When I got to Coffee Bay, in the former Transkei, in December 1999 to do a story on ulwaluko (initiation rites), I had just graduated from the Market Photo Workshop. I wasn’t sure where to start, because I wasn’t there when abakhwetha (the initiates) arrived.
It’s hard to get to a place and then start working immediately, because if you need something, you won’t know who to ask. So I sought permission from the elders to take photographs. They said: “Yes, Bam. As long as you don’t undermine our culture.”
Abakhwetha had been there for at least a week, so their wounds were starting to heal. They were able to move around slowly. I was staying close to where they were based, so the following day I found them spreading out their blankets, trying to catch some sun. I wanted to photograph them, but I was trying not to show their wounds, which were wrapped with a dressing of herbs. I took some pictures of them walking from one phempe (hut) to another, and they seemed comfortable with me.
I noticed that, when the khankatha (caregiver) was changing the dressing, they would move away from me; they’d go inside the dark phempe and leave me with some of the other initiates. I didn’t want to chase them because my goal was not to go after the wound; it was to document life in the initiation school.
I noticed one particular young man when I was walking to the beach to catch the sea breeze. When I saw him lying on a rock, I was intrigued by the fact that he was away from home, but reconnecting with the outside world through his radio. The aerial had been fitted with some flower-like decoration.
He was comfortable with me, because I had been there more than three times already.
After I got the shot, all the others wanted to be photographed. I took them to the beach and took a few frames of all of them together there. Then they started clowning around and climbing the trees. Judging from their excitement, it seemed as though they had never been photographed before.
The wide-angle lens (used with a small F-stop) helped me to give the image a wider depth of field. Because I was using black-and-white film, I knew that the resulting image wouldn’t confuse the eye of the viewer. The guy was smeared with white clay and the rock was dark, so I could easily achieve the desired contrast.
Although it’s hard to separate it from my other photographs, this was the one that motivated me to become a documentary photographer.
I’m planning to do another series on initiation this year, in a much broader way. — Bonile Bam