Born in Namibia in 1949, Courtney-Clarke finally returned home in 2009, to begin working on a new series, to reflect on some of the changes that had occurred over the past sixty years. Cry Sadness into the Coming Rain (2014-2017) reveals the lives of Namibia’s indigenous people and their ‘transhumance’. The term usually means the practice of moving livestock from one grazing ground to another in a seasonal cycle, but in Courtney-Clarke’s usage, it extends to people’s daily search for work, forage, and water. Above all, the notion of shelter fascinates her. ‘Shelter is what I’ve concentrated on through my entire life’s work. I’m fascinated by how people shelter against the wind and the sand, the icy cold winters, and all the extremely hot summers.’
In Broad Daylight: Margaret Courtney-Clarke
Margaret Courtney-Clarke’s earliest work profiled anti-apartheid freedom fighters in South Africa, which led to the confiscation of many of her negatives during the 1960s and 70s, and ultimately her incurring persona non grata status. This did not deter her. She renounced her South African citizenship, took up Irish citizenship and, from her new base in Italy, continued to return to her home continent to document its independence struggles, the lives of women, and the largely negative effects of foreign investment in mining the continent’s natural resources.
“I spent six years covering every square inch of the Namib desert and the people who live there”
Recent urban development and drought have forced local populations to migrate, and Courtney-Clarke wants to understand their plight. ‘I spent six years covering every square inch of the Namib desert and the people who live there, following the migration of young people who are abandoning their traditions and beliefs and moving into slums on the outskirts of towns, where they most often end up in alcoholism, abuse, prostitution. I set out to focus on the landscape, to photograph the people who inhabit the appalling landscape.’ The world sees Namibia as an untrammelled land full of exotic people, wild animals drinking at water spots, and expensive tourism. But the tourists don’t see what happens between point A and point B. That’s why I did Cry Sadness into the Coming Rain.’
Cry Sadness captures shelters made from scrap metal found by the roadside, roadside stalls where the people attempt to sell firewood and trinkets to passing tourists, a cage that a young boy has crafted from wire and uses to house the pigeons he sells to make a living. Because every landscape in Courtney-Clarke’s work bears a human trace, we viewers cannot slip into idle contemplation of the sublime desert landscape; instead, we see that this is a place where people live. These are not landscape photographs; they are social photographs that document people forced to inhabit a land that can barely sustain them.
“These are not landscape photographs; they are social photographs that document people forced to inhabit a land that can barely sustain them.”
‘I was so appalled by the negative changes there,’ Courtney-Clarke says, ‘by the greed of the mining magnates, and by a government that is incapable of carrying out its constitution and looking after all of its people in the same way.’ Mining companies exploit the land, she explains, but most people see none of the profits because corruption is so rife within the government. Now there are plans to begin fracking in the Tsodilo Hills, a world heritage site on the border between Namibia and Botswana. There was no environmental impact assessment before the license was granted (they get away with it because of the corruption.’) Rural populations suffer the impact of the government’s failures most severely.
For me, one striking aspect of the photographs in Cry Sadness is their matter-of-factness about suffering and poverty. At the same time, they are utterly humane. ‘I don't manipulate anything,’ Courtney-Clarke says. ‘I don't change anything. A lot of people look at my photographs and say, “Is that really the light?” Well, I don't rise at five in the morning and photograph sunsets and sunrises and beautiful landscapes. Namibia has that as well. It’s a tourist Mecca. All I'm asking is that tourists take a look at what happens between the campsite they leave in the morning and their sundown drinks that evening. They don't. They shoot past in tourist busses at 120 kilometres an hour and don't see the real Namibia. My work is done in broad daylight because that's when local people live their lives. They’ve got to walk their goats, they’ve got to find their donkeys, they've got to search for water. That all happens under a burning sun in a drought. The tourist industry doesn't see that. So I want to make people aware that there’s another side.’
Courtney-Clarke’s process is the antithesis of touristic, fly-by-night photography. She travels in a campervan and stays with the people she photographs, never in hotels or lodges. ‘At least a week before I even pull out a camera,’ she says.
“My work is done in broad daylight because that's when local people live their lives.”
By living with her subjects and befriending them, Courtney-Clarke develops an understanding and an intimacy that we see in the resulting works. ‘The key is to take time and not have a return date or a destination. I don't have a lodge where I’m booked in and I've got to be there for sundown drinks. I leave when I like and often move on with one of the people from that area to another area. We pitch more tents, our party becomes broader and more interesting as it becomes an exchange of cultures between different ethnic groups.’
After spending so much time with people living in extreme poverty, does she see any grounds for optimism? I ask. Is there a route out of Namibia’s poverty and corruption?
‘By nature, I'm an optimistic person, otherwise, I wouldn't have gone through 50 years in Africa where everything was so difficult. But there's always hope. You need a change of government and legal system to be put in place and honoured. An open and free press must continue. But you see it today in South Africa: even a promising president like Cyril Ramaphosa is struggling to root out corruption. The WHO and the EU sent millions of dollars to Namibia to deal with COVID. Nobody there has seen any of it. You have to wait three weeks to get a test.’
When I spoke to Courtney-Clarke, she was in Germany overseeing the production of her new book, but she was already itching to get back to Namibia . ‘There’s a lot of really urgent work for me to do there as an activist,’ she says, ‘using photography to find a listener for the people.’ Who is that listener? I ask. ‘Definitely the wider audience because the Namibian government is not interested; there’s too much corruption and greed,’ she says.
I ask if she considers her photography a form of activism. ‘Not entirely,’ she says. ‘My work is at the crossroads between photography and activism’ – and her activism does not end with her photography. With the subjects of her earlier photographic works, she created a foundation, built a centre for women and youth, and gave her time to training, fundraising, and teaching until the centre could be sustained without her input. She has plans for future activism, too; on her return to Namibia, she will begin campaigning against proposals to begin fracking in the country. ‘But first I need my book to be printed,’ she says. ‘Then I can say, this is how the people are living at the moment.’
“using photography to find a listener for the people”
The photographs from Cry Sadness offer a powerful rejoinder to the images of Namibia many passers-by might have in mind: untouched landscapes, exotic animals, and nomadic people living in states of pre-modern serenity. These images show us the real Namibia, where corruption, abuse, and neglect are commonplace, and every day is a struggle to find shelter. Instead of the sunsets, these photographs show us Namibia in broad daylight. They document life as it really is. Because this, Margaret Courtney-Clarke believes, is the first step to bringing about change.
By Gabriel Flynn
Margaret Courtney-Clarke has kindly made two photographs from Cry Sadness into the Coming Rain available as limited-edition prints. Proceeds from sales of the work will directly support the work of the Fund, helping to equip locally-rooted activists and organisations with the right resources to affect change in their communities around the world.