In the autumn at the age of nineteen, I arrived at Manchester Polytechnic to study photography, having had an unnerving three months previously studying Civil Engineering at Hatfield Polytechnic and discovering that it wasn’t for me.
In those liberal times and with a generous student grant, I spent a great deal of time travelling in the UK, photographing still lives, and landscape. This was a very different climate for photography, and along with portraiture, these were the largely accepted areas for practice in the field at the time.
During the summer after my second year, I lived in New York, and by chance, worked in a photographic book store, at 32nd St and 6th Avenue, and this was a welcome privilege, not least because of the dramatically expanded access to other photographers’ work through the book form. In the UK, my access to books of intelligent photography had been frustrating for some time.
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My appetite for travel having been wetted, I decided to travel to Africa five months later on the 4th February 1975, with the intention of crossing the Sahara, as I was in search of more dramatic landscapes to photograph. I flew to the Canary Islands with Richard, a fellow photography student, and then on to Nouâdhibou in southern Western Sahara. From there we travelled east on the legendary four kilometre long, iron ore train to Char inside the Mauritanian border, and then overland with Touareg people by pickup truck to Nouakchott on the Atlantic coast.
From there, we travelled continuously over many weeks, overland with local taxis and lorries to Dakar in Senegal, then Bamako in Mali, to Abijan in Ivory Coast, arriving in Accra in Ghana. Here we rested for a week, staying with Bahá’í friends of Richard’s father-in-law, Dr Taeed, who was a leading proselytizer of that religious faith. We had already met Dr Taeed earlier in our journey, and I had found him highly intelligent, if somewhat domineering, but with forceful arguments for the importance of tolerance in matters of religious faith and cultural differences. I had felt force was unnecessary with me.
This was an opportunity to eat regularly and sleep well, and to explore coastal forts, and other sites of interest, along with good conversation each evening with people who understood the region. During this time, Richard – with whom I had travelled well – began soul searching about continuing overland with me. This I remember had much to do with family concerns back in the UK. However, Richard decided to continue with me, overland north, to try to cross the Sahara. It should be noted that by this time on the journey I had made few photographs, which surprised and dismayed me. After all, I we were travelling through pretty seriously interesting landscape by many people’s standards, and I’d come a long way to make new work. Of course, with hindsight, it was clear this reluctance to make work owed as much to being overwhelmed by the visual intensity of my surroundings as it did to my confusion as to what I might want to say about this experience. It should also be said that at this moment, in light of the previous weeks, I had a sense of the scale of the journey ahead with reference to maps, but in few other ways.
Leaving Accra, and travelling up through Ghana towards Tamale, my memory is of the humidity, and relentless exuberance of the tropical green foliage. I remember the brilliance of the women’s clothing, as if their materials had sucked all the colour in the world to themselves, at the moment of sighting, only to fade after one had looked away.
Travelling further north now, with rattling local buses and taxis along laterite roads, into Burkino Faso where the dense forest turns increasingly to savannah, and then scrubland. From Ouagadougou north towards Niger, increasingly turning to desert.
I was at this time, still finding the freshly killed and split open animals draining at the roadside a little disconcerting, unlike the beautiful camel trains crossing the horizon. Around this time Richard and I parted company, in circumstances that now seem a little hazy, but I remember no great falling out. The fact that this development is hard for me to recall clearly, I do find intriguing. Then there was Agadez.
Arriving late in the evening, in a town with limited accommodation, I was shown a small room in a guesthouse that I had to refuse. As my enthusiastic host opened the door and switched on the light, for a fraction of a second it seemed as if the bulb was broken. It was not. Suddenly thousands of huge cockroaches that had been covering the ceiling, walls, bed and floor, cheek by jowl, starting moving very quickly. I slept on open ground some distance away.
By this time, perhaps two weeks from Accra, my eating was becoming more irregular, not least because of the unpredictability of transport connections and places to eat. Always having tried to carry tins of sardines and raisins as emergency backups, I had run out. I remember around this time, after leaving Agadez, climbing down the five metres from the top of one of the huge overland lorries quite a few of us clung to, at a hut serving food in a remote landscape. My dish when it arrived consisted of a thin soup with a complete roasted and hairy goat’s hoof floating in it. I made the best of it, but with hindsight, it is possible that the salad that came after it might have carried the virus.
Over the next few days heading north towards the Southern Algerian border I became increasingly aware of immense fatigue, a loss of appetite and subtle disorientation.
Then the lorry I was travelling on broke down. After around forty eight hours of searing heat, and a lack of water, the first passing vehicle arrived, and I will never forget the kindness of both the Arab lorry driver who insisted that I was to be given the only spare seat, and the German tourist driver who willingly drove me to the nearest hospital, four hundred kilometres away north across the Algerian border.
I wasn’t able to walk into the hospital at Tamanrasset, but was carried. I was soon told I had Hepatitis and Dysentery, and weighed forty kilos. For approximately 3 weeks I lay in bed being fed intravenously, and attended with great compassion. I say that particularly, because initially the other patients and their visitors, all local people, seemed to be suspicious of this strange young westerner in their midst. After a few days, when some of the visitors realized I had none of my own, they started to bring me presents of fresh dates and other delicacies. This hospitality in the desert I had heard mentioned earlier in my travels. This was indeed deeply moving.
One morning a nurse asked me if I’d like to try to walk to the courtyard to see the sun. I walked slowly with her support, finally standing in the open doorway dazzled by the Saharan sunshine, falling on perhaps a dozen Bougainvillaea trees. What I saw and understood wordlessly at that moment, has provided a running thread through all my photographic work since, but it took many years before I was able to verbally articulate that vision. Standing in that doorway, each flower appeared as a crucible in which a perpetual struggle was taking place, between the ‘impossible beauty of the world and its irrefutable fact’.
In the weeks that followed, a further two weeks in hospital in Algiers, and then six more in Wales, I had time to reflect on the significance of my experience. The impact the ‘Bougainvillaea’ experience had on my understanding of what was now important to photograph could not be overstated, not least in the sense that I realized the world as I found it, was an infinitely more complex, compelling and mysterious subject, than any notion I had of how it should look through my own manipulation. Additionally, over the passing years, it has become clear that by photographing a stationary subject in a particularly intense way that has been influenced by the experience above, there is potential for the photograph to allude not only to time at the moment of exposure, but to time before and even time to come.
In spring 2006, thirty-one years later, I was invited to take up an artists’ residency at Oxford University (along with Nicky Hirst, Tim Head, and Annie Cattrell), as a result of a collaboration between the Ruskin School of Drawing, the Biochemistry Department and Artpoint, Oxford, an arts consultative body. I was charged with making new work over two and a half years, in the midst of two adjacent Biochemistry Department buildings being demolished, and a landmark new Biochemistry building, designed by Hawkins\Brown, London, being built on that footprint.
At the time of being commissioned I was unable to state clearly my intentions regarding my work at that site, not least because for most of my career I have had to begin to work, in order to discover what the work itself wants to be. I much appreciated the selectors faith, and with hindsight I believe my work at Oxford is possibly the purest expression of my ‘Bougainvillaea’ experience to date.
Published in Photoworks Issue 12, 2009
Commissioned by Photoworks