Excerpts from interview with Image Source editor John O’Reilly
In the week the world said goodbye to Nelson Mandela, Photographer Verity Fitzgerald reflects on her Robben Island project, capturing some moments from a week of ceremonies celebrating the life of a man who made us believe we could change history
The photographs of Verity Fitzgerald show us the deep currents of history, the revealing geographical landscapes of her Robben Island project The Ebb Tide, or her observations on the imagery in circulation after Nelson Mandela’s death – a man whose words and action inspired people to believe they could change history.
The Ebb Tide explores the space of an island that has become synonymous with Nelson Mandela and other ANC prisoners incarcerated by the Apartheid regime. Fitzgerald’s island photos show the shapes, spaces, vegetation, geology, wildlife, all the geographical ‘crusts’ that have grown out of the island and the purposes to which it was put – from leper colony to an offshore hospital for the mentally ill.
Its a fascinating set of images worth spending time with, whose subject matter is about spending time – Robben Island was an island that removed time from prisoners. It was an island where the government tried to stop the march of time and the demand to be treated as a human being whatever the colour of your skin.
Fitzgerald sent some photos back to us from the recent ceremonies celebrating the life and death of Nelson Mandela. She notes the extent to which the imagery of the moment understandably focusses on Mandela’s face and less on the difficult moments of his history. Indeed while celebrating a life of rare self-sacrifice, it’s important not to smooth over the grim reality faced by Mandela and others in the struggle – young people today may find it hard to imagine, but yes there there were politicians and business people who supported the status quo.
Fitzgerald’s The Ebb Tide project reveals the sediments of history, the stuff that gathers over time, the rough edges that make us who we are.
When did you start the project?
Verity Fitzgerald: I started this project while still a student at the Cape Town School of Photography at the end of 2011. Given that Robben Island is a World Heritage Site it took me some time to gain access to work unrestricted on the island so it was not until 2012 that I was really making any progress in my work and beginning to form relationships with residents on the island.
Why “The Ebb Tide”?
Verity Fitzgerald: The “Ebb Tide” relates to the passing of time and the end of an era, but also to the potential of a new tide coming in. The island is currently in a state of change and this is an interval for us to evaluate past events and consider the future of Robben Island and its diminishing community. The island also has a certain rhythm that I am attracted to, a constant restlessness in the movement of people back and forth. After the daily influx of hundreds of tourists, it is the bare shell of the village that I am fascinated by. Photographing the island in the dead of night feels much like inspecting the contents of a rock pool once the tide had gone out.
You note the various functions of Robben Island, from a place for lepers to the mentally ill, to political prisoners such as Nelson Mandela. In what ways has this past marked/shaped the geography of the island?
Verity Fitzgerald: Robben Island has been adapted to fulfil many roles over the years, and in doing so left its mark and created a very unique landscape. For example, during its time as a leper colony there was much criticism around the forced institutionalisation of leprosy patients to a cold, windy and barren island, and being forced to ‘sit on a rock gazing at their fatherland’. Due to this opposition, attempts were made to green the island with Australian brush that was fast growing and hardy enough to withstand the tough climate, and which still remain a prominent feature of the island’s vegetation. There are also various lime and stone quarries that have played key parts in its history. The lime quarry was famously worked on by the political prisoners, and the Jan van Riebeeck quarry provided much of the stone that was used for various building around the Robben Island village. These quarries have left quite dramatic scars in the landscape but have been accommodated by the vegetation and the bird life in quite a spectacular way.
You describe the project as an alternative vision to the one represented to tourists, your images feel desolate, exposed, but also ecologically rich?
Verity Fitzgerald: I feel very privileged to have experienced the island at all times of day and night, in a light where the history of the place can feel particularly poignant. Given the restrictions to the tour guides, although for practical reasons, so much of this magic is unavailable to the public and this is something that I wanted to portray. Despite being a small stretch of land, there is a vast amount of history to be seen. The island has a number of faces to it and can feel very intimate as well as very harsh, which I think can easily go overlooked.
What’s the range of imagery that has been on display since Nelson Mandela’s death?
Verity Fitzgerald: In the week since his death, we are seeing more than anything Madiba’s face, and less of the iconic moments of his history. In this way, it really does feel like we have lost the father of our country, not just a great leader. This coupled with our flag makes for very proud imagery.
Your favourite Mandela-related photo you have taken and why?
Verity Fitzgerald: During one of my first few visits to the island, I interviewed the longest standing Robben Island resident, Jan Moolman, known affectionately as Oom Jan (‘oom’ being Afrikaans for uncle). He is a former prison warder who later became the skipper that ferried residents and tourists back and forth from the island. I got to know him and his wife quite well and spent many nights with them on the island, during which time they showed me all around the island and told me stories of their 49 years there. During one of these visits Oom Jan took me to see the rugby field in the village where he used to play on a team with fellow wardens against a team made up by some of the prisoners.
These were very fond memories to him where the wardens and prisoners could disconnect from their roles and interact normally for a short time. My time with Oom Jan and hearing his honest and open accounts of life on Robben Island is something I hold very dear, and so this image of the rugby field with the clubhouse, and the way it illustrates the passing of time, is a personal favourite.