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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