Old Photographs tell our Stories

I was recently asked by the editor of Africa Community Media what had inspired me to focus specifically on photographs in my book. Here’s what I shared with her:

I wanted to research my own background and discovered how little there was in the official archives because of the erasure of our history as a result of colonialism, slavery and apartheid. 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. They revealed stories that were more than just about the individual, but also of families and communities and how they lived and survived during oppression.

  • 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 it and where. Often there is some identifying information written on the back or perhaps information about the studio that it was taken in. For example, many families have photographs that were taken by Movie Snaps in Darling Street, Cape Town, 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, e.g. 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.

  • 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.

A short review of Off-Centre and Out of Focus was published in a number of community newspapers in March, along with a Q&A. You can read more here.


Starting Conversations

I was recently the guest author at the Woman Zone Book Club and I am enjoying the conversations that Off-Centre and Out of Focus is generating around identity, race and belonging. Most of all, I am simply enjoying the conversation!

The seemingly small hurts and humiliations that many of us suffered every day during apartheid, have not been spoken about. We are urged to get over apartheid and embrace the “rainbow nation”. Ignoring our experiences minimises the trauma that we lived through. Until we examine the past and make peace with it, we cannot move forward and learn to live together in a post-apartheid society as simply human. And we cannot afford to forgo the opportunity to do so while those who lived through that period are still alive to share their memories and experiences with us.

The words of American writer, musician and academic, Julius Lester (1939-2018), express so profoundly the importance of acknowledging the lived experiences of growing up in a marginalised and oppressed community. He says,

History is not just facts and events. History is also a pain in the heart and we repeat history until we are able to make another’s pain in the heart our own.

My book was always intended to be about starting conversations, about saying, “this is how it was for me, how was it for you?”

When we engage with each other in a sincere attempt to understand the other, it is possible that it will lead to a place beyond the stories of different cultures, beyond stereotypes and prejudices, to acknowledge and embrace our multiple stories. By connecting the lines between all of our stories, we may recognise our common humanity, we may break down the walls that were constructed around us to keep us separate. Perhaps it will lead to a fusion of ideas that may result in a new way of expression, a new story, and the acceptance of diverse points of view. Only then may we learn to be free.  Off-Centre and Out of Focus.

You can find Off-Centre and Out of Focus: Growing up ‘coloured’ in South Africa at The Book Lounge, Clarke’s Bookshop, Exclusives Books, Wordsworth Books, at the District Six Museum shop and online from

You can listen to the Woman Zone Stories MEET THE AUTHOR podcast here.


Off-Centre and Out of Focus is launched

Off-Centre and Out of Focus: Growing up ‘coloured’ in South Africa was launched with friends and family at the District Six Homecoming Centre on 13 May. It was wonderful to be able to celebrate with people who have been on the journey with me and who contributed to this book in some way – sharing their stories with me, cheering me on, and offering advice.

I was particularly pleased about being able to celebrate the birth of my book in the District Six Homecoming Centre in what used to be the Sacks Futeran building. For generations the Futeran family traded in clothing and textiles here, and the store was frequented by generations of seamstresses and tailors from District Six. I remember being dwarfed by bolts of fabric and riding the rickety lift with my parents to the second floor to buy anything from crockery to clothing. My father’s memories of District Six are at the heart of this book. Sadly, he died of COVID in 2020, but I know that he would have appreciated the choice of venue.

Dr Bonita Bennett, who was the director of the District Six Museum for more than ten years, gracefully facilitated a discussion around ‘colouredness’, the fluidity of race and belonging, issues of respectability, and the archiving of ordinary objects. This book has always been about starting a conversation about the complexities of growing up labelled ‘coloured’ in South Africa, before, during and post- apartheid. I wanted the knowledge that I gained during my PhD to be more widely accessible rather than being confined to the university library shelf.

The family photographs that gave rise to my thesis and now this book, represent the hopes and aspirations of our parents and grandparents. They generate stories of a way of being and living that challenge the dominant narratives of inferiority and shame that were assigned to a group of people designated neither-white-nor-black. They quietly disrupt the apartheid archive that sought to fix difference in terms of race, gender and culture. I hope that this will open up discussion around the pain and trauma that we lived through so that we may look forward to a future where we may see each other as simply human.

The American writer and activist, Audre Lorde, speaks about the importance of oppressed people being able to speak out of their own experience and to see it as valid, to deal with our definition of self. She cautions that if we don’t identify ourselves, someone else will, and probably to our detriment. Through sharing my experience, I sincerely hope that more people will be motivated to share theirs, and I look forward to more conversations and sharing.