Wednesday, 2 September 2009
Paul Close: Snakebox Odyssey
What one thing could make your life better? That's the question Paul Close put to people he met on his trans-African road trip. Simple, unpretentious and great. See more of his work, The Snakebox Odyssey, here.
I asked Paul a few questions about his trip for a story in the BJP. This is what he said
"I've been a photographer since 1981 and came to the UK from Johannesburg 10 years ago.
I was born in Zambia in the early 1960s and whenever we went on holiday we got in our car and drove for days - to get to the beach in Mozambique or go on safari in Kenya. Because of that I've always been inspired to do a full trans-African journey. This wasn't possible in apartheid-era South Africa; the borders were closed to South Africans, but when Nelson Mandela was freed the borders opened and I did a motorcycle trip up to Kenya. On the trip I bought a small snakebox, a kind of African jack-in-the-box where a snake jumps out when you slide the lid off.
My daughter played and played with this thing, but then she broke it. When that happened, it gave me a rationale to finish my African trip. The question was what could I do photographically. I was going to be riding with a friend but we had no support team, hardly any space on our bikes and I wanted to do more than just take snapshots along the way. I came up with the idea of using an old spinnaker sailcloth as a backdrop to isolate the person, but I would also photograph them against their surroundings. When I saw someone on the road we would stop and I would take a photograph.
I photographed at least one person a day. People were lovely about it because everybody I asked said yes, nobody asked for money. When I asked them, they would just think I was going to take a snapshot, but when I got the sailcloth out, they would suddenly become more formal and they would pose. I took one picture like this, look at the histogram and quickly shoot off 3 more pictures - sometimes the people would be smiling, sometimes just staring at the camera, sometimes looking into space. I'd ask 'What one thing would make your life better?' then we'd chat. Normally we'd stay for about an hour and chat, mainly because most people going overland don't stop. It was a nice thing to do.
When I set off, I thought the question would cunningly reveal the tribal differences in Africa but it doesn't. It reveals that we are all the same, that we want our children to be happy, we want love, we want a good education and a good job. In Mali, I photographed Alimat, a teenage girl who wants some new clothes. That's something you could get a teenage girl here saying.
The location was cricitical. I show where the picture was taken using a GPS reading but I don't say where it is so people don't have preconceived ideas of the country and its people.
The second part of the trip was done in two phases. The first part happened in 2006, but on the second day in Congo my mate had a bad accident and it took us 10 days to get him back to Kinshasa. I wanted to finish the journey but knew it would have to be on my own. It was challenging mentally but I talked to John Jones, Jez Coulson and Ron Haviv, photographer friends who stayed with me in Johannesburg when Mandela was being freed. I'd look at the pictures they shot up in my house and then three days later I'd see it on the cover of Time. It was bizarre. But they all knew the region well, and they all said 'Just go'.
So I went and as I soon as I got there, I met some old friends, bought an 150cc Chinese scrambler and rode solo. Having a rubbish old bike was an advantage in many ways because I blended in more. On the previous leg, I rode a big BMW. We would get stopped at road blocks again and again. In Nigeria, on a 50km stretch of road to Lagos we got stopped 20 times. And each time we got stopped, the police asked for $20 which we tried to beat down as much as possible. We found strategies to avoid paying, like hiding behind a truck and then accelerating past on the blind side. On the scrambler, I wore scruffy clothes and an old helmet so the police wouldn't notice me until I'd flashed past them, then they'd do a double-take but by then it was too late and I was gone."
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