In many cases, there were
only small sections of the towns that attracted me; sometimes
only one or two buildings. Usually these places were visually
and culturally anomalous, characterised by outmoded styles
or eclectic paraphernalia. The discovery of such places meant
that I would frequently return, drawn for no explicable reason
As an American and outsider, I perhaps saw these towns differently.
I believe each dorp has its own personality. I have been
to some dorps where people are friendly and interested in
what I am doing, and they would invite me for tea or for
some type of discussion. Some people would tell others about
my being there, and I would actually spend a day or two in
a place and get to know many of the residents. But there
are other dorps, where, after a few minutes, I have met with
antagonism and suspicious stares. This was part of the anxiety
of going into these places: was the place a friendly place
or not? And yet, it is impossible to understand why certain
places are friendly while others are not.
In the main, blacks enjoyed the novelty of being photographed,
and whites, although initially more suspicious, could be
quickly reassured, and soon revelled in the opportunity of
talking to a foreigner. Although I could speak neither Afrikaans
nor an African dialect, the news of my visit seemed to quickly
pervade town conversation.
There can be two ways of approaching a subject. Some photographers
begin with a notion of the aesthetic and cram life into a
frame to fit that notion; other photographers saunter into
life and try to discover a visual experience. I would say
that I work both ways.
With few exceptions, the dorps of South Africa were founded
by people of either English or Dutch descent. Most places
were developed according to what was known as the Voortrekker
plan which initially comprised a central block with a grid
system laid out around it. In the centre of the grid was
the church with a large adjacent space to accommodate the
As the town grew, shops and residential areas spread from
the centre outwards. Many of these buildings incorporate
trends of Victorian Cape architecture, but the essence of
the style can be best summed-up in the Afrikaans expression”
‘n Boer maak altyd ‘n plan”, or “the
countryman always has a plan”. In other words, buildings
were adapted to meet the needs of their owners and are an
expression of function and personality.
For a long time I wondered what it was about the verandahs
and pillars that attracted me, and why I frequently photographed
them. In America these elements have always represented long
past grandeur, whereas in many cases, columns of the houses
that interested me actually support verandahs that are quite
dilapidated and unmonumental. Yet, ironically enough, there
is a yearning for magnificence in them, though there is little
of that left in most dorps. I guess that is what this book
is about — a nostalgia for a distant unattainable splendour.
Tin signs with romantic faded pictures of colonial Africa
are attached to the older trading stores that cater for the
predominantly black customers. Shelves in these stores are
full of basic goods like tobacco, sugar, bread and each trader
has a few samples of desirable modern objects such as primus
stoves and pink ruffly baby clothes. The smell of spice and
old wood pervades. Many of these shops are owned by Indians
and these places seem to blend Africa with Asia.
Various items, reflections on a person’s life, are
collected and hung on a wall. I was not necessarily interested
in homes that were saturated with what is known as ‘kitsch’.
Alternatively, I sought to capture highly personal expressive
taste and experience in the choice and arrangement of decorative
objects. If many of the walls I have photographed could be
transported intact to a museum they might be labelled works
I met a man in the run-down Smithfield Hotel. It was his
85th birthday and he had travelled from his home in Bethulie,
a distance of approximately 50 kilometres, to treat himself
to a night at the hotel for the occasion. After I had photographed
him in the hotel lounge, he gave me his address in Bethulie,
and on my return journey I went to his house. The verandah,
which was hung with an assortment of horns, was a place that
I had noticed and had wanted to enter on previous visits.
This man had a strange collection of objects, prints from
Egypt, old family pictures and a portrait of General Smuts
that he had received at the end of the Second World war.
Most fascinating were piles of pristine white pillows on
various beds and odd pieces of furniture throughout the house.
When night falls, there is very little to do as a photographer.
Often staying in a shabby hotel, all I wish for is morning
and the light. Dorp hotels are very quiet. One isn’t
disturbed by cars zooming past, people yelling in the halls,
televisions blaring. I have never been to an hotel in a dorp
that was full. Business is usually depressed.
The meals in these hotels are ritualistic and fulfill the
repetitious spirit of the dorps. Tea or coffee is served
in one’s room before breakfast, and meals are generally
on set menus rather than a la carte. Breakfast begins with
juice and cereal, followed by the main course and ending
with tea or coffee. Dinner and lunch start with soup followed
by fish, a selection of two main dishes (inevitably lamb
or beef), custard or a steam pudding and ending with tea
or coffee. Black waiters dressed in red uniforms with white
hats and gloves will, on the slightest provocation, remove
your dish and bring back the menu for the next order.
In these towns, church, television and work take up most
time. Drinking and sports are popular, as is conversation
about the weather; everyone also knows everyone else’s
business and most people feel threatened by the changes going
on around them.
Old mining towns dot the South African countryside. In the
early part of the Twentieth Century, thousands of hopeful
people flooded the empty space of Africa looking for gold
and diamonds, leaving behind what is now a poxed landscape.
The descendants of the few who remained are a strange mixture,
reminiscent of the hillbillies of Appalacia, America, a group
seemingly cut-off from the changes of the last half-century.
Most dorps contain a main street where a bank, butcher,
petrol station and trading store can be found. For the most
part, shops open at eight and close at five. After this time
there is nobody on the streets except for an occasional black,
and all shops are shut except the local cafes. These are
usually run by Portuguese or Greeks, and have a constant
stream of customers from early morning to late at night.
They offer simple luxuries such as cold drinks, Sunday newspapers
and fried foods.
Of particular note is Greylingstad in the Transvaal which
begins and ends with a cafe. Between the cafes are a number
of petrol stations, one of which still uses a hand pump.
A picturesque black township overlooks the town from a surrounding
hill. The cafes are run by two brothers who immigrated some
time ago from Madeira. The cafe on the east side of the dorp
was built in 1914; ornate orange wrought-iron columns support
the verandah. Both brothers hired the same local artist from
Bethal to paint a rainbow-coloured fish on their shop windows
with the word “Chips” below. Both make most of
their money from selling cold drinks and various foods to
the African population. Pink sausages, yellow pig’s
feet and oil-saturated potatoes are their specialities. Neither
has taken a vacation as far back as they can remember and
both work seven days a week. The larger brother, who could
not keep his shirt tucked in because of his protruding stomach,
said repeatedly to me in broken English, “Eat something,
food is good. Eat something”.
Light is the essence of photography; you can go back to
some places which had seemed interesting and find there is
nothing there at all. Conversely, with the progression of
daylight things can evolve from the ordinary to the magical.
One of the great tragedies of South Africa is the zeal with
which traditional structures have been torn down. Places
that were once dominated by small businesses have been replaced
by enormous chain stores.
Old buildings have been casually demolished to make way
for modern edifices. Cafés, trading stores and other
mundane elements of the dorps are becoming rare. In the three
years that I have worked on this project, many of my favourite
haunts have disappeared. Shop owners are talking about the
profits made in fast food franchises.
The sense of balance is no longer with us, and this, not
the fact that we are living in the Twentieth Century, is
what I find disturbing; within a short period of time, centuries
of culture can be easily extinguished.
I have tried to depict what I believe to be a disappearing
South African aesthetic. With each year, the anonymity of
the present further transforms the character of these places.
In many ways I feel as if I have recorded the elements of
a dying culture. I photographed these towns in the hope of
‘freezing’ time and arresting the utter extinction
of the South African dorp.