Welcome to my website. On these pages you can find some of my writing and photography. My writing and intellectual interests span a range of issues in the social world, especially political economy, arts and culture, including photography and media. Over the past year or so, at least since the northern summer of 2010, I have developed an interest in memory and photography. If I have the time I will explore this interest further and post some of my ideas and impressions on this space. If you want to know more about me, Ismail Lagardien, follow THIS link.

The views expressed on these pages are not those of my employers. Unless otherwise indicated (by direct reference or links), all photographs that appear on these pages were taken by me. My photographs may be used for non-profit purposes only, with full accreditation and/or sourcing. Unless specifically stated, all photographs on this site, including those in the banner, were taken by Ismail Lagardien. Comments are welcome. I do, however, moderate all comments so as to avoid offensive language or personal and off-topic statements and claims.

Please note that some of the posts on this blog are private (not accessible) because they may be under development, or because I share them only with a small group of people.


Help students challenge economics

By Ismail Lagardien

University students have just started the new academic year, and for many first-year students this is in effect the start of adulthood — a time when they start making decisions for themselves and charting their own futures and, perhaps, someday, the futures of many others.  What they learn over the next four years, perhaps more, may well determine their places and roles in society for the rest of their lives. (Read Further


Happy in my solitude – and writing

The place where I write

The place where I write. Picture taken with Hipstamatic app for iPhone

By Ismail Lagardien

26 February 2014 – There is quite an inspirational silence that envelopes me at the moment. It makes for lots of great reading and writing. I am making slow progress with the book, and still target the second part of 2014 for publication. That is if the second one, a book-length photo-essay, does not come together sooner. This ‘second one’ is much more dependent on external force coming together. (See THIS link)

Much of what I am getting done is in the form of notes, some brief passages and situating some of my ideas in some kind of intellectual and philosophical context. I have a tentative chapter structure, and an overall theme made up of a constellation of philosophical lenses in a whole. Having said that, what is most fascinating is that the project seems to be taking on a life of its own. It reminds me of a work of fiction I wrote several years ago – which never did get published – in which a character developed on her own, and quite astonishingly, committed deeds I never set out to create. I was, actually, quite shocked by ‘what I had created’. There must have been some desperate evil lurking in the back of my mind somewhere, and which had battled to come to the fore – then arrived unannounced! That was what I thought at the time.

Anyway, at the moment the book, a reflection on returning to South Africa after spending about 20 years abroad – the longest stretch away being 14 years – represents some type of methodological experiment. Fixated as I have tended to be with method, I have, this time, freed myself from any epistemological fixities. While I have no doubt about my own understanding of what besets this fractious (and fractured) society, I have allowed myself space to think deeper and wider, using all the intellectual instruments available, to empty my thoughts out, as it were, onto paper and let them stand or fall on their own. I’m not quite sure how it will turn out, but….


Besides some of the reading I am doing for the book, I have been trying to read for pleasure. I have started reading, Portrait of a Turkish Family, by Irfan Orga. I bought the book at the Galeri Kayseri in Istanbul in December 2012. Not that one needs to be reminded, the Galeri Kayseri, affirms everything that is great about books; about writing, reading, buying and selling books. It is, quite possibly, the greatest bookshop I have visited, anywhere in the world, including Shakespeare and Company in Paris and City Lights in San Francisco. The latter is like an intellectual safe haven, and the former used to be one of my favourite haunts in Europe, until I arrived there in the mid-1990s, and found a group of excitable students from the Midwest of the United States who seemed to know very little more of the English language other than ‘Oh my god’ and ‘awesome’.

Galeri Kayseri has restored the pride of books, for the sake of books. It remains one of the very few commercial spaces in the world where I felt completely welcome – whether I or not I bought anything.

In the meantime I am trying to develop a relationship with my desk and the room in which I am working. It does not help that it is also my ‘living room’ …. If I can isolate the workspace as well as I have in the picture, above, I am set for some success.

I am happy in my solitude.




The Day Mandela Died

By Ismail Lagardien

Everyone who met Nelson Mandela has a story to tell. I met the President a few times during my career as a journalist, and public servant. On the day of his death, I wrote this brief note and published it on my thoughtleader blog, hosted by the Mail & Guardian.


He held my hand for twenty minutes and told me of the vision he had for our country.

No, I said, I was a journalist. It is all I ever wanted to be. I loved the craft more than anything else.

He explained, again, what he wanted us to become, he wanted me to be part of it.

No, I said, repeating myself, I am a journalist. It is the craft that gives me life, a sense of purpose. All my life, I wanted to be just one thing: a good writer. Journalism gave me that chance.

He insisted.

I said if I would make a change, it would be for academia, because, I said, teaching was the other thing that thrilled me most.

Then he gave me the vision, and the plan. I took a few weeks, to think, and went back to see him.

“Tata, I am not even in the ANC.” He placed his hand on my forearm. “I like you, my boy. We need people like you in government.”

I went away … again.

A few weeks later, I gave in. That was in 1995. I promised him two years of my life, after which I would return to university. I would come back, I told him. Once I finished a doctorate.

He smiled. “Thank you.” He.Thanked.Me.

That was how my career in journalism was destroyed. The craft I loved more than anything else.

My life would change forever.

I had several interactions with him over the years. He was always kind and gentle. Once, even, quite firm.

My mother died in June — she gave me life.
The Old Man died last night — he gave me hope.
We may not hold onto life forever
But we must never give up hope.
That, in part, is why I am a public servant.



The Children of Wupperthal: A Work in Progress

By Ismail Lagardien

The Wupperthal project is going to take much longer than I anticipated. Very soon I will need the advice of a publisher, or someone who knows a lot more about publishing. I should mention that the one time I did speak to a publisher, Tafelberg, they were terribly rude and dismissive. Perhaps that is the nature of the craft. I will look elsewhere, this time. Let me provide some introductory points about the project.

Pak Huis Pass. The road from Clanwilliam to Wupperthal over the Cederberg Mountains

Pak Huis Pass. The road from Clanwilliam to Wupperthal over the Cederberg Mountains (Copyright – ilagardien©l’engagé)

Late in the Southern winter of 1987, I travelled to Wupperthal, a village that lies deep in a valley of the Cederberg, and stayed there for several weeks. I was a journalist at the time, and South Africa had entered a very dark period; a national state of emergency had been declared and media regulations were especially repressive…. When I do get the book done, the journey and the visit will be situated more fully in its social and historical contexts. 

Wupperthal lies about 25 kilometres (as the crow flies) from Clanwilliam – which is a straight drive up along the West Coast of South Africa for a couple of hours – but getting to the village is a difficult 75km trek across two mountain passes, much of which is along dirt roads, over the Cederberg Mountains and down into the valley where the Tra Tra River gently flows besides the fields worked by villagers.

The dirt road into Wupperthal winds down the slopes of the Cederberg and into the valley where the Tra-Tra River flows (Copyright - ilagardien©l’engagé)

The dirt road into Wupperthal winds down the slopes of the Cederberg and into the valley where the Tra-Tra River flows (Copyright – ilagardien©l’engagé)

The village is home to people whom the state had (first, since the mid 1950s) classified as ‘coloured’, which relegated them to somewhat lesser beings than those classified ‘white’. After 1994,  the ruling African National Congress retained apartheid’s racial classification system and continued to relegate ‘coloured’ people to second class status, with restricted social and economic opportunities, when compared to people has classified ‘African’.

While I have not taken the scholarly literature seriously enough, South Africa’s ‘coloured’ people have been described as having been ‘not white enough’ during apartheid and ‘not black enough’ in the contemporary period. One research paper concluded that the coloured community has assumed a type of ‘in-between’ status located between those wielding power, and those with none. Indeed, people now classified ‘coloured’ are increasingly under pressure to surrender any positions of leadership or authority over people classified African. It’s all terribly confusing sometimes, given, especially, the arbitrary nature of racial classification (which is often based on admixture), but always infuriating, but there has been a morality shift that we have to accept….

The problem is that I never actually engaged in ‘coloured’ politics. From my early adult years, I assumed a black political identity and, generally, associated myself with the Black Consciousness Movement. I am, therefore, inadequately equipped to provide any clear insights on ‘coloured’ identity in South Africa. I will leave it to the growing legion of identity brokers in South Africa. They seem to derive great pleasure, and build their intellectual credibility on telling others what race they are, where these others belong in the ordering of society – and what they may or may not say. I am reminded of a passage in Gayatri Spivak’s seminal essay, ‘Can the Sub-Altern Speak’, and which I will mangle in paraphrasing: In some cruel twist of fate, in the context of settler colonial production, the subaltern could not speak until 1994, after which the coloured community, once part of the (subaltern), but now ‘not African’, slipped deep into the shadows of discourse, place and community in South Africa, and now remain silent – simply because they are considered to be ‘non-African’. As the story goes, whereas they were not white enough under apartheid, they are, indeed, not black enough under the current regime. Or, as a friend told me: ‘You coloureds are double-fucked’.

Children in Wupperthal. A generation after my first visit in 1987. (Copyright -ilagardien©l’engagé)

Children in Wupperthal. A generation after my first visit in 1987. (Copyright -ilagardien©l’engagé)

The book will certainly deal with the issue of colouredness, but not directly or on my terms. I don’t care much for it, but, as with race (it may be true that there actually is no such thing as race, it does not mean there are not racists in the world) because I don’t believe in colouredness, it does not mean that there are not people who believe themselves or others to be ‘coloured’, and base their social relationships on this given/adopted identity. The issue will be carried mainly on the voices of the people I photographed 25 years ago – and whom I will photograph again – and the interviews I will conduct with them over the coming months. Let me turn, back, and provide a brief introduction to the story that I will be working on in the coming months – if my day job is not too demanding.

The project, for convenience let us call it The Children of Wupperthal, began somewhat fortuitously. In the Northern winter of 2008/09, I came across some old negatives and pictures that I had kept stored in a box. I began to digitise the pictures and negatives slowly over the next two years. Among them were a set of images I made in Wupperthal. The pictures were mainly of women and children. When I scanned the images, memories of the time they were made flooded my mind. It was a difficult period of my life. I had sought refuge in the village after a few months of difficulty with the security forces who persecuted journalists. There was nothing too dramatic or serious about the problems I had with them; many people lost their lives at the time, so I am wary of sensationalising my own situation…. Nonetheless, as I unpacked and digitized the images, I began to wonder what had happened to all the children I had photographed, and how their lives had changed since I first visited the village.

When I first came back to South Africa in the winter of 2011, I began to make enquiries…. which resulted in my first visit to Wupperthal on 11 October 2013 – almost exactly 25 years after first visiting the place. I have managed to locate two of the young girls I photographed – both are now adults with their own children – spent some time in the village meeting some of the elders, and made a few photographs.

Much as we found during our first visit (I was accompanied at the time, by AGRB, a fellow journalist and close friend), the village had a very deep sense of itself. Today, the people are very much at home in their village, and much like then, they fear that the village may die someday, ‘because the young people don’t want to stay’ in a village that has two SABC TV channels, no 3G signal and which has limited resources. This is almost precisely what I was told during my first visit in 1987.

‘Die dorp gaan vrek,’ one of the elders told me then, for the same reasons.

One big thing that has not changed is this: When I first visited Wupperthal in 1987, the villagers through I was a ‘white man’. When I told the story to one of the young women whom I photograph as a three year-old, we had a laugh – after she asked, in all seriousness: ‘If you’re not white, then what are you.’

On the steps of the only store in Wupperthal. October 2013.

On the steps of the only store in Wupperthal. October 2013.

A generation later, Wupperthal is still alive; it’s people still battling on in a village owned, as it were, by the church, and where, in the lexicon of the state, there are no ‘Africans’ and no ‘whites’ just the in-between people…. All of that will be explored and explained in the book.  SSK∞


Predators in a land of hope and fear…

Waiting outside Pollsmoor Prison for Nelson Mandela's release.

Waiting outside Pollsmoor Prison for Nelson Mandela’s release. The press as predator, the public in hope. Copyright Ismail Lagardien. Please do not use without permission or linking back to original.

It seems like a lifetime ago that we waited; some of us like predators, others in hope, some, it should be said, in fear…. The predators are waiting, again. Hope, it seems, has walked away, its head bowed in shame, disgust, horror and defeat. Fear lingers. Whatever happens next is anyone’s guess. – Picture and text by Ismail Lagardien. 24 June 2013

For a longer version of this post, follow this link.


Photographs for Exhibition-Lecture Have Arrived

Shooting from the Hip from i lagardien on Vimeo.

By Ismail Lagardien

I have received the prints for the first lecture on photography and memory, focusing on a very specific time and space; the first weeks and months of the state of emergency in 1985 – 86. I am in discussion with a few people in departments of journalism, of visual studies, at least one research institution and an art and culture space about presenting a lecture and exhibition. It will be more of colloquim, as the lecture will be based on a paper that I started writing a while back….

The prints cost a small fortune, but it is well worth the price. They were hand printed by Denis da Silva at Silvertone International. I visited Silvertone’s darkrooms last week and felt like I had been transported back to the time when I worked as a news photographer – only it is much cooler and the technology is state of the art. It felt good to be back in a darkroom.

Anyway, I now need to have the pictures framed, and arrange a venue for the exhibit and lecture. The project is, actually, long-term. I may produce an essay, if I can get enough feedback. The lecture is not so much what is in the pictures – although it is important – as it is about the time when the pictures were taken. I explained my motivations in a previous post. The video, above, is a compilation of the prints that will be used in the exhibition-lecture.


It’s books, actual books, over e-readers (especially the iPad); anytime and every time.


By Ismail Lagardien

I have just finished reading a book on my iPad. It was the first book I have read in its entirety on the device; I have mainly pdf documents on the iPad reader. I am not happy with the device. The iPad is bulky, not in a way that, say War and Peace is bulky. You can, at least, throw War and Peace in the back of the car without worrying that you will break it. The iPad is bulky, socially and technologically frustrating and just really useless as a device for reading and writing. Plus, once you buy one, you belong to Apple, as it were.

If we set aside our fascination with the gimmick; the novelty of a little tablet computer that can bring the world into our hands, virtually; a device that makes images look all shiny, colourful and bright; a corporate identity – walk into any store and you will easily recognise the brand – that makes us all, some of us, at least, feel as if we, ‘belong’ to a type of cult, or an exclusive club (neither of my Apple devices will ‘speak’ to my non-Apple devices), that is expensive and an acquiesced monopoly, to boot….

At least where books are concerned, the iPad is a type of techno cultural disease that threatens an important part of my life; reading, books, bookshops, borrowing and lending of books, annotations and aesthetic comfort and habitat. I should explain the later. I love being in a room filled with books. I love bookshelves; in the kitchen, the toilet (yes) in my car, in corridors, in corners of rooms, on top of shelves, in stacks next to chairs, with circular coffee stains on the cover – I hate when that happens, it hurts, but it after a while, I smile…. Books are to be used, they are meant to be read, over and again. There have been times when I have been woken, in the middle of the night, by bulky books in my bed, under the covers. I love being surrounded by books. I love people who read books and, yeah, if someone does not read books, chances are I will not spend much time with them. During one year, a decade ago, I spent time with a family, and enjoyed reading to their son before bedtime every night.

Back to the iPad. It is heavy and delicate. A heavy book can be plonked down almost everywhere; a heavy iPad, not so much. It has to be a dry, stable surface or GUDUCRASHHHHHH! A book I can read in the bathtub. An iPad not. A book I can read in a coffee shop, or restaurant, or down the pub. If I did that with an iPad I would feel like a Berkshire Hunt. I don’t have to recharge a book. I can leave delightful little post-it notes in books. Make annotations, not just ‘notes’ in the margins. Once, someone gave me a jasmine blossom; in a most memorable gesture she stuck it in a button hole of my jacket. I kept it in one of my books for more than 15 years…

I have several pdf papers loaded on the iPad. Perhaps ten or twenty times more than I do, books, but I cannot make notes or highlights on the documents. I also cannot organise them into categories or reading lists, the way I could on the first Kindle device I owned.  While all of this is frustrating, perhaps the worst thing about the iPad is that it is part of the acquiesced monopoly that Apple products represent.

If you want to buy music, you need to do it through iTunes. If you want to buy movies – iTunes. Applications, iTunes. If you want to download photographs from your DSLR, you need to buy adapters from Apple. Oh, and don’t travel to Western Asia, South East Asia, Istanbul and Central Europe (as I have over the past six months) if you have a device registered in South Africa. I have an iTunes account registered in the US, an email address that was first created in the UK. Sometimes I receive messages that apps I want to buy are not available in ‘the South African store’. The delivery address and the billing address in my US account are different, plus the account is linked to a credit card, which means delivery to where I live, in South Africa is almost impossible…. 

The frustration never ceases. Apple forces you into an envelope. They want your life to be ordered and structured according to their preferences and dictates. Your email address, billing address, residential address and physical presence have to be aligned. It gets worse. If you actually own an iPad, just using it is a pain in the bottom behind. If you want to transfer files between devices; both have to be Apple. The key board is too small, and if you have worked on a ‘normal’ key board for most of your life, it is enormously frustrating. Sure, some might say you can buy a wireless keyboard. Well this just turns the iPad into a laptop – in several pieces. I love my Toshiba laptop much more than I do, the iPad. Non-Apple devices have USB ports – transfer, download, connect way! And they are cheaper. I don’t think I will buy another book for my iPad. As a way of checking email, wasting time on social networks, the iPad is fine, beyond that, it’s just a lovely gimmick and a device for making you look socially cool. That’s not a good reason to buy Apple!


A Glimpse of What Journalism’s Future May Look Like

A glimpse of a  more complete skills-set for early 21st Century journalism

A glimpse of a more complete skills-set for early 21st entury journalism

By Ismail Lagardien

I have often been asked by students what I thought about the future of journalism. My response was almost always the same. It went something like this (I copied the following passage from an email message I sent to one of my students in 2009):

“We are in the midst of significant social, technical and historical change. I don’t know what news gathering and reporting will look like in 15 – 20 years from now, or whether the very idea and practice of the actual craft will change; whether it will become something completely different from what it has been for most of the 20th century…. What I will advise you, is to come to grips with the technology and with the ethics of the current revolution in the media. Journalism has always been technology-based, it has become even more so, now.”

My views have not changed much over the past few years. In fact, the uncertainty about the craft – especially its ethics, standards and the very ideational basis of journalism – as we have known it for most of the past 100 years, has deepened, significantly. What I will say, now, is that more than ever, the craft will be shaped by its technology. The successful journalists, not necessarily the highly rewarded ones (Hell, Thomas Friedman of the New York Times is well paid and, yet, he is the cynosure of what is wrong with celebrity journalism – and anyway he is simply an odious person) will be the ones, who successfully integrate their storytelling (text and image) with new technologies. I have, also, discovered what I think the future journalist may well look like.

She has initiative, is highly motivated, courageous, versatile, creative and engaged; she has taken all the relevant knowledge that is available and immersed herself into it, and built a profile that gives significant insights into what the future of the craft may look like. Her name is Heather Billings. (See her website).

I am sure she is one of very, very many, but as an exemplar, Billings seems to have situated herself at the cusp of where I think the future of journalism lies. Now, this does not mean that everyone who wants to be a successful journalist should acquire all the skills that she has; there was no need, for instance, for reporters (historically) to be good photographers or sub-editors or headline artists. For instance, if you were a good writer, that was considered to be sufficient. Newspapers and magazines have always been put together by groups of people each with different (sometimes vastly differing skills). A sub-editor may not have a sense of what makes news, but have impeccable grammar and know what may (legally) be published. A photographer may make a picture which s/he thinks is aesthetically and technically brilliant, but an editor might need something that would look better, or that may sell the story.

In all my time as a journalist, I was average in all categories and remained average, while some of my peers excelled at one or the other, and went on to do rather well as writers or photographers. Nonetheless, I suspect that in the future, the broader skill-set you have may more directly influence overall accomplishment(s). Ms Billings’s portfolio may well point to where the future of journalism lies – at least in terms of its practicalities. The social, including ethical, and historical dimensions are a much more difficult discussion.