All In A days Work   

©Suzy Bernstein


On Thursday, the 22nd of October 2009, I set out to Orange Farm to do a picture story on Circumcision. I went past the home of Mr Dirk Taljaard – the man who started the Bophelo Pele Male Circumcision Centre in Orange Farm.  Before we got into the car, his young daughter waved profusely at me. I hesitated before deciding she would like a sample of being in my arms. I put my arms out to her. With trepidation and courage she came to me breathing deeply – this was indeed very, very scary, but she was determined and settled down. We both felt happy and waved goodbye to one another with a newfound connection. 

From this point forward, the plan is to follow Dirk to Orange Farm (we are now close friends, having shared a close encounter – more to follow). I am following him in my car so that I have the freedom to drive around the area in the event that I am short of images, after he has shown me whatever he is able to. I am working on the premise that this will not be the easiest topic to get images of. 

We arrive at the centre, and try and find somewhere to park. Like Jozi, there is building and construction going on all around in anticipation of the World Cup. We park on what feels like the top of a construction site. There are trains, donkey carts and taxis, all on the move, emitting fumes and sounds. 


I am taken around this centre and learn about circumcision along the way. 10 000 men in 3 years have now been circumcised. There is proof that circumcision is an added prevention in the battle against HIV. 


For some or other reason, a young man, of 17, agrees for me to take pics during his procedure. The procedure lasts 20 minutes. I enter the cubicle. Whilst waiting, I hear someone in the next door cubicle. He says:  “ Hawu, the problem is if I have this circumcision, I will not be able to get erect when I see a beautiful woman in the street.”


Ironically, the doctor who will perform the procedure is a female doctor and the nurse is a male doctor. The boy is lying down quite calmly. I am standing, not so calmly with my camera. Lots of blood. Cauterizing – the smell of burning skin. Stitches. Casual labour.  A shaft of light!


In reality, it is a small procedure. He will go home with pain-killers, which he will need to take for a day or two, After which time the pain will be gone. He will have to abstain for about 6 weeks and then he will be a fully/unfully fledged/fleshed circumcised man. 


It seems there are issues surrounding the advocacy of this preventative measure. The traditionalists prefer the boys to have a traditional circumcision, so as to protect culture. I am told that the issue is that there are a lot of fly by nighters, who actually abduct the children. They take them to be circumcised, and then demand payment, which can cost the “chosen” family a lot of money. So, some of the women in the community are electing this as a safe option, because if their sons are abducted and are found to be circumcised, they will be set free, and money will not be randomly demanded.


Then, there are the legitimate initiation schools. I ask what the vernacular equivalent is for circumcision. Strangely enough, it is the word “initiation”. That says it all. I enquire as to why these two groups – the clinic and the traditionalists cannot work together. It seems that the problem is that the traditionalists want to do it en masse firstly and secondly they prefer the procedure to take place without anaesthetics, as the pain is a part of the initiation process.  This however, will not work at all with the procedure that the clinic uses. 


I leave the cubicle and head out to the community with Dirk, so as to go and document some of their field workers at work. We get to one point and there is a station set up. They have people sitting in tented

cubicles where they can inform anyone who will listen to them.  I take pics of two men who are being informed. I ask them before I walk off whether they will consider being initiated. They assure me that they think it is a good idea.


Together with another woman, we move further into the township, and meet up with three young girls. Their job is to move around the township, doing door to doors. In the short time, I am with them they solicit several men, trying to convince every Tom, Dick! And Harry, that they in fact should consider the option of circumcision.  We find a young woman sitting outside a shack. She has a young baby on her back and a toddler alongside her. We approach her, asking if we can come and talk to her about circumcision. She assures us that because she is Zulu, she in fact knows little about circumcision. We reassure her, in turn, that our aim is to merely educate her about circumcision.  We make our way into the shack, and sit down. A youth runs into the shack brandishing a gun!

The baby screams. I am a bit confused, but realise that he has not come in to find out about circumcision. I hope profusely that the young woman alongside me does not try to ask him if he would like to be circumcised. 

With no reluctance at all, I hand over the camera that he demands. I find myself wanting to ask him if I couldn’t perhaps have the flash card inside the camera, but restrain myself, feeling that the screaming children might be putting him on edge. He then turns to me again. Asking for a cellphone, which I do not have. He touches me, feeling to see if he can find anything on my person. I have nothing. That was frightening, because I think this might infuriate him. He leaves. I am aware that the man who has brought me there, in a vehicle, is outside. The women want to run after him. I do my best, shouting at them, to coax them to remain inside, not knowing how this sequence of events might still play out. My feeling is that so long as the distance between the criminal and us widens, it will be for the better. 


After a few minutes we make our way outside. The young child is crying hysterically, and I do not know why the mother does not gather her up. For the second time that day, I put a toddler into my arms. Again, she calms. 


I see activity happening at the car. The chaos that is taking place is not apparent.  By the time, we all gather together, nobody can really make sense of what happened. They have made off with Dirks car. He too had been held at gunpoint, and been threatened with knives, by three men.  It seems his exchange was longer and he was braver, managing to convince the man to take the money from his wallet, but to leave him with the wallet.  Dirk has been working in this community for nine years and this is a first for him. He is clearly shaken. The women apologise profusely, which upsets me.  They are apologising for those criminals, whom I find myself wishing a botched circumcision upon?!?  We all enter the usual South African dialog. Thank god we are okay dialog coupled with understanding the psychology of our perpetrators. 

So, I now don’t have my camera equipment or all of those hard- earned shots. I realise too that my car keys were in this now hi-jacked car. We get back to the community centre, and make a speedy trip back to Jozi to get the spare car keys. I find myself asking Dirk to please give me time to arrange a spare camera, so that I can at least take a few more pics on our return in order to come home with something at the end of this day. 


We get back to the centre, take a few pics. Dirk is very jumpy, having my camera pointed at him. He was not too happy having his pic taken initially, but his phobia has now grown into another beast. 


I had noticed on the way in that my car seemed to be overheating. Because of the way the day has panned out, I feel it is unfair to ask him to stop at a garage. He is trying his best to get home to sort out his affairs. I mention lightly that would he please look out for me, because I now do not have a cell to contact him and I am a bit concerned. We travel back in unison, and of course, my car cuts out. Hmmm! Emphasis on the word cut. Cutting edge. I flash, gesticulate, and try and get his attention as I try to pull into the emergency lane. I get into his car, but in the interim they have called him to say that they have TRACKED down his car. He needs to go and get his spare key. He is rather distracted. I fortunately use his phone to call the AA. I leave the recruited camera in his car. He drives off and I begin my walk to the service station alongside of which I am stuck. Before this point, I was in reasonably good cheer. 


Many hours later I return home with my car in tow, initiated by circumcision. What are we? Are we war photographers, that battle the crime? I am horrified at how calm I was. At how I find myself regaling stories to Dirk – this was his first experience of crime.  I only hope that my camera that I have always called my baby, just like the children that I held on that day, ends up in good hands and carries on my good work, telling stories that are perhaps a little bit less cutting edge! 




Blank spaces with words!



Like war photographers, one becomes immune to the crime. 












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