Before coming to China, I lived in a small, secluded seaside town on the southwest coast of South Africa. Being well off the beaten track, and brutalised by perpetual gale force winds, the place attracted an array of eccentric, crusty characters. The shipwrecked souls who washed up there seemed to prefer the isolation and assault of the elements over whatever the hell they were trying to escape from in their lives. Everyone who stuck it out in that wild, barren place seemed to be running away from something, myself included.
That being said, no man is an island. Way back in the day, when I first arrived as a fresh-faced city slicker, I was heartened to find a close-knit community of quasi-slackers and bohemians riding the idle wave of ennui. This suited me just fine. Folks sure seemed to love a drink, though. The only establishments that seemed to thrive were the handful of bars scattered about the place. I guess being shut away that close to a vast body of salt water tends to give one an almighty thirst. I’ve always lacked the physical constitution to be a full-blown drunk, so gaining access to this reclusive clique became an even tougher nut to crack. Ultimately, pining for human warmth in all that quiet desolation soon drove me out into the crummy boozers day and night. Thus ensued my brief and forgettable tango with alcoholism.
Somewhere in the glaring haze of those early days I realised that I had to find another way to connect with people. As a photographer I was used to being on the outside looking in, so I decided to try and invert this to my advantage. I conjured up a project where I would do an individual portrait series featuring the most charismatic locals, and find out more about them and their life-stories as a background to the images. Much to my surprise, quite a few agreed.
Lou was one of my first volunteers. She was an artist and ex-junkie from the big city up north. After running one red light too many on the lost highway that had buried her life, shit got real and she fled down to the sticks to try and clean up. Although she was managing to somewhat stay on the straight and narrow, she still had that edgy disillusionment with the tedium of existence raging within her for all to see. Booze had replaced the needle as her poison of choice. I liked her from the moment we met.
She wanted to be photographed on the notorious Hangklip road, a badly eroded gravel beast that led to an equally notorious tavern a few clicks out of town. This boulevard of broken dreams has seen many a wayward reveller end up in its gnarled ditches over the years, and she saw it as a symbol of her fateful journey up to that point.
After I told her to just wear whatever she felt comfortable in, Lou pitched up in the middle of nowhere on that golden afternoon fitted from head to toe in some sort of extravagant Oriental garb. To this very day, I can’t remember the exact reason for this, or if she even cared to tell me why. Ironically enough, both of us had got stuck into the whiskey beforehand to quell the nerves, and we were pretty far gone once things finally got under way.
Looking back now at her mysterious transformation in that obscure moment, I can’t help but wonder if perhaps she was some strung out, awkward angel from the future trying to tell me that one day my own perilous road will eventually lead East. And that, through it all, I should try and stay as wild and vulnerable and strong as she was, standing all alone in that fizzing portal of Atlantic light.
Right now, I’d crawl the length of that rocky road on my hands and knees, dragging every goddamn bar I’ve ever been in behind me, just to get back to the place I once called home. Last I heard, Lou and Cam are on the lam somewhere in South America, trying to outrun whatever monkeys are snarling on their backs these days. I truly wish them well. Now, more than ever, we need far-out angels flitting about in technicolor all over the fucking place, while the dull gods in dark suits are doing their best to nail us to the cross of compliance.
So shine on, sister. Choose life. If we end up not meeting again in this one, I’ll buy us a round in the next. ‘Till then, you just keep kicking up dust on the Road.