Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Field Notes: "The San: Aids & Dislocation in the Kalahari

These photographs come from the first leg of an ongoing project entitled: “Personalizing the World Health Crisis.”

Nanke's House
It’s estimated that every hour 1,500 people worldwide die of infectious diseases (including HIV/AIDS, malaria, tuberculosis, and diarrhea); over half of them are children under the age of five. In addition to these main killers are the numerous ‘little known’ diseases like sleeping sickness, river blindness, rotavirus, and trachoma, all of which shatter families, jolt economies, and destabilize security and food supplies. I chose to begin this project in Botswana because it has one of the highest HIV/Aids rates in the world and the San, or Bushmen, are among the poorest of the poor. For 70,000 years they have lived, untainted, in the desert. Now many live diseased, disenfranchised, and in squalor on the outskirts of dusty frontier towns, like Ghanzi and D’kar on the edge of the Kalahari. For two months last year, I lived in these places. I spent most of the time with Nanke, a single mother with AIDS, and her family who suffer from TB, malaria, and alcoholism. Dislocation and dispossession are major co-factors in the spread of AIDS, and other diseases. People without homes get sicker than people with homes. And when people get sick they want to go home. The San are being forced into “resettlements” that some Bushmen call “places of death”. I photographed everyday life. I found their “outsides” small but their insides very big. Nanke was better off of than most. She cleaned an expatriate’s house once a week, and sold homemade beer. People visited all day long, everyday. It was a very social time. She was drunk everyday by noon, and on some days it seemed like quite a reasonable response to her circumstances. “Only God can save us,” she answered when I asked for the answer to all this death and suffering? I expected her to say more education and more anti retroviral drugs. Nanke had been banished from the church and estranged from her born-again mother who worked for the missionaries who own the land she lives on. Nanke contracted AIDS after she was raped. She and her cousin Catherine, who also has AIDS, often talk together about who will commit suicide first. Catherine told me about how she was about to throw her two children down a borehole, when the youngest started to laugh and she changed her mind – for the time being anyway. Nanke perpetually humbles me. She needs so little to make so much. Where I come from people need much and make little. My worst nightmare is to take advantage of her suffering, and then my reason will be lost. Photography for me has become a practice, an exercise in paying attention inside and out. It is both a way to learn and to teach. It seems like such a perfect blend. I feel so fortunate that I do what I do. I don’t think I would be here otherwise. Condemned to freedom comes to mind. It is easy to go to Africa and photograph poor children with flies all over their faces. The mainstream media mostly gives us images of Africa that all look the same, and we are all bombarded with them to the point of indifference. They are stereotypical images that only tell us more of what we already know and comfort us in believing what we already believe. As comfortable as stereotypical images are, they desensitize us to the truth and prevent us from discovering what we don't know. Documentary photography as storytelling is a powerful tool of social change and dialogue. Good documentary photographs make the ordinary become extraordinary, and honour the subjects. They move us, not through misrepresentation, but because they represent moments of looking more deeply at the subject than we had previously experienced.

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