with the intention of being mentored by well-known photographer George Hallett. Two weeks ago he died, and 15 years ago this week I would be in Cape Town for the first time, ostensibly, via an Arts Council grant for that mentorship. We’d met in Birmingham, 9 months prior to my arrival in South Africa, at a function, being introduced by the late Pete James, Head of the Photographic Archive at the Central Library in Birmingham. George was in Europe because he had just been awarded a World Press GoldenEye Award for his work documenting Nelson Mandela’s first-year post-release from captivity.
Obituaries are never written to be read by the dead. They are only there to fulfil the needs of the living. Yet, suffice to say, George was a complex man, but a wonderful photographer.
It would be far too easy to say that he was a man with demons, yet, as sometimes people say, the path to truth is an easy route.
Maybe, in hindsight, the mentorship that George provided was more than just photographic - taking me to the French Embassy party on Bastille Day in Cape Town was, for a bloke from Dudley, interesting! But he created, intentionally or otherwise, the opportunity for me to fend for myself in Cape Town for two months.
In this time I met so many people who helped me so much. They, just like George, helped to give me adventures which I could never have imagined, and for the first time in my life, I truly felt alive.
I felt alive though, because for the first time it truly seemed that life and death were in graphic contrast.
After a brief introduction by George, I was befriended by the photojournalist Fanie Jason. Fanie told me, before taking me to a hospice in Gugulethu which catered mainly for AIDS patients, that you have come here to see how people live, but you must also see how they die.
Fanie had made a powerful photo essay here several years before, which had won him a Mother Jones Award. He had been initially covering, as Joy Chuang writes, “a local news story back in December of 2000, to which...triggered this project.” The story he covered was in Philippi Township, near Cape Town, where a young mother, husband, and their 3-year old daughter had all died of AIDS-related illnesses within a day of each other.
Inside the hospice, well, I remember every sad, voyeuristic moment of it. Mainly because they didn’t permit photography, and I couldn’t hide from it all behind my camera. The sounds, the smells, the sight of a blanket of many pastel colours placed over a window that looked like a stained glass window in a church, as the pastel hues of light shone down to paint the solitary old white man on the ward sitting on the edge of his bed with one leg missing.
I remember him.
I remember the face of the Black child in a cot, too, who reached out his arms for me, in a room full of other Black toddlers standing in cots, to lift him up, and how I turned my back on him and left as he cried.
I remember this child’s face too.
As the nurse, present in the consultation room with me and Timmo a year later, began to tell the man in the navy blue tracksuit, still leaning backwards in his chair, that he needed to change his diet and eat plenty of fruit. I thought back to that year before. Of that old white man, painted in the pastel hues and his white beard. Then I remembered the piercing eyes of the little Black boy who just wanted someone to hold him.
On that December morning in 20o6, after arriving at the hospital, I decided to wait in triage as Timmo went on call. I walked around the triage station with my Mamiya 7ii (yes, a camera reference) in hand. I took a series of flash meter exposures, at different distances, so that if anything happened I’d have a set of apertures in mind to use, depending on how close or far away I was. With this done, I just hung out waiting for something to happen. Hanging out mainly in the corridor for 20 or 30 minutes or so, just watching a cleaner who had been priming the green corridor floor upon my arrival. It may have been green with white swirls or white with green, either way, he waxed the floor and then polished it.
Each step of the process he would throw daggers at me as I tried, hurriedly, to get out of his way each time the whirs of his silver-grey buffering machine came closer.
After all of his efforts, he proudly wound the cord around the now silent, buffering machine. Just then, as he walked away to disappear around a corner, another figure immediately crossed his path to walk in the other direction, turning the corner to walk towards me and onto the newly buffered floor.
At the bottom of an arm, I noticed a large, heavy, white carrier bag, and just as that image registered in my mind, he collapsed. The bag crashing to the floor and all of the blood which had collected in there flowing like a flooded river all the way down the full length of the corridor.
After five days of being in the trauma unit, and after being inaugurated into a world of gallows humour, I found myself thinking, as I ran from the red tsunami, that this was the funniest thing that I had ever seen.
Until, of course, the screams of the man reached me.
Someone had tried to shoot him in the face and he had placed his forearms together, like a shield, in front of his face, the bullet lodging into his wrist.
He was lucky.
Maybe he was high or maybe hysterical, but after he was placed onto the light brown benches of the triage, he called me over and pointed at my camera. I raised it upwards and he gestured again. I took a photograph of his hand in a pool of his blood. Not wanting to reveal his identity, I then stepped back just as he began to scream.
It was a sound, the likes of which I had never heard before. A wailing piercing sound, which I think broke me a little that day, as I walked away to lock myself in the nurses’ station. Yet his screams would still find me.
The day before, I had taken a photograph of the hand of a man who had just died. His body was resting under a blanket on a gurney in the zinc-roofed shelter which seemed to force the temperature up into the high 30’s degrees centigrade. His face was not covered, and I stared at his eyes, waiting for a blink which never came. Timmo lifted the sheet to uncover his hand.
He had been poisoned by his family, I later learned, as I watched his hysterical mother begging a cop for them to release the body to her. His mental illness made him a drain on family resources I was told, so they poisoned him. As his death was suspicious, his body would have to remain there until he could be transported to the coroners for a postmortem.
The last body waiting for transportation had exploded in the mortuary, stomach gases building in the heat, until the cadaver couldn’t contain them, Timmo had said. Maybe doctors, just like photographers, love their stories too, no matter how gruesome they are.
Sometimes I think a group of photographers should be known as a “brag”. Because if there can be a ‘charm’ of finches or a ‘murder’ of crows, then there most definitely should be a ‘brag’ of photographers’. A photographer always has a story to tell.
One that usually posits them at the centre of a golden light of glory. A story designed, quite often, to show how brave they were, how principled, how clever and how - even when they have done some underhanded unethically duplicitous shit - they can demonstrate that a lesson was learnt which has paved a way for their new, photo-ethically sound self.
Perhaps the lesson learnt from those times was that, well, that that life was not for me. After a week of watching other people’s pain, I was done. Even if it took having to replay those moments on a loop inside my head every day for the next six months for it to be truly over. Six months of finding myself tearing up at odd times when sitting on a bus with strangers, or feeling sudden waves of guilt when laughing at a comedy on the TV.
I knew though that the stories I was trying to share weren’t mine to tell; they were never made for the consumption of those found within my framing. How could they be if the suffering of these people only acted as props for a study of my own experiences, their lives only serving the purpose of shaping so many anecdotes to follow? I knew then that I didn’t have to travel thousands of miles to find stories. That my own experience and the experiences of those who shared them were just as valid.
But finally, I learned that the intensity of the experience does not always make a good photograph - and most definitely that you don’t have to place yourself in a precarious situation for your photographs to be valid.
As photographers, we don’t have to live our lives always on a strange safari in search of trophies made of other people’s experiences. Parachuting into their lives, looking for moments to add to our collection. Taking all and leaving them with nothing but the eyes of others looking down upon them.
Perhaps, in hindsight, it is this idea, this narrative of what constitutes ‘good photography’ has been defined by those who have always held the power to tell stories and have them be heard. These stories, I believe, are inherently linked to narratives of whiteness. This is something I’ve written about before here.
That said, these memories have led me to the path where I find myself now.
Trying to tell stories about my parent’s migration from the Caribbean and legacies of that journey. Maybe, in hindsight, I am still hiding in the experiences of others, simply making sense of my own experiences in relation to theirs. Yet their stories are my stories.
They are closer to home if only because I live them too.
So, in 2008, I began to tell those stories my father and mother had once told me. Those same stories had once sustained my mother and whether they had been good or bad, I tried to save them, as they were slowly leaving her.
Sadly, just like people do.
CreateSpace is a Creative Health CIC project in partnership with Arts Council England, Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery, The New Art Gallery Walsall, Wolverhampton Art Gallery and Staffordshire County Council.