“Being a historian and criminologist as well as a journalist, my photography grew up in the gritty social realism of a country at war with itself. The images were peripheral to my writing, taken with no skill, a good deal of bravado and always of people.
I staggered out of the 1980s near burned out into a new country in the making. In truth, I’d had it with people, their politics and the acrid smoke of near revolution. In a way, Mandela’s calm presence at the helm gave me permission to step away into a job that left my lefty friends aghast with its political irrelevance – a travel photojournalist at Getaway magazine. Some comments hovered in the vicinity of ‘traitor’.
My first assignment, clutching a Nikon containing inordinately expensive Fuji Velvia film, showed me I really knew nothing about photography. The editor looked up rather sadly from the lightbox displaying my attempts and said: ‘I suggest you use a tripod. Oh, and think a bit about depth of field. And framing. Ever heard of visual noise?’
Sheer embarrassment set me on a course of technical exploration into the mysteries of f-stop, ASA and other arcane settings. These I practiced against the vast, conceptual canvas of Africa into which I was sent almost every month for more than 10 years. Privilege is a word that hardly covers the extraordinary opportunity.
I knew nothing of art – I still don’t, really. What I was discovering – being permitted to discover, almost surreptitiously – was how beautiful Africa was. I escaped into landscapes, then creatures and back to people. Aware, always, that it bordered on cliché, I was working with the softness of pre-dawn light, the iridescence of the landscape in the setting sun, the flash of life in an eye, the natural performance of children and the sheer photogenic magnificence of living creatures. I have a strong sense that Africa is changing fast, losing wilderness, losing culture, gaining Western homogeneity, passing. I have the same feeling about the memories of old people and have hundreds of hours of their recorded stories. These things fill the books I write as a hedge against their extinction.
Almost all my photographs are visual narratives designed to work with words. I write with imagery and photograph with syntax and description. But I am aware of the danger. Photography has so often been used as a medium to depict harsh social reality that it’s almost embarrassing to see it in the context of beauty. And yet it was through the camera that I emerged from the human vortex of social struggle into the magnificence of form and the natural world. For me beauty is the universal seen.
Photography is hard work, but it should not appear to be. It should suggest that beauty and form are commonplace. Edward Weston wrote that he started to photograph as a result of his ‘amazement at subject matter.’ These photographs are because I was there, I saw and was amazed.”
Don Pinnock is an associate of Southern Write and a former editor of Getaway magazine in Cape Town, South Africa. He has travelled extensively throughout the world for the past 13 years, writing and photographing.
He has been an electronic engineer, lecturer in journalism and criminology, consultant to the Mandela government, a professional yachtsman, explorer, travel writer, photographer and a cable-car operator on the Rock of Gibraltar. His present passion is the impact of humans on planetary processes.
Don has a PhD in political science, an MA in criminology, a BA in African history and has published a post-doctoral study on gangs, rituals and rites of passage. He has held lectureships in Journalism (Rhodes) and Criminology (Uiversity of Cape Town) and completed his PhD research at SOAS, London University. He was Writer in Residence at South Africa’s Antarctic Sanai 4 base in 2005/6.
He is also a founder of Usiko, a rehabilitation organisation for high-risk youths, and Umzi Wethu, a residential programme for Aids orphans. As a criminologist, he was one of the co-drafters of the Youth Justice White Paper for the ANC government which is now the acclaimed Child Justice Act. He is a specialist in adolescent deviance.
His books include The Brotherhoods: Street Gangs and State Control, Gangs, Rituals and Rites of Passage, Natural Selections, African Journeys, Loveletters to Africa, Writing Left (a biography of Ruth First) and Blue Ice: Travels in Antarctica and The Woman who Lived in a Tree and Other Perfect Strangers. His first novel, Rainmaker, was written out of a need to empower young people labeled coloured. It was shortlisted for the 2009 European Union Literary Award.
He is married to the novelist and poet Patricia Schonstein.