Fanie’s been there, seen it all

2017-04-13 06:00
SELF IMAGE: Fanie Jason is a self-made and self taught photographer who drew inspiration from forerunners like Woodrow Dlova and Makhosonke “Blue Train” Mnyengeza.PHOTOS: fanie jason

SELF IMAGE: Fanie Jason is a self-made and self taught photographer who drew inspiration from forerunners like Woodrow Dlova and Makhosonke “Blue Train” Mnyengeza.PHOTOS: fanie jason

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For most people the phrase: “Gugs is where home is”, could not be put any better.

Internationally recognised “Township Photographer” Fanie Jason’s life is a case in point, if you consider that no matter where his passion for photography and the need to follow his heart’s desires took him, he has always made it a point to come “home” to Gugulethu.

For once a while in his life, he stayed in Montana, but it seems he could not resist the “great Gugs pull”, and is now safely back “home” in Gugs.

London has beckoned too, and he has a daughter over there, his last born, named Xanthippe,14, who stays with her mother. To no avail.

His photography has taken him all over the place; to war zones in KZN, Rwanda and, Burundi, and to ‘exotic’ Cuba, cold London, America and Mauritius, chasing after Oprah Winfrey. To no avail.

Even the fact that he, as a young lad, and his family were forcibly removed from leafy Heathfield and dumped smack bang in the middle of Gugs because of the Group Areas Act, is no longer relevant to him. “Home” has turned the pain of the past into memories for the future.

It was in 1958, when all those who fell under the axe of this draconian and inhuman law were placed in “temporals”-structures of corrugated iron and wood- and told to fend for themselves.

Soon, the new Gugs was turned into a neighbourhood where “everybody knows your name”. They had to in order to survive, otherwise the prospects were bleak.

Fanie,64, remembers that since he could not speak the Xhosa language, his parents had sent him and his three sisters to a school in Duinefontein, which was just outside of Gugulethu, from where they were later ejected once it was discovered that they were staying in a Black township. Then it was to a school in Surrey Estate. Ejected. Rylands. Ejected. Until they were accepted at the Philippi Dutch Reformed School, to which they had to walk daily, every school morning.

This was because his father, Phakalane Petrus, a Motshoeneng, a Motswana from Kuruman, had met and fell in love with a “coloured” woman-Fayha Jason from Burgersdorp-in Cape Town, and they had settled in Heathfield.

Phakalane was a dandy of note who answered to the moniker “Scotch”.

Then 21 March 1960 happened. Fanie says he remembers clearly helicopters hovering overhead and people being scattered in all directions.

As a young lad, these events left a burning desire in him to record such events, but coming from parents or a community which was more concerned about their survival and livelihood, buying him a camera was not a priority.

But it was not until 1974 that he first laid his hands on a real camera, courtesy of a friend.

“I was up for a trip to visit my aunt in Jo’burg. I knew that a friend from NY108, Solomon Sampson possessed a camera and had been trying to borrow it from him ... so the trip was a good excuse and Solomon obliged.”

In Jo’burg and wanting to impress family, he took pictures of all and sundry. If anything, when he returned to Cape Town and developed the negatives into images, his ego was dented to discover that most were out of focus, distorted and minus his subjects’ heads.

But you learn the hard way. The bug had bitten and it was a lesson learnt well, except that he was reluctant to return the device to its owner. As luck would have it, though, one Saturday, coming from work at the Methodist Publishing House, he happened on some laaities selling a camera at the Grand Parade. Except that it was an era during which you first gave your wages to your parents, who would give you a stipend in turn, 35 cents was a lot of money to part with, without consulting first. He says love of the craft of photography made him defy that edict.

He started taking pictures of beautiful girls around the township until his works were published in the now defunct Pace magazine in 1979. He became a celebrity photographer long before the two words merged to denote a status. But there was one particular woman who zoomed in onto his camera focus, and seemed to pull his heart strings to the limits. Nozuko Dikeni. The lass from Langa seemed the perfect fit for the front cover or inside spread for the magazine; although short in stature, she was a beautiful model who the male readers of Pace could not get enough of.

He adds: “Women came to me, wanting to be famous,”.

Fanie teamed up with Fitzroy Ngcukana-he of the famous Ngcukana family of musicians, starting with their late father Columbus “Mrha”, a saxophonist and his other sons Ezra(saxophone) and Duke(flugelhorn)-to string township stories for Pace.

The two travelled, on foot, the length and breadth of Langa, Nyanga and Gugulethu looking for girls and stories for the magazine.

They also stringed for the Drum magazine, working with great journalists the likes of Stan Motjuwadi and Percy Qoboza.

If truth be told, however, he received much inspiration from established cameramen the like of Bra Woodrow Dlova and Makhosonke “Blue Train” Mnyengeza.

When it was time to spread one’s wings, he approached the local dailies with his portfolio in hand, looking for a job as a photographer.

He says the white photographic manager of one newspaper studied his portfolio, but then blurted out a notorious refrain from those who don’t associate Blackness with progress: “These pictures are nice, but I want to know who took them for you.”

“Who brought them here,” was Fanie’s sharp retort. He was ordered out of the “dark room” for being a “cheeky Black”.

This took place against the background of fierce resistance to Apartheid, wand when riots erupted, he was caught in the thick of things; tear-gas, harassment, arrest, detention, and sporadic nighttime visits from the Apartheid police security branch.

He knows well what the carrot and stick approach is. “They would be nice and invite me to their offices in Athlone ... I would be interrogated about comrades. They would offer lucrative sums of money, knowing that I was freelancer photographer with no steady income. If I refused their advances, matters would suddenly turn ugly, and I would receive an avalanche of threats to my life, parents and family.”

During all these storms, his father Phakalane always reminded him of a Setswana adage: “My son, you can choose to collaborate with them, but always remember, even if you go to the fields at night and plant potatoes, they will not grow into cabbages by day.”.

To this day, the man who previously answered to the term of endearment “Boeta”, but is now popularly known as Fanie, has never found permanent employment in his photographic life. This speaks volumes in his belief in his father’s infinite wisdom.

This does not mean he was not offered an opportunity-albeit once-to work for an Afrikaans daily, which he turned down, because of his steadfast belief that he should hold all the copyrights to his photographed work.

“It would have been tantamount to selling my soul if I had accepted that offer.”

Indeed, his “soul” is something he looks after in many respects.” His abode resembles a mini museum of artworks that adorn the walls, heaps of images folded neatly and yet telling a story of a “soul” that has been there and seen it all in one lifetime. Jazz music keeps his “soul” intact, if the heaps of old vinyl records is anything to go by. He also bares his “soul” on social networks, commenting on the great “soul selling” engulfing our country. The bug has been passed on his children too. His son Lee-Roy,32, is also photographer, daughter Stefanie,30, was an arts correspondent for the Mail and Guardian, but now a features writer for the Femina magazine while the youngest, Xanthippe, already a budding artist, is at present famous for drawing images of her father and sending them to him.

Gugulethu is where the home is.

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