I moved to SA in July 2001 and it was quite a culture shock and new exciting time for me. I had move to Cape Town by myself to start production on a TV show that I was developing. I had never been here before, so all I knew was from the web and a few books about South Africa that I found in LA. It was so strange to be in a place that in many ways looks like Southern California, but so not! Driving on the wrong side of the road. Strange African languages. Street signs I could not pronounce. Yet it all felt “OK”. Hard to explain, but it felt natural.
One of the big things that everyone in the US always spoke about was Nelson Mandela, and what a great man and leader he was for South Africa. I had heard about Robben Island due to the Discovery Channel and programs like that. So when I got settled in SA, I wanted to go and see this “place” where Mr. Mandela lived for so many years.
So I had made a couple of friends at this point and asked them if they would join me to check this out. To my surprise 2 of the 4 had never been there! I guess being a tourist in your home city is boring, but not for me. I like the fact I live in one of the most beautiful places in the world and I “holiday” here as much as I can! Cape Town is truly an amazing place…
Ok, we book tickets and start our boat ride over. This incidentally was the first time I had been out in a boat since I had arrived in SA. So I was really excited to see the coastline of Cape Town from the ocean. And what a site it was with Table Mountain standing over this little city. Wow…
It was about 45 minutes or so to get to Robben Island and what a great time we had. It was October and cold and a bit over cast. Felt like winter and I like the cool weather. All the other people with me moaned and bitched, as it was cold. I didn’t realize then how much Capetownians love their summer weather.
Once we arrived we all got out and went on a bus ride around the island. They showed us the rock quarry where the inmates worked everyday. Then we drove and saw a lovely vantage point of Table Mountain from the island. Then we circled back and ended up at the prison front gates.
I was amazed to find out that the tour guides were actually prisoners when the prison was active. What better person to tell you the stories and moments of such a place.
As we got off the bus, we all were escorted thru the front gates and into a small room with a few bunk beds. It was very institutional looking and basic. A desaturated sea foam green on the walls with a burgundy red on the brick work. When we had all entered the room our guide told us about how this was a typical set up for prisoners. He explained the morning routine and then asked us all to walk next door and have a seat. He told us that another guide would come in and talk to everyone about his experiences and how they were treated as prisoners.
While everyone was walking next door, something interesting caught my eye. It was the door handle on this very thick steel door. I had never seen anything like them. So I pulled out my camera and started to look at it thru the lens. I had to wait for a few minutes so there would be no people in the shot. So as they all cleared the room and walked next door, I began to get some interesting angles of these very unique details. I must have been there for about a minute of two when I heard a loud “Boom.” It pulled me out of the focus lens of my camera and I looked around, as it was very loud. I found myself alone in the room. I was behind the door shooting the handle, so I leaned around the door to look into the hallway. To my surprise the door to the room everyone went into was closed and locked! I thought for a second… “Holly shit!”. Do I knock on the door and ask to be let in or what? Then it hit me… I was all alone on Robben Island! I peaked down the hallway and there was no one to be seen. It was very quite and you could slightly hear the murmur of the guide talking thru the steel door.
This is when I decided I would go on a “bit of a reconnoissance location scout”! I looked out the doorway into the courtyard. It was empty. I felt like I was a prisoner and escaping… So I cautiously walked down the path to the next building. I approached with hesitation and slowly convinced myself to go in. Once I was in I walked the hallways very quietly peeking in rooms. All the rooms were open and many of them still furnished and set up, as they would have been. As I walked the halls and the rooms I shot moments of peoples past lives. Places they lived. Things they wrote on the walls. All kinds of things. It felt like a visual diary in a way.
I left one building and would walk the courtyard to another and so on. I must have been in 4 different buildings. One had a prayer room. One had the bath and showers. One had drawings of Christ on the walls in the bunk areas… Just amazing things. Moments frozen in time.
Now I was sneaking around for about an hour and had pretty much seen everything, so I headed back. All I kept thinking was, I sure hope my friends haven’t said anything about me being missing! As I walked back into the hallway where we had first started, the metal door flew open and scared the hell out of me! This very mean looking man was surprised by me being there as well and said, “What are you doing here!” The only think I could think of was to say, “ I went to the bathroom.” He just looked at me… I actually felt like a prisoner at that moment being questioned by a guard. Luckily for me all the people started filing into the hallway and they divided the scary man and me. Some people with questions then approached him and diverted his attention. Whew… Not quite sure why I was so worried, but it seemed very stressful at the time.
As the crowd of people engulfed me, my friends found me and questioned me. Where the hell were you? Where did you go? And it went on and on… I explained to them what happened and they all wanted to see the photos.
As a group, we then went to see the cell block Nelson Mandela lived in. It was a very private and quite area. There were like 6 cells on each side of the hallway. All these prisoners had their own private cells with just a single bed. The guard told us they were not allowed to talk with each other or interact. By this time I had a bunch of images and I was putting them together in my head to hopefully try and tell a story when this was all over. So I photographed Mr. Mandela’s cell and other moments I saw along the way to help build the story.
After we visited this area of the prison, we were then escorted back to the main gated entry and our tour was over. This is when I noticed the swing set out front of the prison. It was a place for the kids to play while they waited to see their fathers. Now that really got me thinking… The irony of kids playing feely on this side of the wall while their fathers were prisoners on the other side of the same wall, just got to me.
When I got back and viewed all the images, I decided I wanted to do an exhibition to share what I had seen. I know many people had similar images to mine, but I know that I had a private tour of Robben Island that no one would have had. I proceeded to have the exhibition at the Clock Tower in the V&A Waterfront for about week. Got a bit of news coverage and began to think about how my personal work expresses who I am. This collection was my first personal photographic work in SA. Something I am still very proud of today…
Thank you for your time and all the best,