The whole origin of my interest in photographing in Africa came from my having grown up in South Africa. Whether we are aware of it or not, our identities are carved out by the societies in which we are brought up. The effect of the apartheid system in South Africa on my identity was profound. During the time I was growing up, everything in white South African society was set up to keep whites from knowing the truth about the apartheid system. But there was always an undercurrent, a sense of something very ugly that was happening beneath the beautiful exterior of one's surroundings. As I grew older I felt very strongly that I had to know what this was about. I had to know what was really going on. Eventually, this developed into an interest in Africa as a whole; my journeys to Uganda and Sierra Leone were extensions of this desire to know.
I emigrated from South Africa with my family in 1979 when I was fifteen years old. Those were very important years for the antiapartheid struggle. The Soweto uprising in which 575 people were killed occurred in 1976. Two years later, just a year before I left, the student activist Steven Biko, died from wounds inflicted by the police. People around the world were beginning to decry the white South African government's brutality towards blacks. But I knew nothing about that. I remember hearing about Soweto and Steven Biko, but it seemed very far away, and we were told, by the newspapers and by some adults, that they were bad people, or terrorists, and that it was a good thing they'd been stopped, even if they were killed.
The insulation from the reality of apartheid and the social blindness was extreme. In general, whites never went to the townships, so they were kept from seeing the horrible conditions in which blacks lived, and the news didn't report the growing political opposition to apartheid. I grew up in a large and tightly knit Jewish community, where the insularity was perhaps more secure. The world I grew up in was enormously social, and, in a way, celebratory. There were always people over at the house. Holidays were numerous and full of music and singing, sometimes dancing. Every Sunday, either at our house or at another family's house, fifteen or twenty people would get together for Sunday tea. The kids would play together and the adults would sit in the living room and talk. And apartheid was always part of the conversation. There was always the question: how long is this going to last? Will it be five more years, ten more years, before it explodes? They were always preparing for a rainy day. There was tremendous concern that things wouldn't remain as they were. And perhaps it was this fear of uncertainty, and the corollary fear of being persecuted once again, that lead them feel they need more insulation, more protection, and to hold fast to the status quo. To be anti-apartheid in this community was a tremendous taboo. So it is a profound and all too common contradiction, that people who had experienced the greatest form of persecution would huddle together and grab hold of the persecution of another people.
But in spite of the structural and cultural divisions in which I was raised, there was still a strong sense of identification with those on the other side of apartheid. I felt this very strong desire to know and to understand. And all along, you were confronted with the reality. For example, one time when I was small, my parents went out for the night. Our maid, Elizabeth was taking care of us. When my parents were leaving, my father said something to her and she misunderstood. She ended up spending the entire night in the bathtub because of a miscommunication. I remember waking up at six in the morning and going to the bathroom and there she was, this two-hundred pound woman, asleep in the bathtub. I was so sad for her. It wasn't just that she misunderstood, but that she accepted it. I just thought: what are you doing here? How could you accept it? She didn't feel that she could question what she had been told to do. >continued