Cape Town-based photographer David Southwood’s work asks questions about place and its inhabitants, focusing on peripheral economies, privilege, power, and interstitial spaces along infrastructures. His project Memory Card Sea Power focuses on the Foreshore region of Cape Town’s city bowl and the Tanzanian stowaways that inhabit it while they wait for their next move.
Iker Gil talked to David Southwood to learn about the origins of the project, the history of the area, his relationship to the stowaways, and the broadsheet produced.
Iker Gil: When did you first come across the Tanzanian stowaways who live by the N1 Highway? Why did they settle in this specific area of Cape Town?
David Southwood: In 2010 I became aware of a community of men living under the bridges near the Cape Town harbor. Because these guys are masters of camouflage, the actual realization that the same group of men was occupying this littoral section of the urban plan, consistently, was a gradual one.
The short version of the very complicated story is that the Tanzanians come to Cape Town to use the port as a springboard to reach other port cities by stowing away on ships. This primary arc is underpinned by a lively heroin smuggling network, naive and youthful urges to see different lands, the old yellow brick road promise of a “better life,” and the traditional idea that strong Tanzanian men go to sea.
The stowaways occupy this particular area in Cape Town because of several reasons: it is close to the harbor; exactly who has jurisdiction over the area is unclear which leaves a regulatory void; it is inhospitable which means there are no turf wars; and it is close to the city which provides what little economic transaction the community needs for survival.
IG: The stowaways inhabit an interstitial space, the reclaimed area of Foreshore. Can you describe the history of Foreshore and its current role in the city?
DS: What is now the Foreshore area of Cape Town was established on reclaimed land in the 1930s and 1940s. Cape Town’s harbor and pedestrian zone were replaced with the commercial Duncan Dock, completed in 1945, which was designed for larger ships to attract international sea trade.
In the run-up to the actual construction, tensions between the city of Cape Town, and National and Provincial planning authorities emerged. In that sense, the Foreshore has been, and will always be, a zone in which heavily contested political decisions get made.
In the 1950s, new ideas about transport planning were channeled through increasingly racist ideas that the South African government had about separating communities, establishing networks that enhanced the ability of white people to extend their privilege.
This racist and technocratic set of values find their form in the highways extending from the Foreshore region through District 6, a formerly “colored” area which was compulsorily acquired and demolished. Through the Cape Flats, the concrete structures effectively split the city along racial lines.
The stowaways occupy a no man’s land in the sense that the area has always been surrounded by a lack of clarity and intelligibility. This has meant that it is a perfect spot to colonize because no one has their eyes trained on it despite the intense intellectual high tide which engulfs it.
The men who live under the bridges always desire to be elsewhere. Their modus operandi is to have as little to do with the city as possible, and therefore their bodies occupy the underpass world. Their minds, however, are attached to the next destination, which they seek to attain.
Some of the men that I met have their makeshift quarters between the steel barriers on the median between the dual highways. For me, this is the most profound indication of a will to exist at the interstices, at the emblem of an international nowhere.
Historically, this part of Cape Town was a place designed for embarkation. In the way that the stowaways haunt the Foreshore, they represent contemporary surrogates for the original users. They exist in the shadow of design and have worked out how to extract what they need from the various vacuums that poor planning and policing open up.
These guys exemplify the idea of hiding in plain sight. Most of their daily routine, when I first saw them, was lived-out in the bowl, which the highways at the Foreshore delimit.
When the hundreds of thousands of motorists enter and leave Cape Town, they y observe the men often at quite close proximity, but because they are moving and stuck in their vehicles, the stowaways don’t really amount to much. The tableau is both spectacularly intimate and private at some times of the day but also invisible because of the relative speeds and modes which the two communities function at.
IG: How did you first approach the stowaways? Was there a person that stood out for you?
DS: The stowaways don’t like intruders, silo their lore, and don’t speak much English, so it was challenging to find a way to engage with the community.
My first approaches were false starts. First, I simply walked up to a group of men on Saturday morning and I was met with extreme hostility. A high proportion of these guys use heroin and other potent drugs, and a thin white guy with a big grin didn’t cut the mustard. I then asked a Swahili-speaking friend of mine to come and help break the ice, but he had an approach characterized by a slightly analytic distance that also fell flat.
Finally, I met Adam Bachili, a brilliant English-speaking Tanzanian who was also a seasoned stowaway. We got along very well, and this relationship proved to be the key. It is through Adam that the entire project happened and he is Memory Card Sea Power.
IG: The project is presented as a broadsheet designed by Francois Rey of the graphic design studio Monday Design. Can you talk about the election of the format and what you wanted to convey in print?
DS: I wanted to make a low-cost object that could be circulated widely. A one-color litho broadsheet provided this opportunity. The process was not beholden to multiple suppliers and many expensive hours of post-production and color correcting.
My instruction to Francois on a Monday was, “Here are the photos and the texts, see you on Friday!” I aimed to explore print and medium territory, which I knew nothing about, and disown (briefly, it seems) the earnest formalist approach that I had become used to.
It was difficult for me to maintain a single technical approach over the years of the project’s making because different cameras suited different modes of photography and the same chemicals and film were not always readily available. Early on, I realized that a cheap newspaper would provide some sort of parity over all the varying idioms, films, and processing techniques and lend a rough, contingent quality to the final product.
Owning and sponsoring the entire process allowed me to control the means of distribution and it was imperative for me to show the work in spaces which were not bound by the self-aware, rote debates in art criticism, and the gallery world.
I sold the broadsheet to friends, had a show in the space of a prominent architect friend [Wolff Architects], and pasted the newspaper around the city, under bridges mainly. Under bridges and pasted onto concrete urban infrastructure is the natural habitat of Memory Card Sea Power.
The life of stowaways is transient, violent, unrestrained, and unpredictable, and the underpasses where they choose to live have a hazy, leaden ambience. I hope that how I force the text and saturnine photography into a violent collage gives the reader these senses. There are no page numbers on the newspaper so reconstituting the broadsheet results in chance juxtapositions and unintended narrative arcs much like stowaway life. In the same way, the community of men who I knew has mostly dissipated, and so too the flimsy newspaper will give itself up to the vagaries of life.
The decision to use a newspaper format was a decision to forget.
IG: Along with the photographs, the broadsheet includes a series of messages by the stowaways and diary entries by your collaborator, writer Sean Christie. How do the photographs and text complement each other?
DS:The relationship between text and photo is loose because when the broadsheet is put back together, after it has been laid out, and the composite photographs completed, the photo/text juxtapositions change.
The aleatoric nature of Memory Card Sea Power leads to a constant recontextualization of the photography, which is what I wanted to happen.
The bold, chunky text is transcribed stowaway Pidgin, and it is designed to be legible from a distance (motorists) and/or draw the potential reader closer. At closer proximity, the photography becomes legible, and finally, Sean Christie’s text becomes readable. What I tried to do is modulate the size of the various components so that Memory Card Sea Power functions at all distances.
Sean’s text is diaristic and offers multiple types of information: Sean’s own sensual impressions, dialogue and truncated historical contexts of Adam, the stowaway community, and the city of Cape Town. This variation makes time, and the overall story contracts, expands, and fractures, with the narrative continually coming unmoored.
Sean wrote an unbelievable book called Under Nelson Mandela Boulevard (Jonathan Ball, 2016) about his experience with Adam and friends in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, and traveled with these heroin smugglers down the East Coast of Africa back to Cape Town. It is an excellent, risky work, which tells a very complicated story with empathy and insight.
IG: You have worked on another series that also involves the N1 highway. Can you talk about your interest in the highway and how it relates to your work?
DS: The N1 highway links Cape Town and Zimbabwe and splits South Africa North/South. The road emanates from the harbor precinct where the stowaways live and runs for 2,000 kilometers straight up the map.
The N1 project only has two traditional “road” photographs. The rest of the body of work is comprised of random cameos, landscapes made from the road, and still lifes. I intended to construct an idiosyncratic picture of the road that negated the typical “road” photo essay.
The modalities in which N1 and Memory Card Sea Power function are very different, but share DNA in their attempt to elucidate how unintended users of infrastructural design occupy space. These unintended users are more often than not migrants and both projects try to tell migration stories in new ways.
David Southwood is a South African photographer based in Cape Town. Southwood’s contact with his subjects is carefully organized, generally protracted, and is designed to shift power away from the author in as far as possible. His corpus of work is a miscellany of personal projects and jobs each of which identifies problems and asks questions with craft, humor, and empathy. In 2000, together with some township photographers, he set up the first nonprofit organization for street photographers in the Western Cape called Umlilo. His latest book titled HUSTLES, co-authored with Local Studio, chronicles Local Studio’s first twelve built projects and five years of practice in the City of Gold.