The Distance Between Us
by Mimi Chakarova
"We must use time creatively, and forever realize that the time is always ripe to do right."
~ Nelson Mandela
I relocated 11 years ago. I spoke no English. I could see, but I couldn't utter a word. I started working at the age of thirteen. I held three jobs and the first thing I bought was an automatic camera. To send pictures home, you see. And where is home? It's hard to know after so many years. But at the time there was no closer definition of home than Bulgaria. At the time, I could still smell my grandma's skin, a scent of ripe tomatoes and chicken feathers....
I faced many challenges as a fresh immigrant from a place unheard, unknown, unexotic. My camera helped every step of the way. Drawing and painting were not far behind. I decided to study photography.
My work is about people and their incredible will to survive regardless of circumstances. Each photograph carries an untold story of struggle and perseverance. The viewer might only witness fragments of the story: a broken nose, a torn skirt, an empty liquor bottle.... Those fragments are just as vital as the complete human story.
They allow us to form our own interpretation of a place unknown. These glimpses of one's existence shake us up. We seek explanations. We ask why. And "why" leads us to an understanding of politics, history, culture, and origin. If there is one thing I would like to show through my photographs and give back to the people whose images I've captured, it would be their dignity. Courage and strength know no race, class, or nationality. They are simply human traits that help us stay alive when the odds are against us.
"Can I take your picture?"
"To show others how you live."
"Will they come here and make it better?"
"I don't know.... Probably not."
"Why you want to shoot a photo of an old man, anyway?"
"Because history is written on your face. Every scar is a decade."
"Go ahead, if it pleases you."
"What pleases you?"
"I don't remember."
There are times when I have a lot of doubt about why I am here, why I am interfering with people's daily lives and chores, why I bring the cameras and the notebook and the pen and the questions and the seeking eyes. And then there are days when I feel a touch, a glance, an exchange that pierces the wall of color, the wall of mistrust and fear.
There are moments when I am me as me and not anything else—not a woman, not a "whitey," not a "foreigner," not an "invader of privacy"—when I am a large ear, when hugs are given without reservation, when people refer to me as their child, their sister, their mother. And those are the times I pick up the cameras, the notepad and pen, the seeking eyes, and I carry on with my work.
Down in New Rest, a township in the outskirts of Cape Town, there was a man who had killed five rats the size of hens. He laid them out on concrete center blocks and he held two by the tails. He posed for a photo and I could see only pride written on his face. Sweat dripped. He had a brownish sweater wrapped around his waist.
He stood next to a wheel barrow that was stacked with more center blocks—more dead rats. When we spoke he explained that the rats nibble at night on the children's feet. Most people in New Rest live in squatter houses. Most sleep on the floor, especially households with lots of children. This man, along with many more I met that day, was a hero.
"Hello, my sister. Hello, my brother. And God bless."
"Where are you headed, old man?"
"Swept Away. Just down the road. I work there, you know."
"In 'Swept Away?' That's a resort, right?"
"Yeah, man. Been working there twenty-one years."
"Twenty-one years! That's a long time."
"Look at me and guess my age."
"Sixty-two. Maybe sixty-five."
"Just turned eighty-one, man. Was born 1919. A Leo. My given name is Lloyd Anderson but they call me Humble."
"You've seen a lot through these eyes, Humble."
"Yeah, man. Seen a lot."
You know that feeling... of sitting next to a cracked window in mid-November and getting a chill that creeps under your fingernails and then works its way to your elbows, neck, stopping for a drink at the base of your spine.... That's what I wish for when you stand here—witnessing the stains history has left on its people, these people who've been trying to wash off poverty for many generations. You see them and they are just like your grandpa whose skin transforms itself into a texture of finely woven strands of endurance. Things done to him that you only thought exist in the imagination of a grotesque writer or film director. But that old man is living proof and you, my friend, are witnessing it.
All of it—apartheid, police brutality, loss of freedom, loss of womanhood, loss of children who no longer look like children. Children who've become little men and women before they even learn how to spell "mama." It's in front of you but it shouldn't sadden you. Look at these faces as I've looked at them and think of what it means to be alive in a place that does everything possible to keep you under.
Mimi Chakarova graduated from the San Francisco Art Institute with a degree in photography and is currently completing a master's thesis in visual studies at UC Berkeley. This is her third year teaching photography at the Graduate School of Journalism at UC Berkeley.
Mimi Chakarova's one-woman photography show Recent Work, a collection of 40 photographs, text, and slides that evoke the current social and political dilemmas in South Africa and Jamaica, will run from February 15th to March 22 at TD 156, An Installation Space, located at 156 South Park in San Francisco.