Jailhouse Photo Exhibition

Yesterday I put on a photo exhibition. In prison.

No really, I did. These jail cells are adjacent to the atrium where my photos were displayed.

Strange, but true. Constitution Hill is a National Heritage Site. The 120-year-old fort/prison on Constitution Hill — which is just down the road from Melville, in Braamfontein — has played a pivotal role in South African history, from the first Anglo-Boer War through the apartheid struggle and beyond. Many important historical figures were imprisoned and tortured there, as were thousands of others whose lives and stories have long been forgotten. It’s an eerie, beautiful place — a good place for displaying photos.

The exhibition.

I did the exhibition for Ilifa Labantwana, an organization seeking to advance early childhood development in South Africa. I won’t go into detail about Ilifa’s work; you can read about it on their website. But simply put, Ilifa conducts research and advocacy to improve the health and well-being of young children. Ilifa wants to make sure that all South African children — from the time they are born until they enter primary school — receive the nurturing, education, and opportunities they need to lead happy, productive lives. Yesterday Ilifa launched a campaign to communicate these goals, called “Your Child Is a Somebody”. The photo exhibition is part of that campaign.

This exhibition was a big deal for me. I’ve organized a few photo exhibitions before, but always with Jon’s photos. Yesterday’s photos, however, were mine. I traveled across the country shooting them, then put my heart and soul into editing and printing them. I captioned and signed each photo with my favorite pencil. I drove the photos to Constitution Hill, set them up on easels, and fretted about how to keep them upright in that drafty room. Once the photos were finally standing, I photographed them.

The finished product.

I enjoyed looking at people look at my photos.

Launch of the “Your Child Is a Somebody” campaign.

The caterers and I spent a lot of quality time together. These guys got to know the photos better than anyone.

Constitution Hill is around the corner from the Hillbrow Boxing Club. I invited Coach George and his crew to come see the exhibit, and they came. They had a great time exploring the prison and I asked George (second from left) if he had ever been there before. “One time,” he said matter-of-factly. “A long time ago. When I got arrested.”

I’m not exposed very well in this photo, but I decided I like it that way. You can’t see how worn out I look. (Photo: one of George’s boxers)

Creating this exhibition was a major undertaking, and I had a lot of help. The exhibition wouldn’t have happened without Sherri and Heidi from Ilifa, nor all the staff from Ilifa’s partner organizations, who ferried me around and introduced me to the people and programs I photographed. (I can’t name you all but you know who you are.)

I cringe to think about what these prints would have looked like without Derek and Darren from Martin Gibbs Studio, the best framing shop/photographic studio in South Africa. You guys are ROCK STARS. I heart you.

But overall, this exhibition was a solitary endeavor. I did nearly all of it alone.

Except I wasn’t alone, really. I had someone with me all along. I just have to look at the photos — he’s there in every frame.

Jon had a fixation with hands and eyes, which I’ve adopted.

See that kid on the left, with the frying pan? If not for the wide-angle lens that Jon convinced me to buy, that kid would have been out of the picture.

Last week at Martin Gibbs, when Derek was packing up the prints for me to take home, he paused on this photo and pointed to the boy clapping on the left. “You got that from Jon,” he said.

If you knew Jon, you’ll see him in this photo.

(To see the rest of the exhibition photos, click here.)

Setting up the photos yesterday morning was incredibly stressful. I was still scurrying around as the guests began to arrive. When the last easel was set up and secured, I took a deep breath, grabbed my camera, and climbed the stairs to take a shot from the balcony.

As I reached the top of the staircase and looked down, I started crying. Actually, crying is not the right word. I started violently sobbing. One moment I was fine, the next moment I was sobbing so hard that I hyperventilated. I didn’t even feel it coming.

Until that moment, I hadn’t been thinking much about Jon. I’d gotten so bogged down in the details that I’d forgotten the big picture. I realize now that Jon sent me that sobbing episode. It was his way of taking me by the shoulders, shaking me, and saying, “Hey H, slow DOWN for a minute. Look down there at those pictures. Remember when I told you what a good eye you had? Do you believe me now?”

I fled down a corridor, into a prison cell. I stood there, surrounded by pigeon poop, watching the light filter through the tiny window above. Gradually, the tears tapered off and my breathing returned to normal. I wiped my eyes and went downstairs.

I got down just in time to catch Sherri Le Mottee, the Ilifa Programme Leader who gave me this assignment in the first place, walking through the door.

As Jon used to say, “THAT’S the frame.”  (Sherri is on the left.)

I feel like I’m rambling on a bit. But I just don’t know how to adequately convey the significance of this event. I can hardly grasp it myself.

Several times yesterday, people walked up to me and asked, “Are you the artist?”

I felt like turning around and looking behind me to see who else they might be speaking to. Me? An artist? Please.

And yet I found myself smiling and answering, “Yes.”

I guess I’m an artist now. Thanks, Jon.

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54 Comments

  • Reply landofnams September 28, 2012 at 11:02 pm

    xxx

  • Reply barbaramattio September 28, 2012 at 11:05 pm

    Terrific, fabulous and wonderful photos. What an exciting event for you. Congratulations to you and thanks for sharing them with us. Hugs, Barbara

  • Reply Ingrid stahlman September 29, 2012 at 1:02 am

    Congratulations…… fabulous photos! You ‘ve got it !

    • Reply 2summers September 29, 2012 at 7:18 am

      Thanks, Ingrid. Hope you’re well.

  • Reply Emily Cannell September 29, 2012 at 1:34 am

    What a fantastic landmark for you as an artist! I just love the photos you took. The fat faced boy with the huge eyes- the smiling mother and child- the poster with the children striped with the South African colors. The juxtaposition of hope vs imprisonment and all that it represents from a historical perspective. From my previous working days I know how important it is to impact these children for change. Very well done. Very well done.

    • Reply 2summers September 29, 2012 at 7:21 am

      Thank you Emily! I love the chubby-faced boy too. I really wanted to take that photo back home with me after the exhibition 🙂

  • Reply Jenna McCroskey September 29, 2012 at 2:10 am

    When I first ‘read’ this post, I just scrolled through the photos and I thought to myself how much they reminded me of Jon’s work. I can clearly see him and I imagine he must be so very proud. Thanks for sharing your life in Africa. You inspire me with every post.

    • Reply 2summers September 29, 2012 at 7:17 am

      Thanks very much Jenna, I’m glad you see what I see. Hope you’re doing well!

  • Reply eremophila September 29, 2012 at 6:58 am

    I’m sitting here with tears also rolling down my face Heather. It’s an incredible journey you’ve been on, and this is such a significant occasion! Oh my gosh!!!!! I don’t have to wish you good luck with the exhibition, it IS a success, in ALL WAYS. ♥♥♥

    • Reply 2summers September 29, 2012 at 7:20 am

      Thanks. Yeah, it is all kind of surreal. It was an amazing opportunity and I’m so grateful to have had the chance to take advantage of it. Thanks for the reblog, too!

    • Reply Fiver September 29, 2012 at 4:18 pm

      This. Including the tears. Well done you.

      • Reply 2summers September 29, 2012 at 6:45 pm

        Thanks, my friend. I wish you were here.

  • Reply eremophila September 29, 2012 at 7:02 am

    Reblogged this on Eremophila’s Musings and commented:
    Bravo for this milestone achievement!

  • Reply Jacinta1109 September 29, 2012 at 9:04 am

    Incredible in so many ways and thank you (!) for making me cry too x

    Here’s go that artist in you !!!

    • Reply 2summers September 29, 2012 at 2:17 pm

      Thank you. I hope you enjoyed the cry –sometimes crying is a good thing.

  • Reply clifford Els September 29, 2012 at 10:16 am

    Without a doubt you are an artist. You have a style that is uniquely yours. The images all have the same signature style.
    The compassion you have for your subjects comes out in every photo.

    Well done. I enjoyed going through each image.

    • Reply 2summers September 29, 2012 at 2:16 pm

      Thanks very much. I couldn’t ask for a better compliment than this.

  • Reply perupeeps September 29, 2012 at 10:32 am

    Fantastic and wonderful, what an incredible gift to you, the organisation you have done this for, and for Jon, who really seems to be present through this as well

    • Reply 2summers September 29, 2012 at 2:10 pm

      Thanks! And thank you for reading.

  • Reply jeanie September 29, 2012 at 2:33 pm

    Heather, I remember when you were 5 years old and had just drawn a picture. You brought it to me and said “Mom, I want to be an artist when I grow up”. I looked at it and thought – no way, this is pretty bad, even for a 5 yr old. I smiled at you and said that would be fun. WOW, I’m proud of you.

    • Reply 2summers September 29, 2012 at 2:58 pm

      I know, I remember how we used to joke about that. The best picture I ever drew was the one of Eddie Murray, which I still have in my bedroom. I was actually going to write something about this in the blog post but it was running too long already.

      Funny how it took me more than 35 years to learn that I’m creative in a different way. Better late than never, I guess.

  • Reply jackie hulme September 29, 2012 at 4:13 pm

    i love these pictures Heather – they are so stellar – the last one is so special and of course, the one of George and co from around the corner – so special. I hope I get to do something like this one day – sooooon.

    • Reply 2summers September 29, 2012 at 6:44 pm

      Thanks Jacks! I hope so too.

  • Reply Sine September 29, 2012 at 10:16 pm

    Stunning Heather, congratulations for getting to this point and pulling it all off. Yes, I’m sure Jon would have been proud of you. Amazing that you get to carry on his work in this way.

    • Reply 2summers September 30, 2012 at 12:53 am

      Thanks Sine. It is pretty darn amazing.

  • Reply Sine September 29, 2012 at 10:16 pm

    Stunning Heather, congratulations for getting to this point and pulling it all off. Yes, I’m sure Jon would have been proud of you. Amazing that you get to carry on his work in this way.

    • Reply 2summers September 30, 2012 at 12:53 am

      Thanks Sine. It is pretty darn amazing.

  • Reply Tenney September 30, 2012 at 6:53 am

    Wow! (pardon the exclamation point) Congratulations on a great accomplishment. Of course you are an artist; but even more important is the fact that you are one helluva a photographer. It’s my turn to cry.

    • Reply 2summers September 30, 2012 at 7:36 am

      Thanks Dad. Sometimes exclamation points re appropriate. I wish you had been there.

  • Reply Tenney September 30, 2012 at 6:53 am

    Wow! (pardon the exclamation point) Congratulations on a great accomplishment. Of course you are an artist; but even more important is the fact that you are one helluva a photographer. It’s my turn to cry.

    • Reply 2summers September 30, 2012 at 7:36 am

      Thanks Dad. Sometimes exclamation points re appropriate. I wish you had been there.

  • Reply Kathryn McCullough September 30, 2012 at 2:14 pm

    Oh, Heather, what wonderful work! You are, ineed, an artist! Jon would be so proud. Love the way you paid tribute to him in this post. Congrats, my friend! The photos are stunning!
    Hugs,
    Kathy

    • Reply 2summers September 30, 2012 at 2:38 pm

      Thanks so much, Kathy. Have a great Sunday.

  • Reply Kathryn McCullough September 30, 2012 at 2:14 pm

    Oh, Heather, what wonderful work! You are, ineed, an artist! Jon would be so proud. Love the way you paid tribute to him in this post. Congrats, my friend! The photos are stunning!
    Hugs,
    Kathy

    • Reply 2summers September 30, 2012 at 2:38 pm

      Thanks so much, Kathy. Have a great Sunday.

  • Reply Jennifer Rikkers October 1, 2012 at 1:56 pm

    First, congratulations! What a beautiful accomplishment! I wish I could see it in person, but you did a wonderful job sharing the spirit of the show. I love your photography. It is inspired and I love how you are expressing what you are experiencing aroung you. I am certain Jon would be in awe of you like the rest of us. Take care Heather….sending you all the best in your future endeavors!!

    • Reply 2summers October 1, 2012 at 9:03 pm

      Thanks so much, Jennifer. I hope you and your family are doing well 🙂

  • Reply Jennifer Rikkers October 1, 2012 at 1:56 pm

    First, congratulations! What a beautiful accomplishment! I wish I could see it in person, but you did a wonderful job sharing the spirit of the show. I love your photography. It is inspired and I love how you are expressing what you are experiencing aroung you. I am certain Jon would be in awe of you like the rest of us. Take care Heather….sending you all the best in your future endeavors!!

    • Reply 2summers October 1, 2012 at 9:03 pm

      Thanks so much, Jennifer. I hope you and your family are doing well 🙂

  • Reply Eugenia A Parrish October 1, 2012 at 8:50 pm

    Congratulations! But I’m not surprised. Jon may be in the picture but it was your eye that looked at the people and said “yes!”. A workshop teacher recently asked me what I wanted to learn in photography, and I tried to explain using words like “candid rather than portrait”. Looking at these pictures, I realized I want to take pictures like you do! Real people, eyes and hands, hopes and fears. Great work!

    • Reply 2summers October 1, 2012 at 9:02 pm

      Oh. Thank you so much. I’m honored that you feel that way.

  • Reply Eugenia A Parrish October 1, 2012 at 8:50 pm

    Congratulations! But I’m not surprised. Jon may be in the picture but it was your eye that looked at the people and said “yes!”. A workshop teacher recently asked me what I wanted to learn in photography, and I tried to explain using words like “candid rather than portrait”. Looking at these pictures, I realized I want to take pictures like you do! Real people, eyes and hands, hopes and fears. Great work!

    • Reply 2summers October 1, 2012 at 9:02 pm

      Oh. Thank you so much. I’m honored that you feel that way.

  • Reply tomorrowslices October 5, 2012 at 6:07 am

    Heather – your photos really do speak volumes. So glad that the artist in you has found her voice and that you are sharing your songs, your photos, in such an incredible way. Jon would be so proud of you, and as your blog readers, we are too – well done.

    • Reply 2summers October 6, 2012 at 7:04 pm

      Thanks very much 🙂

  • Reply tomorrowslices October 5, 2012 at 6:07 am

    Heather – your photos really do speak volumes. So glad that the artist in you has found her voice and that you are sharing your songs, your photos, in such an incredible way. Jon would be so proud of you, and as your blog readers, we are too – well done.

    • Reply 2summers October 6, 2012 at 7:04 pm

      Thanks very much 🙂

  • Reply Rebecca October 8, 2012 at 2:32 am

    Wow, congratulations!! So exciting, although the relief that it’s over must be enormous too 🙂 A-mazing photos!

    • Reply 2summers October 8, 2012 at 8:58 am

      Thanks Rebecca! It is kind of a relief, although sad too.

  • Reply Rebecca October 8, 2012 at 2:32 am

    Wow, congratulations!! So exciting, although the relief that it’s over must be enormous too 🙂 A-mazing photos!

    • Reply 2summers October 8, 2012 at 8:58 am

      Thanks Rebecca! It is kind of a relief, although sad too.

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