Anatomy of a photo of a hole in the ground
Note: This is a lightly edited transcript of a narrative I recorded while going to take a photo. The story to which it belongs was published yesterday. But the narrative is largely unrelated to the story itself, as noted.
It’s a midwinter Sunday morning and I’m rushing through Soweto, skidding around a darkened corner on my way back from a wrong turn, racing the sun to take a picture of a hole in the ground.
This will be the fourth time I’ve tried to take a picture of this particular hole in the ground. It’s an essential spot for the words of a news piece, a place of importance and narrative significance, but that’s not really the point right now. The point is that the first time I tried to shoot the hole in the ground it was midday. It wasn’t horrible, but it was certainly nothing interesting to look at. Again: it’s a hole in the ground.
The second time was a mid-afternoon, and my main goal wasn’t to take pictures. I arrived to find interviewees, to talk about that thing that had happened at the hole in the ground, a goal which I didn’t succeed in. I took photos then to get a better sense of the light surrounding the hole. The hole is a long ditch, not quite shallow but more long and wide than deep. On one side is an assortment of cast away plaster and burnt-out shrubs, on the other is a stout looming slope that butts up above the desiccated landscape. I reviewed my frames and the lay of the light and decided that it would be best to shoot the hole in the ground in the morning, before the sun actually came up.
So yesterday, my second to last day in South Africa, where I’ve spent the past half year, I drove out early, arriving just minutes after the sun rose. The early dawn light painted the rust-red dirt with a dynamic of deep shadow in the fore (hole in the ground) and bright white sky in the back. Not ideal. I got creative but was unsatisfied.
This morning would be my last chance. I would wake early, in this case largely avoiding sleep in favor of a night of goodbyes and farewells and an early-hours decision that it is actually easier to rewatch the bad Die Hard movies on my laptop for three hours than to go to bed properly and risk not waking up.
And here I am, driving, tearing past houses as fast as the low-powered engine will carry me following a brief detour into Wrong Direction. I don’t have another morning. I’m passing by ticky-tacky structures, thick and thin walled, on the side of Union Avenue in a Soweto township, headed towards Dobsonville. Again. On a road that, from these trips alone, I’m too familiar with already. Passing by burnt-out fields and old and young residents out for morning jogs.
I’m looking out the windows, still minutes away from my destination (hole in the ground), and I can see from the light that this is the hour. The sky to my left is a vaguely velvet blue, the sky to my right a blown out yellow that will read on its own as a dull, musty nothing to my camera’s sensor, as silhouettes of shack houses and smokestacks break the bottom edge of my imagined frame.
Making turns on the pot-hole-ridden two-lane, passing a car crawling slower than my own beaten down white sedan, even as the fidgety engine of my rental revs and chokes flippantly. And now I’m coming across the ambiguously named Main Road, a small lane which turns off from a major crossing, an empty stretch of tar pavement with a large center divide. I’m passing by spots where just yesterday I had strange looks for being “the white guy” in a place where “the white guy” generally isn’t. Passing by a creche painted with Mickey Mouse and posters for the day’s news from The Sun and The Citizen and City Press, placed under the election posters that still haven’t come down from two months ago.
And then I’m at the rectangle of dirt, the de facto parking at the edge of the field (the field with the hole in the ground), and I hop out of the car knowing that things aren’t going to be just right. I pull a camera, a second lens, a tripod from the trunk and scurry down a narrow, unburnt path across a ditch, coming up on the edge of the hole. Looking at the light I see the sky will be a little too bright from the start. I flick a dial, compensate, underexpose. Setting up the tripod, the cold air grips the metal joints, legs sticking in the compact position, every second passing feels like a bit further from right and I detect the faintest beginning of light flitting against the grass on the hill above the hole.
Then it’s that: it’s click click, setting exposure, readjusting, lowering the ISO, click click, moving back, forward, double checking focus, click. Move slightly to the left, two steps back, click. Reviewing. Double checking. Triple checking. Two more shots, more for luck than any desperate expectation of last second miracles. Quickly trotting around to the far edge, I turn my face to the sky, see it shifting from a dark pastel to a lighter, over-watered watercolor level of saturation. And I know that the shot isn’t going to work out, but still I pull the tripod legs out to readjust, set up on the slight ridge to the north, click click. Review. The sky is washed out: drop the exposure. Click. And while the sky starts to take on the mixed hue of sunrise, the ethereal red of the earth starts to show as grey in the review screen.
There’s little else to do: I take two, three more shots. Review. Click click. I sit, balanced heavily on the balls of my feet, then push back up. Flip the release on the tripod legs, pull them back to a contracted length, look out past the town; around, out, the roofs, the water tower, where early light is starting to reflect off the west side … east. East side. The row of houses closest to me, past the field where I parked the Rent-A-Wreck sedan, start to stir. I pull the tripod under my arm and begin my hurried trek back to the car, a thief of light as morning alarms ring, and just now I realize how cold my fingers are.
As I turn the key in the ignition and hear the crackle of lethargic engine, I look into my rearview mirror. I see the horizon exploding with light. Orange hue. I feel the warmth on the back of my ear.