Raised on South Africa’s Witwatersrand during the 1970’s, British born photographer, Christopher Rimmer, became fixated with the landscape of his childhood after being diagnosed with cancer in 2009., during which the internationally acclaimed image maker made a promise to himself that if he survived, he would return once again to Southern Africa and express the depth of his connection to the country through the lens of his camera.
Christopher Rimmer’s diagnosis wasn’t the first time he had experienced the ravages of this cruel disease; his father lost his life to cancer in Johannesburg in 1975 which was to be a turning point in his eleven year old son’s life.
‘Everything changed after we lost my father,’ he recalls whilst sitting in his spacious studio surrounded by his stunning large scale monochromatic prints of Africa, ‘We were sent to boarding school in the Eastern Cape Province of South Africa when he became ill. Every time we returned home, we noticed the deterioration in his condition however, nothing was ever said. Both my mother and he pretended nothing was amiss. When he finally died, there were no goodbyes, we just came home and he was no longer there.’
‘I had the opportunity to re-live the experience when I was diagnosed with the same disease myself and the memory of growing up in Southern Africa became a kind of template and guiding beacon by which I navigated my way from the darkness of serious illness and back into the light of recovery.’
‘I felt embraced by Africa and whenever I imagined the landscape I felt at peace despite the awful things that were going on around me and the pain and fear I was experiencing.’
Just five weeks following a harrowing course of chemotherapy during which he shed twenty kilograms, Rimmer stepped off the plane at Johannesburg Airport into the metallic blue light of Africa. He was home.
‘It was a homecoming in every sense of the word,’ he recalls, ‘I began taking photographs almost immediately although I knew that what I had in my head was far more romantic and nostalgic than what I would find in and around Joburg. I wanted to find something earthier and truer of Africa than was available in Joburg with all its American pretentions and gridlocked roads. I wanted to find the Africa of my boyhood imagination if it did indeed still exist.’
One rainy day in July 2009, Rimmer drove out of Cape Town in a rented Land Rover and vowed to continue driving north until he found the Africa he had in his mind’s eye. It was only after crossing the Orange River Canyon which marks the natural border between South Africa and the vast arid expanses of Namibia that he finally entered the Africa of his dreams.
When Rimmer immigrated to Australia in the early 1980’s he did so to avoid conscription into the Apartheid army and an almost certain posting into active combat in South West Africa. The fact that he finally began to find the Africa he sought in the precise area he would have been sent to fight had he nor fled, was a considerable irony not lost on him.
‘Many of the desert tracks I drove on in the Kaokoveld region, where I sought the nomadic pastoralist Himba people, had been made by the South African Army during the border war,’ he says, ‘I loved waking up in the Kaokoveld and watching the sun slowly rise silhouetting a group of giraffe on the horizon. I loved the silence and the whisper of the desert breeze and the dazzling galaxies of stars at night. Even though I was completely alone in the in the incredible vastness and silence of this magical place, I felt completely at peace and most importantly, I also felt cured. ‘
The visual result of Christopher Rimmer’s African odyssey is a broad body of work entitled, ‘Spirits Speak’ which opened in Melbourne last year to critical acclaim and is being shown at Photo Menton in France later in 2013.
Spirits Speak is touching in its purity as it is varied in its subject matter. Photographer and subject contemplate each other across a vast and unforgiving landscape, yet there exists affection and a familiarity in Rimmer’s photography of the landscape and the people and animals living in this seldom visited corner of Africa which is instantly identifiable.
Nostalgic and romantic perhaps but at the same time striking and graphically impressive, it is easy to see why Spirits Speak saw Rimmer shortlisted for the prestigious black & White Photographer of the Year Award in London this year.
‘Sprits Speak refers to the inner life that we all live and to which we retreat in times of crisis. I was spiritually redeemed in Africa and every time I view one of the photographs from this project I am reminded of the incredible journey and transformation I have undertaken in sickness and now in health.”
Originally published in Afritorial, March, 2013. Written by, Marc Priestly
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