Examining old photos reveals a snapshot of our past

City Bowl writer Nadia Kamies


When City Bowl resident Nadia Kamies wanted to research her own background, she turned to family photographs which, “revealed stories that were more than just about the individual, but also of families and communities and how they lived and survived during oppression”.

“I … discovered how little there was in the official archives because of the erasure of our history as a result of colonialism, slavery and apartheid,” she said.

“Many families have treasured photographs, though, taken by relatives or street photographers, if they didn’t own a camera themselves. I realised how much of a container of memory that was and how my parents’ generation who were often reluctant to talk about the past, would open up when asked about a photograph. The photographs facilitated a sharing of stories that I doubt would have emerged through interviews only.”

Q: Can you give us a few tips on decoding old family photographs?

If at all possible, I would start with trying to identify who is in the photo, who took the photo and where it was taken. Often there is some identifying information on the back or perhaps information about the studio that it was taken in. Many families have photographs that were taken by Movie Snaps in Darling Street in Cape Town and that could help with gathering information.

Also take note of how the people in the photographs are dressed, whether there are clues to a special occasion (weddings, 21st birthdays, etc). The condition of the photograph, eg. whether it was framed, folded, cut, should also be noted. For me, decoding old photographs went hand in hand with the memories that they evoked, so the interview was very important..

Q: Of all of the family photographs of your childhood, what can we decode as the significance of the cover image?

The cover photograph represents many aspects of the book. First of all, it is a perfect example of the representation that is at the heart of my research and shows how formally my mother dressed us, from our matching outfits right down to the gloves and bag I’m holding.

Secondly, in spite of the photograph being off-centre and out of focus, and the woman and the baby in the background having had half their heads cut off by the photographer, it records a very important day in my grandmother’s life, including the religious and traditional practices of a community living under apartheid.

Q: You rarely make use of the word nostalgia in the book. Is this because you consider the sentimental attachment to the past, a negative thing?

I think that my writing reflects a certain nostalgia about the way I grew up without having to actually use the word. I don’t consider my interest in my past to be negative at all. I think that we are shaped by our experiences, our families and friends and, in examining the past, as I do in my book, leads to a greater understanding of the present. I was motivated to embark on this project exactly because I wanted to make sense of where I came from, both on a personal and community level, so that I could try to understand why we have not yet realised the South Africa we struggled for.

Q: Your move from Walmer Estate to Lotus River seems to have been a bit of a “stain” on your past. What were the positives (if any) of living in a community like that.

I don’t regard it as a stain at all. However, it was a difficult transition in many ways, especially leaving the close community we lived in and having to change schools. This was very similar to what people experienced all over the Cape Flats because of forced removals.

I think going to school in Elsies River meant that I also spent most of my time out of the community. People create their communities through sharing experiences and every community has its positives.

In my book I write about my father’s reluctance to leave Lotus River because he was so much part of that community – he belonged to the mosque, had his haircut at the barber’s, the corner shop kept his newspaper for him every day, and the neighbours looked out for each other.

Q: What else can we expect from you and the work you are doing?

Having my book published has been the culmination of a 10-year journey of study and research and I am still enjoying the conversations that it has generated. This was always my hope – to add to a very important conversation about identity and race.

After all the formal launches, festivals and events, what I am focusing on now is smaller community-based workshops that encourage the sharing of oral history using photographs and/or ordinary objects. I think that we need to keep having conversations that acknowledge the past so that we can better understand each other.

There are a number of projects that I am involved with, like UCT’s Department of Geographical and Environmental Sciences Multispecies storytelling project, a documentary about fashion and photography in District Six, and a project that aims to recuperate stories of enslaved women brought to the Cape. The next book is brewing in the background.