“His path was marked by the stars in the Southern Hemisphere, and he walked the length of his days under African skies.” ~ Paul Simon
Paul Simon’s “Graceland” was the first CD I ever bought. I didn’t yet own a CD player. It took me three months to save up for one, but I could tell, even in 1987, that digital media was our future. “Graceland” is now on my iPod. I’ll go months between plays, but I always return to “Graceland”, mostly for the music but also for what it represents.
I watched an interview with Paul Simon a few years ago. He said he was creatively stuck before “Graceland”. Simon had reached a point where he felt he was musically repeating himself, and was worried that his career was coming to an end. Paul talked about how some people go back to school in the middle of their career. He believed many people do it to shake things up and reset their priorities. Simon said going to South Africa shook up his musical mid-life, and “Graceland” became his masters degree.
Simon’s ideas resonate with me even today. He opened himself to something foreign, and came away with the best part of himself and also something new. The experience made Simon better. That’s an important mindset and a valuable skill.
MSNBC.com sent me to South Africa in 1998. It was only a handful of years since Apartheid had fallen, and most people were actively being positive on the outside. However, the political, cultural and economic after-effects of that oppressive system hung in the air like acrid smoke. People were getting things done, but a silent tension touched every interaction I witnessed.
I was there for only two weeks, barely long enough to get beyond first impressions, but in that short time I started to care about the people I met and photographed.
The night I left, I looked out the window of the 747 as it climbed up and out of Johannasburg. The skyscrapers were beautiful, sparkling in the twilight, as all big city buildings do. That sight could have been a pretty end to my South African experience, and my political evolution might have been different if I’d looked away after that moment.
Willie Nelson tells us “It’s funny how time slips away.” I’d tend to agree, but I also think it’s interesting how some moments last. Like photographs, they hang in the halls of memory. Some of them have the power to change the way you perceive future experiences.
I didn’t look away as I sat in that window seat. I was admiring the city lights, and then I got a good look at the tin shacks and smoky cook fires of the black townships at the edge of town. The unfairness of those last moments stuck with me. It’s probably the most personally important thing I brought back from South Africa, and it has touched most of the stories I’ve worked on since.
I’m returning to South Africa this Friday. A different employer is sending me and a writer this time, but our mission is the same. We will be talking with people, making pictures, and then attempting to turn those experiences into something that will help readers understand and care. The weight of that responsibility is heavy, but the pressure to produce is motivating. I like it.
I look forward to seeing South Africa again and meeting some of her people. As Simon says, “I have reason to believe we both will be received in Graceland.”