What is Home? was created in connection to the project, 20 Years On, a multimedia project produced by Rich Beckman, reflecting on life in South Africa 20 years post Apartheid. In November of 2012 the multimedia journalism graduate students at UM, myself included, traveled to Grahamstown, South Africa where we worked with students at Rhodes University to produce several video stories reflecting on township life. I fell in love with South Africa immediately and was strongly impacted by the people I met. This trip changed my life, and on the flight home I spoke with Rich about my desire to come back to Africa and spend more time helping people tell their stories.
Rich invited me to work as a coach for the next round of students and I returned to Grahamstown in July of 2013 to work with undergraduate students and produce two additional stories for the 20 Years On project.
When the project ended, I made the decision to change my plane ticket and stay in South Africa to produce a project on my own. As the rest of the students got on a plane and flew back to the United States, I booked a flight to Cape Town on my own, scared and excited, but drawn by the overwhelming need to spend more time telling stories about the housing issues in townships.
To say that the next month was difficult is a drastic understatement. I had no budget, no contacts, no translator and was attempting to go into areas known for incredibly high crime rate. I had worked in the townships of Grahamstown, but Cape Town was a completely different story. While in Grahamstown, we could walk between our B&B in town and where we were doing stories in the township. In Cape Town, the townships were much larger and spread apart. It was a whole different world.
It took me two weeks to make contacts. Everyone I met warned me against going to the places I told them I wanted to go. They told me that if I went into the townships I would be raped and murdered. People living in the township were hesitant to trust me because they assumed I was connected to the government or that I would take advantage of them in some way.
Thanks to the help of new friends, I began to make connections and to earn people’s trust. I hired a fixer named Zukisani, a local guy who worked with the 20 Years On project in Grahamstown, to be my translator, and for a week the two of us traveled from township to township meeting people. I am eternally grateful for those who opened up their homes to me and allowed me to capture a moment of their life. Along the way, we met so many strong, generous and welcoming people.
There were many times I feared the project was impossible.
To name a few, the morning of the day I planned to shoot at Abubaka’s home, two people were shot and killed in a car outside of his house, after which Abu refused to let me come to his home. I got lost over and over trying to find houses in areas there were no formal roads. One morning after shooting in the pouring rain in a dangerous area, I came back to my rental car to find one of my tires flat. More than once I had to be escorted from an area because I was drawing a crowd and people were getting aggressive. My last few days working, I burned the top of my hand and despite cleaning the burn and wrapping it, it led to a serious blood infection which landed me in the ER during my layover in London on my trip home.
The short amount of time I had to complete everything meant long days of shooting. Wake up calls as early as 3am, followed by shoot after shoot, traveling from one story to the next for twelve to fifteen hours a day. It was exhausting to say the least, but it was hard to feel even the slightest bit sorry for myself when I was working with people like Nobanzi, the woman featured in ‘Fighting for Change’. Nobanzi is HIV positive and wakes up every morning at 4am to walk to her job. Her job is to pick up trash from the township and from the side of the highway. For ten hours a day, she picks up trash and fills large blue bags. She carries these bags to a collection shed. For her work she makes the equivalent of a few dollars a day. My entire perspective on life changed.
But in between the tough times, there were moments I will cherish forever. Times when people opened their homes to me and invited me to dinner. The hours I spent sitting and talking to people, listening to their stories. The adventure of following people through their day, through protests, and train rides, and through a typical day at work, or a family dinner. There were a few evenings hanging out at a Braai or a shabeen. And of course there were the moments I stopped for a minute and enjoyed the overwhelming beauty of Cape Town; Table Mountain, Chapman’s Peak, the beaches and the wildlife and the culture.
The painstaking nature of journalism in the disconnect between what you witness and what you are able to report. In the end only about 10% of what I witnessed and heard actually found a place to this project, but I hope it sheds light into the lives of real people living life in informal settlement and still fighting for their freedom.
The thing about journalism is it gets inside of you. It changes your life in ways you could never imagine. It can take you to the depths of despair, force you to watch reality unfold without a filter. Without a television screen or a newspaper to separate the words from the world in front of you. It is the most helpless job at times. To watch. To let things happen knowing your role is to capture and not to solve. To dig into that secret box a person locks inside their heart. To ask them to please bring out that which they have worked so hard to put away. To break down the walls they have built up and up and up. And at the same time it brings you to your knees, it also has the power to instil a sense of hope and inspiration unlike anything else. Because the power of witnessing the quiet and unassuming strength that people possess, to see what we as humans can endure, and to experience the love that arises in unexpected and uncelebrated places stays with you long after you turn the camera off and drive away. It changes you, and you are never the same.