INTERVIEW: Photojournalist Margaret Courtney-Clarke :
Finding the Soul of Africa Through the Lens
Photo by Margaret Courtney-Clarke
“The soul of Africa – together with my love for art – had taken hold of me, captured my senses, embraced my spirit, and (forced) me to return again and again. And yes, I did pay a dear price – without the intrigue – for the hardships far outweighed the propelling force. But the art I found was so extraordinary that it could not go unnoticed. It was also disappearing rapidly, as if a door – synchronized to my shutter speed – was closing after each exposure.” Margaret Courtney-Clarke
Margaret Courtney-Clarke in Iraq with Peshmerga Fighters
World-renowned photojournalist Margaret Courtney-Clarke’s work has appeared in publications throughout the United States, Europe, Japan, and Africa, such as National Geographic, Smithsonian, Newsweek, Vogue Italia, L’Espresso and Air Afrique. She exhibits her work across the globe and has published many books, including the award-winning trilogy NDEBELE: The Art of an African Tribe; AFRICAN CANVAS: The Art of West African Women and IMAZIGHEN: The Vanishing Traditions of Berber Women, which were translated into French, German, Italian, and Dutch.
Courtney-Clarke collaborated with poet Maya Angelou on a series of books designed to introduce children to cultures around the world and received four prestigious awards for that endeavor.
Several films have been made about Courtney-Clarke and her photography, and her work has inspired other films on African fashion, fabric designs, porcelain designs, and more. Her photographs have been exhibited on five continents and have been acquired by galleries, museums, and private collectors.
In addition, Courtney-Clarke founded the Ndebele Foundation, a non-profit organization for women and children in South Africa that provides a community where women, girls, and the Ndebele as a people can learn about and continue their rich artistic heritage. Margaret Courtney-Clarke was born and raised in Namibia, and when she is not traveling on assignment, she spends her time between Namibia and her home in Italy.
WRR: You are a world renowned photojournalist whose work has appeared in many publications across the globe. In addition, your photographs have been exhibited on five continents, you have published numerous books, and your work has been acquired by galleries and museums. Yet in response to my request for an interview, you stated, “nothing too intriguing about being a photographer.” Explain.
COURTNEY-CLARKE: “Painting is dead…..the beginning of Photography” was the slogan in the late 60’s when I was a young graphic design student at the Natal College for Advanced Technical Education (South Africa). The exciting “new media” [for advertising] was further enhanced through color TV, video, and thousands of new and specialized magazines on the market. Everyone wanted to be a photographer. A “new” career was born, one that could sustain a family – and for many photographers, proved most remunerative. The “intriguing” photographers were the Walker Evans’s, LIFE photographers, The Farm Security photographers, those who documented the far West, Immigration, Harlem to mention but a few….. What drove them to remote places, through dust storms, carrying cumbersome cameras, with limited transport, to document our history?
This is not to say that there are no valid photographers of our generation. We just had it all so easy! Sooner or later, the popularity of photography forced one to specialize; documentary or war reporting, food or fine art, sport or industrial, underwater or wild life, travel or landscape, weddings or portraiture. I chose documentary photography because I wanted to tell a story that had meaning for me. I wanted to travel to “unknown” places to record the life and lives of people. And I wanted to show the world that Africa is not only about wars and corruption and famine and filth….or wildlife. It is also inhabited by millions of humble and dignified people who go about their lives, nurturing traditions, creating beautiful spaces around them, against all odds.
Courtney-Clarke in Morocco
WRR: You were born and raised on a ranch in the Namib Desert in Namibia and your playmates were African children who taught you to “read the earth and the sky and to understand the habits of the wild animals in that particular corner of the world.” Why is this important to the African people and to you?
COURTNEY-CLARKE: Is it important to African people? I don’t think so. To me, yes. My childhood is fundamental to who I am and what I have done with my life.
WRR: To obtain many of your photographs, you have traveled thousands of miles into remote areas of Africa and “waited days and weeks and sometimes months” to win “the trust of your subjects and to be welcomed into their homes and lifestyle.” What have you gained from these experiences and how have they impacted your work?
COURTNEY-CLARKE: “Waiting days and weeks….” immediately brings to mind patience, the discipline of being patient. But it’s really about attitude. Waiting is about a conviction that no matter how or when, you will find light at the end of the tunnel and the courage to brave the journey.
Being accepted (welcomed) is about attitude, about humility, about sharing, about being an equal….This is something learned over years, through good and bad experiences but also having the time – or making the time – to reflect on oneself, one’s values.
How have they impacted my work? Feeling good about my relationship with people, especially those who depend on or need my friendship and trust can only have a positive influence on the portraits of my subjects. In the same way, a wild life photographer would have to have respect, knowledge, understanding, and love for animals – not to mention patience -- to be rewarded with the ultimate shot.
Courtney Clarke in Morocco
WRR: You stated you have “an amazing sixth, or seventh, or tenth sense about people” – you trust them. Has this trust ever worked against you? How?
COURTNEY-CLARKE: Yes, my senses have worked against me. It’s part of the learning curve, of growing. But I also don’t see how one can begin to develop a relationship without trust. In most cases I have been let down by petty thieving. In Nigeria I thought I had found the perfect mother-sister friend [and interpreter] – I even asked her to look after my handbag/purse….until I discovered she was gradually removing dollar bills!
More serious cases of theft (and perjury] have cropped up in recent years with my involvement at the Ndebele Foundation’s Cultural Center in South Africa. I had to take serious measures against both white and black people working for the Foundation that made me unpopular. But time worked in my favor and gradually the local community came to understand that traditional role models or revered families or the economically powerful are not exempt from failure.
WRR: It is apparent from your work that you hold a profound respect for African women. What have you learned from them that has impacted your life in a meaningful way?
COURTNEY-CLARKE: From [sub-Saharan] African women I have learned about dignity and humility; that it’s OK to be poor; that dreams are only dreams; that hard work, hard labor, and long hours, no matter the conditions, will provide an honest meal at the end of the day. In the reality of my world, I’ve learned to take nothing for granted, and I consider myself privileged to have some choices.
WRR: You stated that “you’ve got to be an open person and if you can’t do that kind of thing, then stay away…from Africa.” Perhaps if each person applied your philosophy on a global scale, it would result in respect for all people, cultures, and traditions and there would be fewer wars and more respect among the people on this planet. What is your opinion on this subject?
COURTNEY-CLARKE: I cannot recall my views on being “an open person” and the specific relationship to Africa. Open, yes, always, wherever. I do find that Africa is “misunderstood”; the use of the words “the darkest continent” freaks me out. Few people really know Africa and its people. In part this is due to governments who do not care, news media who misrepresent, photographers who shoot in and shoot out on “adventure”, AID agencies that do more harm than good….and so many more.
How many visitors to Africa are really interested in the cultures and traditions of her people? Sadly, very few.
WRR: During the United States presidential inauguration in 1993, your friend Maya Angelou, a woman who has influenced the lives of millions of people around the world, read On the Pulse of Morning. Listening to her that day, I realized I had never heard anything so beautiful. Since then, I have kept a copy of the poem nearby to remind me of the wisdom of her words. Maya Angelou obviously has influenced your life and you pay tribute to her in your book Maya Angelou: The Poetry of Living. If Maya were describing you to me, what do you think she would say?
COURTNEY-CLARKE: Maya would tell you how she had doubts about meeting me……my [South African] “racial” background. I like to correct her by insisting that I’m Namibian though few people had ever heard of this country until Brad and Angelina decided to visit! Maya feared my whiteness, my upbringing under apartheid. Until she met me. When she really started seeing my photographs [to write the foreword to my book “African Canvas”], she sensed that I would have had to have an extraordinary relationship with my subjects to obtain those photographs. In her words “she must have been scared out of her wits”.
Courtney-Clarke and Maya Angelou
Today Maya will tell you that “Margaret has very white skin – but she is more African than any black person on this side of the Atlantic”!
WRR: You are the founder of the Ndebele Cultural Centre in South Africa whose aim is to “provide a community of rural women in the village of Mabokho with the means to continue the creative spirit of their forebears.” Why is this important to you, to these women, and to the world?
COURTNEY-CLARKE: The continuation [or revival] of Ndebele art is not important to me. Art is important to me. Whatever, wherever. Millions of people need art -- that self expression of creating something, a release of the inner spirit that miraculously takes on a form, a shape, a color, a texture.
Ndebele women can be proud of their art – it is a part of “world art” – although they have no [Western] concept for ART. It is either beautiful (good) or ugly (bad) but nonetheless represents their tradition of ethnic identity [Ndebele people are a small minority in South Africa].
The art of music, dance, painting, photography has no boundaries, no race, no color, no creed and therefore relevant to the world if we want to better understand people and cultures.
WRR: What advice would you give to someone who wants to pursue a career in photojournalism?
COURTNEY-CLARKE: Know what you’re going into! Photojournalism is NOT the exciting “adventure” most people think it to be. And travel can be extremely wearing –and lonely. Make sure you are passionate about the art of photography [today it would be digital photography] as much as writing and keeping accurate records. Avoid sensationalism. Be humble. Respect people and places and bring alive their story.