People are her thing

2009-03-02 00:00

BEING trapped under a blanket of snow in Scotland is one way to focus your mind on what’s important in life.

And that’s precisely what happened to Durban photographer Val Adamson. During her final year of studying for a national diploma in photography at Napier College in Edinburgh, she and two friends went hiking in the mountains. Then disaster struck and they were caught in an avalanche. Fortunately, one of her friends managed to get free and went for help, but the accident left Adamson needing months of treatment in hospital. “I nearly didn’t finish my final year. It’s the kind of moment which makes you start to appreciate life,” she says.

It’s also why — after graduating from college — she decided to make the most of life. “I’d had enough of Britain and did every job I could to raise money for a ticket back to Africa. I chose South Africa because my mum, Suzanne, was originally from the country and my sister, Nanette, was studying nursing at Grey’s Hospital in Pietermaritzburg.”

Adamson was born in Kenya and describes her childhood as “paradise”. “When I look back at my childhood it was amazing. I was brought up on horseback and we had millions of pets. The only horrible thing was going to boarding school. I often wish I could give my child that kind of life.”

Home was a coffee plantation on the outskirts of Nairobi, where her father, Tommy, was a gynaecologist and her mother trained racehorses. But life changed dramatically when Adamson was seven years old. Her father died and her mother promised him, on his deathbed, that she would take the children to his native Scotland to be educated.

So it was, at the age of 12, that Adamson found herself living on the other side of the world. “The only thing that got us through that first winter was TV because we hadn’t had one in Kenya,” she said. “Scotland was a huge culture shock. We lived in a small town near Stirling and initially people were very antagonistic because they thought we were English. When they found out we were from Africa, we were a novelty. People would ask us if we had lived in mud huts.”

After school, she considered enrolling for a zoology degree but instead found photography. “It was a whim,” she explains. “My mum saw a brochure for the local college and there was a course on photography advertised. I thought it sounded interesting but didn’t have much of an art portfolio, so when I spoke to them they suggested I go away for a year and then if I still wanted to do it I should come back.”

Adamson took their advice and headed to the United States where she worked as an au pair. The family she stayed with lent her a film camera and she started taking photos of children, later extending her portfolio by touring 30 U.S. states and taking roll after roll of pictures.

A three-year college course and a few temporary jobs later, she was living in South Africa and making her name as part of the country’s theatrical community. “Theatre photography is my first love, even though I don’t do as much now. It’s strange — I was initially terrified of photographing people, but now people are my thing.

“I had been here for eight months when I heard about a job at the State Theatre [in Pretoria]. They were looking for a darkroom assistant but said I would eventually become assistant photographer. I spent the next three years as assistant to Bob Martin.

“When William Charlton-Perkins came down to what was then Napac [now The Playhouse Company], he suggested they bring me down to run the photography department. I didn’t enjoy Pretoria, so I grabbed the chance.”

It was the start of an enduring relationship between Adamson and the arts community in the province.

During her time at Napac she staged two exhibitions — the first, Caught in the Act in 1988, featured images of the theatre, while the second, Agfa’s Textured Lives in 1992, featured portraits of top performing artists in unusual outdoor settings. It was later published by Agfa as a coffee-table book.

After leaving the arts company — something she admits was the best thing that could have happened to her — she was busier than ever.

Adamson took part in three more exhibitions — Agfa’s Textured Lives II in 1995, 1997’s Baywatch, commissioned by the Wildlife Society and featuring pictures of Durban’s Bay, and Curve in 2002, which was commissioned by The Playhouse Company for the South African Women’s Arts Festival and celebrates the feminine form — and worked on several movies filmed in South Africa, taking pictures of Jennifer Lopez, Ralph Fiennes and Kristin Scott Thomas.

She received the Fool’s Award from the province’s theatre community and in 2004 was presented with an award for excellence in photography.

Looking back at her career, Adamson says much has changed since she first took up a camera, most notably the change from film to digital memory cards. “The immediacy of digital is amazing. If you do something tricky you can see straight away if it works.

“And photographing some people can be difficult as they are not used to being in front of a camera. I usually shoot a few pics and then show them to the subject. It settles them down and they trust you.

“The downside is the amount of time you spend at the computer. I’m a perfectionist, so I’m always tweaking.”

Asked who her favourite subject was, she said: “Madiba, no question. I was doing visual photography for the Grahamstown Festival and he was there as part of their 25th anniversary celebrations. “I wasn’t introduced to him, just followed him around all day. But before he left he came over to me and asked me if I’d got everything I needed. Amazing.”

A portrait of Mandela is likely to be included in a book Adamson is currently working on with Weekend Witness writer, Peter Machen. She is hoping to publish the book later this year and says Machen’s words will offer a “flirtatious” look at the people she has photographed over the years.

Unfortunately for fans of her work, Adamson has no plans to stage an exhibition in the near future. Instead, she intends spending the little free time she has with her partner of 11 years, Brett Clarke, and their six-year-old son, Gabriel. “I love being a mother and I’m so glad I didn’t leave it too late. Having children changes you for the better,” she says.

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