Book

How to see the world in a face full of wrinkles

TracesandTracks

THE passion and the glory: Church choir, Schmidtsdrift, 1992. Photograph by Paul Weinberg.

IF YOU REMEMBER the 1980 Jamie Uys film The Gods Must be Crazy or were taught a very simplistic understanding of San rock art in the grade 9 art syllabus, you will have a vague and superficial ability to recognise the complicated magic of Paul Weinberg’s voyages of discovery into the Kalahari Desert and its surrounding countries over the past 30 years. Photographing the people living in those regions became an underlying theme to much of his career, which was also coloured by his co-founding of photographic agency, Afrapix and his important activist work as an anti-apartheid photojournalist.

Visually, it is a completely magnificent book: the landscape format and elegant borders do justice to Weinberg’s photographs, reflecting on the cultural mish-mash that the San community was heir to, not quite fitting, as they did, into any clear social category, in the madness of apartheid that thrived on principles of separate categories. The beauty of the San people with their lined faces and their expressive body language grabs you by the heart. These are not sweet images but ones which showcase oft cruel cultural interface in the world of the ‘Bushman panorama’ which forced San men and women to earn an income by playing to the foreign tourist market.

It’s a book about values and the harshness of unspoiled life in the Kalahari, but it’s also one of poignancy and levity, offering detailed insight into how these people existed and how many of them vanished under depredations of weather, politics and land grabbing.

The book is not only one of pictures, however, and this is where some strange design choices inform it, as a project. There is a very different physicality between a book that you read and a book in which you allow yourself to sink, eyes first, in evocative photographs. There is a considerable amount of text in this book that you will want to read. Blending the two is a difficult exercise and the team behind Traces and Tracks have taken decisions which sometimes bruise the experience of reading the text.

Effectively, this is two books and as you immerse yourself in Weinberg’s text, which sadly is not well proofread, you yearn to be able to read it in bed, on the bus, or in a reclining posture. You can’t. The preciousness of the photographs preclude this. At best, what the makers of this book have done is create a workable compromise.

And when you do get to the text, and steel yourself against typographical errors, as you must, you find a charming account of meetings and adventures, of revisiting people after a thirty year absence and of listening to what they say. They’re told in ordinary, immensely readable language, which at once makes you realise how word and image concatenate in the oeuvre of this singularly talented explorer and curator. Weinberg is at pains to give voice to the San men and women he has met and chatted to in the past three decades. It’s not ponsy academic writing, that is focused on Weinberg’s position as the white man interrupting and bringing his own sense of good to the world. Rather, it is simple text which respectfully describes the contradictions and the secrets of the community, the way in which swathes of Western value and ideals hurt it and the fervour with which the community’s elderly held on to their own sense of self.

  • Traces and Tracks: A Thirty Year Journey with the San comprises photographs and text by Paul Weinberg. It is designed by Shawn Paikin and published by Jacana Media, Johannesburg (2017).
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