Book review: Why are you looking at me?

Why are you looking at me?

Jean du Plessis

Lonely Staircase

Review: Karen Watkins

This powerful mix of photography and prose frames moments in time in the travels of Newlands activist Jean du Plessis.

The idea of sorting his digital picture folders began at the start of lockdown. He selected about 70 pictures and stuck them on a wall in his Nairobi home in Kenya, where he works as a land specialist for UN-Habitat.

After some time his wife asked how they are connected. He then selected 30 pictures to use in a book as a birthday gift for friend David Schmidt who remained with the project and eventually became its editor.

To qualify for entry into the book each photograph had to be described in six words “For sale: baby shoes, never worn”.

This six-word story is generally attributed to Ernest Hemingway although the link to him is unsubstantiated. For Jean, these six words are an example of flash fiction and are pregnant with meaning.

For me I dipped into the pictures and was taken along on Jean’s journey, from Stellenbosch and Umtata to Queen’s Mercy, Pietermaritzburg, Pretoria, Dili in Timor-Leste, Geneva and Nairobi. Jean captured moments in time − people and places − each was a base for his life’s work on land, evictions and human rights. Memorable are the maize fields of Mvenyane, the falsely promised land of Canaan in Haiti and mannequins in wasteland in London.

In the notes at the end of the book he says most of the thought behind the project came while cycling the hills and valleys of Kenya, through rural society, humble places, often taken from his bicycle, a tool to enter in a non-threatening way, to get there more quickly than walking or running and less intrusive than travelling by car.

The title comes from a picture of a boy in Canaan, Haiti.

The photographs are taken with a variety of cameras, from a GoPro to a Kodak digital, a Canon and an iPhone 6. Some are pre digital, others have been processed in a darkroom converted from a disused rural dairy.

Books are available at The Book Lounge in Cape Town. To join the online book launch on Thursday June 24, from 6pm to 7pm, where Jean du Plessis will be in conversation with Zubeida Jaffer, email LonelyStaircase.RSA@gmail.com

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