Born in Namibia, Margaret Courtney-Clarke spent her formative years studying art and photography in South Africa. She has spent the past four decades working on assignments and projects across Italy, the United States as well as across her home continent. In 2009, she returned to work and live in Namibia. The landscape she returned to had radically transformed at the hands of unchecked development, drastically shaping the daily lives of those who occupy it. Turning her lens onto her lifelong interest in the notion of ‘shelter’, Courtney-Clarke embarked on a journey.
The resulting book Cry Sadness into the Coming Rain ruminates on change in the form of a visual anthology; one that reveals the histories and struggles of the land in an evocative and lyrical way. This photographic dialogue, whether stated in direct or equivocal ways, demands attention. Beginning in her own neighborhood, Courtney-Clarke travelled thousands of kilometers through remote areas to investigate people and land, but also the personal histories that. She photographs home, and that is not seen through her images, it is felt.
In this interview, Courtney-Clarke talks to Niko J Kallianiotis for LensCulture about the experience of photographing in her “backyard”, her collaboration with David Goldblatt, and overcoming a life-threatening illness.
Niko J Kallianiotis: You have an expansive and diverse body of work with Africa at the heart of it all. I am curious as to how you got into photography and why is this region a constant theme of your work?
Margaret Courtney-Clarke: While studying art and graphic design in Natal, South Africa, I searched for something that would give me greater freedom of expression. I knew that I did not want to work under art directors. In 1969, during this time, photography was introduced into tertiary curriculum in the country, I bought my first camera. I found myself on a slippery road in a country reeling under apartheid and it made sense to me to communicate stories using my camera instead. I also wanted to further my education in art and architecture. So, leaving behind a part of my soul, I departed to Italy in 1972.
Why Africa? I am always asked that, but it’s impossible to put it in a nutshell: it’s such a complicated, raw and beautiful fact, born of circumstance. My roots were in what was then South West Africa (today’s Namibia). For years I had yearned to return to the continent, and I did—when freedom permitted—over the next thirty years. I travelled its length and breadth in search of what was at the heart of my being: art and symbolism, building and shelter… the woman’s domain. As a photographer, and a white woman at that, I found surprising welcome and acceptance. My survival tools helped me overcome the fundamental hardships of travelling into remote areas, of hunger, and of the meaninglessness concept of time. I found hope amidst much hopelessness. But above all, I learned to bond with people, place and predicament.
NJK: How did your project Cry Sadness into the Coming Rain come to fruition? Looking at the images from your other works, and then turning to your book, I see some sort of an aesthetic departure into another realm; they look and feel different. Can you talk a little about these differences? Were they intentional?
MCC: Yes, Cry Sadness into the Coming Rain is a departure from my earlier work. Firstly, I stopped taking (analog) photographs altogether. After the publication of my last book in the trilogy on the art of African women, I dedicated ten years to promoting women’s art through exhibitions and returning to the Ndebele community in the new South Africa to build a training centre for women and the youth. In 2009, I decided to return permanently to Namibia, where I was born. I was shocked to find a country—after twenty years of independence—still shackled to the remnants of apartheid and the ongoing struggles of poverty, greed, an environment in crisis, and the advance of transnational mining giants.
I traded in my analog cameras and bought my first digital Sony X100 with one fixed lens. I wanted to embrace social portraiture and the appallingly hostile landscape in a way that was ‘different’ to my previous work. This new work investigated the closeness between people and the space they occupied. After making friends and winning the trust of the people who live in this challenging part of the world, I used the 35mm lens that allowed me to incorporate them into the landscape, with its unparalleled light, to produce a synthesis of what was there.
NJK: As I turned each page of Cry Sadness into the Coming Rain, I was struck by the arduous terrain and mileage you must have travelled. How does one manage both mentally and physically within such difficult conditions—specifically as you were recovering from a life-threatening illness, as revealed in the foreword of your book? Did the conditions limit the project at all?
MCC: The diagnosis of cancer hit me like a ton of bricks, as it would anyone. The desert of my childhood, known to me as a place of healing, became my direction, my compass. In between chemotherapy cycles, I made brief sorties that gradually lengthened as I became stronger and more determined to bring to light the hostile conditions of this land. I did not know that we would be facing a six-year drought. There were times I had to cut short a journey for lack of water or because I’d seen enough carcasses strewn across the desert floor.
I have seldom felt limited by conditions, either physically or mentally. My sense of purpose—and to some degree obstinacy—is the energy that drives me. Knowledge of the land and the potential to communicate and embrace friendships on many layers are forces that creativity alone cannot achieve. Key to this is taking time; not days or weeks, but months and years.
NJK: You have collaborated on other projects with David Goldblatt, who wrote the foreword in your book. Tell me about what it was like to work with such a prolific figure. In what ways has he had an influence on your work and life?
MCC: David and I were friends for some forty years. He was always deeply concerned about my journeys into an ‘unknown’ Africa, alone, white and challenged beyond my wits. We corresponded on photography, about being in the world and bringing back some fragments of it, and about desperate situations that mirrored my own existential struggles. We exchanged ideas on techniques and print-making, and challenged each other on the role of photography in the unravelling of apartheid. At times our paths diverged and I became more overtly politically active while David was documenting the Christian hypocrisy of apartheid South Africa in images of the Dutch Reformed church. But it was during this past decade that he became both my most ardent critic as well as a compassionate admirer of my work. I am grateful and privileged to have been able to draw courage, discipline and integrity from our long friendship.
NJK: The photographs in your book seem to follow a sort of a lyrical document, a poem, incisive yet organic. Can you tell me about your working process?
MCC: My earlier books were produced by large publishing houses at a time before digital photography. Book designers were hired or in-house. I was very fortunate that Massimo Vignelli, a noted book designer of his time, agreed to take on the challenge of scrutinising thousands of transparencies over a lightbox. He set out to capture the sequencing and essence of each image using a now famous pencil! All my books were proofed, printed and shipped between the USA, Japan and Southeast Asia.
This is a far cry from the methods or ‘procedures’ used today, and particularly by Gerhard Steidl, my publisher on Cry Sadness into the Coming Rain. Steidl—publisher, printer and ‘navigator’—allows visual artists, curators and museums to become personally involved in the process of book creation. David, who was also working in Steidl’s library at the time, joined the teamwork on sequencing.
NJK: The book first introduces the land and the effects on the environment and creates a dialogue without people. As we progress, their presence becomes more evident, especially when we are moving into the DRC (Displaced Refugee Camp) section of the book. Can you tell me more about these sequencing decisions?
MCC: Having returned to the country after a long absence, I needed to feel my way around gradually. It made sense to start in my backyard, to become acquainted with my local community and immediate environment. It was also important to establish the acceptance (or otherwise) of a concerned white woman with a camera, however unobtrusive. Over the course of many months and spanning several years, I accompanied women and children from their impermanent shelters to their workplace—which, for many, was a drudge to the town garbage dump in search of food, firewood and building materials. Gradually, I followed them inland to their places of birth to understand why they had chosen to migrate to an urban area.
So the book begins with the landscape, and slowly the remnants of former habitats alongside once productive land as well as places now littered with ‘No Entry’ mining boards and dysfunctional water points. My journey extends into the seeming nothingness, where real lives exist on the fringes, and it follows my connection to place and its unfolding narrative, until I return to my neighborhood and backyard.
NJK: Where do you find inspiration for your work? How have your personal histories, family stories and experiences moulded you as a person and a photographer?
MCC: My ‘African-ness’ is at the heart of my inspiration. I was fortunate to have parents who encouraged my love for art. But it was my childhood experience of growing up on a farm that taught me both survival and the importance of storytelling. These elements are fundamental to who I am and what I have done with my life. Finding photography in my late teens allowed me to travel into remote places and find my voice.
In my current work on the people of the Kalahari Desert, my grandfather’s photographic archive of his journeys into the interior of this country during the late 1920s and 1930s has played an important role.
NJK: Although you are photographing your home, there are vast social differences between photographer and subject. How do you overcome such obstacles to gain trust and provide images that are not, might I dare say, exploitative? Did you encounter any opposition?
MCC: As I have said before, what is important is to make time to develop a rapport. This is a social process, an ongoing relational conversation, of knowing how to interact with land and its people, to observe without provoking. Opposition was seldom encountered. I do believe that, as a woman, people feel less ‘threatened’ by my presence. Also, Namibia is currently locked into a desperate time in our history, born of injustices in the past and exacerbated by a six-year drought and government indifference. A vast majority of people are anxiously in search of a ‘listener’.
NJK: When you travelled abroad, what is the perception of Africa that you have encountered? How do you hope your images function?
MCC: Over thirty years a lot has changed. Initially, I found photography to be a sensitive subject. After years of exploitation and the ‘immortalizing’ of the spirit, Africans often rejected the visual portrayal of their lives as seen through the eyes of European values. In Muslim countries, I entered an Africa that I could not identify with, where women were veiled and housebound and photography was not permitted without the consent of husbands. Time and bonding became central to my experience. As Maya Angelou once said to me, “You can only do your best, until you know better… brace yourself for humiliation.” The art I was in search of had little to do with the harsh realities of day-to-day living, with wars and disease, or grinding socio-political and economic conditions; instead, it was about how women sought to assert their identities and beautify their space.
In Cry Sadness into the Coming Rain my focus changed. It is my hope to take viewers to familiar places, and ask them to question their perception of those places within the ‘New Namibia’, an unparalleled country that is being sold off to mining magnates and unsustainable tourism—never mind corrupt individuals and international consortia. For this reason, I have turned my lens on the aspirations of the poor, their quest for shelter and water in a ravaged land, and the environment in crisis.
NJK: While photographing in Nigeria, you met Maya Angelou by chance. Can you describe the experience and the commonalities, if any, between your two mediums?
MCC: Maya Angelou and I did not meet by chance. Maya’s first five biographies were part and parcel of my ‘survival’ baggage throughout my travels in West Africa. By then she had returned to America. Her writings would offer me courage, first of all, and then wisdom and humour, strength and dreams, passion and endurance, poetry and ideas. Her books were the ideal companion (and consolation), for they told me that someone else had survived the pain, loneliness and the hardships of being in a ‘foreign’ land. And I drew strength from them because Maya was strong and fearless.
What Maya and I had in common was that neither of us was what we seemed; this is a partial explanation of our attraction. Born and bred in Africa, I had dedicated most of my life to documenting Africa’s people and art. Maya appeared to be African, but was born in America. Our differences brought us together. She invited me to her home and asked to write the foreword to African Canvas. It was a meeting of minds, perhaps a cross-fertilization of African-Americanness. She would tell me, “I am who I am because you are who you are.”
NJK: What do you think governments should be doing to protect the people and the land? Have you seen any changes for the better? And what, in your opinion, prevents positive change?
MCC: Thirty years after independence, the struggle for the majority of Namibians is still to subsist—and, often, even to merely exist—on the very land they fought for. According to the government website, twenty-five per cent of Namibia’s two million people live a basic life in informal settlements, in rudimentary shelters and shacks, without the security of ownership. In a supposedly wealthy country, thousands of Namibian families live on patches of desolate and overgrazed land where survival depends on a drop of rain that may or may not fall.
What prevents positive change is a stifling economy, greed, a lack of accountability for eroding corruption, illiteracy, the retarded allocation of land rights, all bearing deep consequences for the underprivileged, the jobless. In other words, a sincere economic liberation needs to follow its political counterpart. So, in my opinion and experience, I have seen very few changes for the better since independence.