Photo journalist, chief photographer at the Sunday Times, James Oakwey visited Wits Vuvuzela today and dawned on us his experiences and lessons he has learnt in the 3 years that he has been in the industry.
He gave us a preview of some of the work he has done between last year and this year.
Firstly, he showed us a photo essay/documentary he did called “The Lost Crows”. This was his idea and his project which he independently researched and executed apart from his job at the Sunday Times.
The documentary featured a group of San people who were forced to join the South African Defence Force (SADF) during apartheid. They were made to join the army because of their special skills. These people knew how to read signs of the bush, they possessed good hearing and they were accustomed to the specifications of the natural world which normal soldiers did not have.
The “Kwek” and the “!XN” were two tribes where these people were pulled from. They fought for the opposition (which was South Africa) and as a result when the war ended they were scared to return home, leaving them homeless.
The army gave them a plot to live on near Kimberly called the Kraaines – which means lost crows in their language and thus the title of the documentary. However, they were consequently evicted from this land and were given RDP houses from the government in Platfontein.
James said because apartheid has long past and these people live in very poor rural areas, they have been forgotten and he wanted to document their lives as a reminder that “modern” san people do exist which do not fit the stereotypical view of san people.
James took a photo of a man’s silhouette who hung himself from a tree in the bush. The newspaper chose not to run this story as it might show to promote suicide. Another, ethical decision in journalism. Another photo was of a woman named Sonia who suffered from malnutrition and also had HIV/AIDS. She was not receiving any ARV’s neither was she receiving any grant money. Sonia passed away last year May at the age of 33.
Somehow the portrait of Sonia has not yet left my mind, it was a photo which makes a print in your consciousness because of its shock and horror of her boney structure.
Other photo’s included portraits of people, daily life and photo’s of “tombo” their local potent alcohol. James explained that the unemployment is very high in Platfontein and at first it was hard for him to get access into the community, he had to explain his quest and then he was allowed to take photos.
James recently returned from the Central African Republic, he shared with us the photo’s he took and his experience while there. More fascinating to me was the tactics he and his reporter used in order to get around and survive in CAR. Getting a photo in such situations does not come down to focusing and shooting, but the effort and preparations to get the permission to take the photos.
We were able to put faces to these ‘rebels’ we always here about on the news. We saw the SADF vehicles which were taken over by the rebels. The dilapidated palace and President’s office after the take-over, the young soldiers who were called the “new recruits” holding deadly weapons, men tied up in the most uncomfortable positions and left to die in prison…these were all the photographs we saw and again photographs I will not forget easily.
James told us that what he learnt was that when you are in war zones you never show fear, even if someone is pointing a gun to your face, you as a person and a journalist need to stay calm. If you show emotion you might not live to tell the story because they will take advantage of your fear.
I realised that to be a great photographer you need to be a special type of person. It is not about getting the frame, it is about getting that frame, that one frame which will make the difference, that one frame which captures everything, that one frame no one will forget. It is a required passion, it is an inherent bravery and it is your life. Photography has no limits and sometimes in war situations coming out alive is a privilege even having your limbs become a privilege.
I have come to understand photography…and photography is no child’s play. It is an admirable occupation and a calling which not many of us have.