THE ARCHITECTURE THAT HAS HAD THE MOST PROFOUND EFFECT ON MY WORLD VIEW IS AN OLIVE-GREEN TENT, SPANNING 90CM IN WIDTH AND PEAKING AT AN ALTITUDE OF 75CM.
When its symmetrical polythene walls are stretched taut like animal hide on a djembe drum, they have reverberated the phrase “What am I doing here?” countless times for the past three years.
The previous architectural design that influenced my thinking was a standard open-plan office scheme. These are intended to inspire feelings of community within teams and evoke a sense of transparency between those who don’t have a parking spot and those who start work on time. And since everyone knows when you’re on Facebook, you might as well get some work done.
But there are rare glitches in these productivity-fostering arrangements; sometimes workers are placed too close to a window and may suffer bouts of introspection. This, coupled with incidences of sun’s rays, may result in the discovery of suppressed urges to photograph things. Regrettably, these things are often on the wrong side of the window.
The textbook response is to resign and zigzag across South Africa on a bicycle. Weaving up Africa’s east coast to Ethiopia on public transport traditionally follows this. Then there’s a reflex to hop to Turkey and wind through former Soviet countries in the Caucasus Mountains towards the steppes of Kazakhstan, documenting daily life along the way. From here, the erstwhile employee may feel compelled to meander down the Mekong River in Southeast Asia.
Given the right office layout, it could happen to anyone.
Throughout this tangent-riddled photography quest, I carried my tent. And the further I travelled, the more things it became. It was a mackintosh during storms in the Lowveld. It’s been an inverted hazmat suit when I nursed tropical diseases in Malawi. It became a Christmas stocking aftertannies offered me endless supplies of padkos in the Free State. Had I not been wandering with my camera on the shores of Lake Kariba in Zimbabwe, it would have been a body-bag after an elephant walked over it. It’s been my confessional – a site of lonely tears and smug grins. It’s where I read at night by the light of my headlamp, falling asleep within minutes.
It might sound like I’m giving a 1.8 kg bundle of plastic too much credit, but trading a fixed address for a foldable one has been a profound lesson in sacrifices – a lesson that I’m repeatedly learning.
Photography hinges on sacrifice: You cannot alter time without negotiating with light. It’s the same with following your creative urges. You cannot do this without feeling alone, straining relationships and drifting from friendships. You’ll compromise on accommodation and you’ll forgo foods that aren’t tinned pilchards.
One of my specific sacrifices was choosing not to carry a laptop. So, in order to keep space free on my memory cards, I’ll go through the day’s photos in my tent every night, deleting my near-misses and far-misses. Within the ribcage of aluminium poles I’ll flick through the frames to find a keeper. And when that happens I become enraptured with the irrationality of creating, and suddenly the enormous failure rate is justified and I find an answer to the question I asked in the tent that morning: "What am I doing here?"
There are places where I’ve decided to stop photography: standing accused in court after being arrested in Kazakhstan, at a hospital in Ethiopia after being bitten by street dogs, sharing a carriage with a drunk policeman trying to sell me diamonds on a four-day train trip to Tanzania. But the place where I decide to start again is in that polythene cocoon – illuminated by the glow of a photo that somehow makes it worth it.
After 20 countries I returned to South Africa with my tent dappled in duct tape patches. I whittled my work down into exhibitions and ferried pictures into a few publications. But until the big assignments come in, I’ve self-assigned a project in the former Soviet republic of Georgia, where I live now.
Here, I have a roof that isn’t collapsible and a room that doesn’t turn into a greenhouse half an hour after sunrise. It’s a loft apartment with a ceiling that slants over the bed, creating optimal acoustics to mutter:"What am I doing here?"
And then I’ll wonder what will happen between now and when I find an answer to that question.