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The Photo-Maker

I never told you about the first time I met a photographer, or as we called them back then, 'photo makers'. I remember the time vividly, because I almost met my Maker on the occassion. It was in 1856, and the frontier from the Keiskamma to Port Elizabeth was still recoving from the last Xhosa War.  It happened while I was on my way to find transport work up North. I'd stopped by the side of the wagon track that ran from Grahamstown to Bedford, to wait for the worst heat of the day to recede.

I woke with a start, and instinctively felt around next to me for my trusty Brown Bess voorlaaier. The afternoon was still as hot as when I lay down below this Milkwood to rest. I listened for unusual sounds, but heard nothing more than the scratchy violins of beetles and the contented crunch of my apple-blue mare, Susie behind me. 

I put my ear to the ground. As I thought, I wasn't dreaming. The faint thump I heard meant a wagon was approaching, probably pulled by no more than four oxen. I sniffed the air, and yes, there was the unmistakable smell of domestic animals straining in the hot sun.

I put my velskoens on, got up, grabbed Susie's reins and started off in the direction of the approaching wagon. There's no way four oxen will make their way up the koppie on a rutted track, pockmarked by huge pools of dirty water from the recent late summer thunderstorms. Any transporter, farmer or hunter will know that, so it must be an inexperienced trekker from Port Elizabeth making his way into the hinterland in the direction of that small settlement, apparently now called 'Bedford'.

I rounded a clump of trees where the track did a meander and yes, there they stood. A short man wearing a corduroy suit and a fancy hat was tugging at the oxen's yoke, trying to get them to move forward. I wondered if he was an important visitor from Cape Town, perhaps a government official since he was wearing a fancy suit. But then he'd have a well-armed entourage doing the hard work and protect this import person, and I didn't see anyone around. Well, that was apart from an elderly Hottentot sleeping in a patch of yellowed grass beside the wagon.

I cleared my throat so as not to startle the wagoneer, but he paid no attention. He was sweating profusely and talking to himself.

"Good day", I said after a few coughs didn't work either. 

The man turned around, and I could see he was too despondent to be startled or frightened by the sight of a shabbily-dressed frontiersman who hasn't shaved in the past week. 

Sir, he said without greeting, "Do you mind helping me get my wagon up this incline so I can continue with my journey?" 

"I'm Barend Lourens," I said and offered him a drink from my canteen. Where are you heading?"

The man took several gulps from my canteen. 


“No. L-o-u-r-e-n-s.” 

"George Smalley, photographer,"   he said, and extended a soft, clean hand. George hadn't been in the Eastern Cape frontier long. I felt sorry he had to shake my calloused, dirty hand but he didn't seem to mind. "I'm heading for Bedford to set up a photography business there."

I don't think George knew Bedford was no more than a few mud huts and military tents, but didn't say anything. I didn't know much about this photo artist thing to comment much anyway. In fact, this was the first time I've met a person who did this sort of thing.

I tied Susie to a branch and walked around the wagon. It was in good shape, and looked like it hadn't done a lot of work. But getting extra oxen was the only way to move the wagon, since there were no helpers to unpack the wagon and carry its contents up the hill.

Someone was going to have to go and fetch some oxen from somewhere, and fortunately the right man for the job was right here, still fast asleep, his head cushioned by a clump of suurgras.

The Hottentot sat up almost instantly the moment I waved a stump of tobacco below his nose. I took his arm and help him up, but didn't let go. At first he looked at me suspiciously, but his expression changed and he smiled when I whispered in his ear. Fortunately I can speak fluent Dutch, so he nodded, and when I let him go after taking the tobacco back, he set off, following a Bushbuck track into the dense bush.

George looked puzzled. 

"Don't worry, I said. The Hottentot will find us some oxen. "

"Where? is there a farmer nearby who'll sell me two extra oxen? I have some guilders in the wagon I can pay with."

"No need. There's a Xhosa captain's kraal not far away who'll lend us some oxen. The Hottentot will bring them in an hour or so."

"I'm interested in this photo making you do," I said, returning to George, and his face brightened.

"Let me get the camera out, if you'll help me please. Then I'll show you what it does."

I helped him drag a large contraption from below the wagon's tarpaulin and set it up next to the wagon. It looked like little more than a large wooden box with a funny glass eye in front, mounted on a tripod. 

"It looks like some sort of cannon", I said. "What does it do?"

George started off on a long explanation, of which I hardly understood a word.

"Never mind. So, you can make a photo of me, right here?"

"Sure. I'll bring a chair for you to sit on. The whole process will take about an hour, so be patient."

I had to sit dead still, which was difficult with the ants crawling up my trouser leg. Then he took the box back inside the tent, and I didn't see him for quite a while. During this time the Hottentot reappeared with brown and white oxen he was holding by a twine rope tied to their horns. We gathered the other four oxen and I helped him harness them in front of the wagon.

When we'd finished, we found him standing at the back of the wagon, holding out a small copper plate and smiling broadly. 

"Your photo, Sir."

"What's this, some sort of mirror?"

"Look closely. It's an image of you."

"Like a painting?"

"Sort of."

"I've never had a painting done of myself, but this one's very, very good. Can I keep it?"

"Of course. I owe you." He hesitated. Do you know anyone else who'd want to have a photo like this made?"

I looked at my photo. It made me look younger and quite a bit more handsome than I was. Pity I didn't get to comb my hair beforehand.  I looked inside my saddle bag, found an empty tobacco tin and put the photo inside.

I think I know someone who needs a photo," I said. "Let me go introduce you."


I estimated the de Beer farm to be about two hours' trek from where I found George's wagon. We had a to take a rough detour off the path to Bedfort, but thanks to the fresh oxen, we arrived at the large opening in the forest where the modest house stood in record time.

I ordered the Hottentot to stop the wagon well away from the house.

"The farmer here can be a hothead at times. The wars have made him mistrusting and quick to reach for his rifle. You stay here while I talk to him."

"Am I to make a photo of him?"

"No. His granddaughter. You'll see. Wait here now."

I knocked on the front door of the modest farm house, then retreated five steps.

A thickly-set Xhosa woman opened the door. It was unusual to see a rotund Xhoes person, since most were still recovering from the effects of the recent drought. She recognised me, but remained silent when I asked to see De Beer. Then she went back inside and spoke to someone. When she appeared again she had a chair with her which she placed next to the door and sat down. A petite, blond girl of about five years old peeked past the door, then went to sit on her lap. 

After five minutes I  started feeling uncomfortable, caught in the women's hostile stare. I was about to leave when De Beer's stooping figure appeared in the doorway, holding an aging voorlaaier.

I got up and removed my hat.

"Morning Mister De Beer. I trust you and your granddaughter are well and that you've not had any cattle stolen lately."

De Beer fingered his rifle.

"Lourens, what do you want? Why are you here? I hope you're not hoping to sell me any more of that useless medicine you were peddling last time I saw you?"

I looked at the little girl. I seem to recall her name was Antjie. She paid no attention to me, too occupied with a small doll she was playing with. She looked tender and pale below the woman's protective arms.

"I've brought a photo maker here. He's got his camera and equipment in his wagon."


"His name is George Smalley, he's from Port Elizabeth. I thought he can take a photo of Antjie."

"A what?" He lifted the rifle a little.

I took my photo out and showed it to De Beer.

He squinted at the photo for a moment, looked at me, then back at the photo.

"Is that you there?"

"Yes, that's me. Mister Smalley makes these with his camera."

I could see De Beer's curiosity was about to get the better of him, and I took the gap.

"Let him set up his camera and show you.  I promise, you'll be amazed at what you see."

"All right, but stop being trying to sell me something, and stay away from my granddaughter."

I walked over the wagon where George was waiting.

"Bring the wagon closer and take out your camera, but be careful. The old man is in a foul mood and unpredictable. No sudden moves, and be prepared to leave in a hurry."

We brought the camera out and set it up like before.

"Bring that thing closer. I can't make what it is." De Beer's voice was a bit friendlier. It was clear he'd never seen a camera before.

George started explaining about making photographs when the Xhosa woman suddenly began shouting  in isiXhosa. She gestured wildly at the camera and made strange whooping sounds.

George tugged at my sleeve. He was as white and a sheet. 

"What's she saying?"

I must admit I was a bit nervous too, because I could understand what she was saying. To add to the tension, De Beer now lifted his rifle again and pointed it at the camera.

"Why did you bring this Satanic thing to my house? Lourens, you know I'm a God-fearing man, and this is the work of the devil!"

The woman had by now gotten up and was swinging her arms about, screaming at the top of her lungs.

Things were getting tense. I caught the Hottentot just as he snuck up the wagon to pick up the reins and escape. His eyes were wide and he was whimpering. I plucked him off the wagon, whispered in his ear and made him sit behind the wagon.

George's voice behind me had gone up several pitches.

"What's the matter, Barend? Why is she upset? Did we do something wrong? Did we insult her?"

"Calm down, George. Some black people believe the camera steals a person's soul. She's asking us to leave."

"But...but that's rubbish!"

I looked at De Beer's rifle. He was taking aim at the camera, ready to shoot it to smithereens. 

"George, take the Hottentot and go sit in the wagon. Now!"

I couldn't argue with the Xhosa woman. Her beliefs were untouchable. But De Beer was a different case.

I raised my arms, still holding my photo up for him to see.

"Mister De Beer, look at this again. Please, I want to tell you something."

For a moment De Beer took his eyes off the camera and looked at the photo for an instant. Then he looked at me. I thought I'd see anger, but instead I saw pain, disappointment and fear.

De Beer hesitated for a moment, then raised his rifle, ready to shoot.

"Mister De Beer, what about Antjie?"

Antjie was still sitting on the chair behind the Xhosa woman, paying scant attention to the commotion going on.

"Get out of here. Now!"

I raised my arms above my head. I'm still holding my photo in one hand, for him to see. This was my final chance.

"Mister De Beer, I know there are four graves behind the house. Your wife, your daughter, and the other two of your grandchildren are all lying in the family cemetery next to the cypresses. They're gone, and all you have are fading memories. Your biggest fear is that the memory of how they looked, their faces and smiles will disappear as you become more and more frail. And your biggest pain is the sorrow of having lost them forever as they disappear in the mist of time."

I looked at Antjie, who'd fallen asleep on the chair, and waved my photo in her direction.

"I can give you something to remember her by, once she leaves the farm."

I can see the old man wavering. The corners of his mouth are trembling.

The seconds are dragging by. I close my eyes and see myself lying on the grass in the cemetery, looking at the clouds and breathing in the cool scent of the cypresses. I can see George above me, standing  behind his camera. he's taking photos of De Beer's wife, their daughter and two grandchildren, sitting in a circle on a large chequered blanket, like the ones they sell in the trading store in Grahamstown. I pick up my photo, look at it, and make a mental note to make sure my photo is mounted on my gravestone.

The moment I open my eyes, De Beer swings around and barks something in Xhosa. The woman instantly falls quiet, picks up Antjie and waddles into the house. He gives another order and she stops, then plops Antjie back onto the chair, where the child resumes talking to her doll like nothing's happened. A welcome silence falls over the farmstead. 

George was less enthusiastic about making photos with De Beer hovering around, but we took out the posing chair and the process began. First it was Antjie on her own, then Antjie sitting on her Oupa's knee. Then Antjie having tea with her doll. I let George command me to adjust the set, tidy a collar here and there, even wipe the dust from the old man's boots.

I fell asleep under the wagon, since George wouldn't let me into the wagon. There are sensitive instruments and dangerous chemicals in there, he said.

 When I woke up the sun was starting to set. Finally George called me and De Beer over. Thankfully De Beer had left his rifle inside the house when George handed him the photos. He took them, and without a word walk took Antjie by the hand and around the house to the cemetery. We stayed a fair distance behind, watching him.  I couldn't see his face as he stood beside the graves, but by the way his shoulders sagged I knew he was crying.
After we'd loaded the wagon and readied the oxen, I mounted Susie and we set off to camp somewhere. When I looked back as we reached the treeline De Beer and the woman were sitting next to each other by the door, drinking coffee, with Antjie playing in the dust by their feet.

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