Stowaways: Patient persistence pays off

“There are a handful of photos that I have made over the years that stick with me and really satisfy certain viewers. These photographs are not particularly spectacular, but they are unnerving and I have no idea why,” says self-taught photographer David Southwood. 

Born in Pietermaritzburg but based in Cape Town, Southwood has been practising photography for over a decade — roughly the same amount of time he has spent observing, participating in and photographing Cape Town’s Milnerton flea market. 

In 2011, a collection of these photographs was published by Fourthwall Books, forming a powerful record of the people who earn their living through the trade of second-hand goods. 

Now, shifting his focus from the broader community of traders, he still visits the market each weekend to photograph Jackie de Kock. 

“I have known Jackie and her minder, Barbara, for about 15 years and we all get along,” says Southwood. “It’s very difficult to kneel in front of a down-at-heel person with mental and physical disabilities twice a week, in public, and photograph [them].
People mumble obscenities at me frequently. 

“[But] until one of us leaves the market, I’ll continue to photograph Jackie. It’s important to embark on projects whose outcome is unknown, I think. A preconceived, accurate summary of the result generally engenders boring shit.” 

A recent (and ongoing) project of his, Stowaways, examines the lives of yet another peripheral community — this time a group of Tanzanian stowaways living under the N1 in Cape Town. “The figures living below the highways, ambushed between the palms in the triangles of no-mans’ land, which chamfers the hard civil engineering, had accumulated in the corners of my eye and I’d decided to meet them.” 

He first began to photograph the men in 2010 and about a year later reached out to writer Sean Christie to collaborate with him on the project. 

“The stowaways are a rough bunch. They go to jail, disappear, stow away or take knives to the body,” Southwood says. The project was originally presented in a four-part essay with accompanying photographs and has now been compiled into a broadsheet newspaper containing diary entries by Christie and photographs by Southwood called Memory Card Sea Power.

Looking at Southwood’s work, it starts to become clear that the space that people occupy is often a starting point for the series he embarks on. 

“The Milnerton Market and the Stowaways projects both took place on reclaimed land. Reclaimed land is always complicated and contested,” he says. “If you reclaim land it’s because there is a shortage, and where there is a shortage there is generally fierce competition, and where there is fierce competition people make interesting economic decisions.”

One of his earliest photographic memories relates to his grandfather, who was a land surveyor and who, in addition to many forms of high-end optics through which Southwood regularly peered, owned an old silver Leica 3.

“Looking devices and wristwatches have always caught my attention. Cameras are a blend of these two things. Roland Barthes says they are clocks for seeing,” says Southwood. 

“A camera is also a very good excuse to meet all sorts of people who’d normally be out of bounds. Taking a walk down some forgotten track and seeing what’s up is a great reward for being a photographer.” 

Patience and persistence are qualities clearly illustrated in Southwood’s approach. 

“Hang around for a decade. Treat people with respect. And be transparent about what you are trying to achieve, even if you don’t know what that is,” he says.

Southwood has just completed a book on the South African Bill of Rights (containing a contribution by Constitutional Court Justice Edwin Cameron in the foreword), which will be available from October. 


This article is adapted from an interview with the artist that appeared on the creative showcase site Between

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