A Stone’s Throw is an artist’s book comprising 64 gelatin silver photographs made between February 2019 and March 2020 on Robben Island, Western Cape, South Africa. Bookending Roger Palmer’s photographs are two essays, the first by the former Robben Island prisoner and tour guide, Lionel Davis, and the other by the Cape Town based writer, editor and curator, Sean O’Toole.
The title, A Stone’s Throw, refers literally to the proximity of Robben Island to Cape Town, but it also recalls a history of political prisoners held there being forced to quarry and crush stone, and further references the so-called ‘klipgooiers’ (‘stone throwers’), dissidents who were imprisoned on the island in 1976.
Following the Rivonia trial, Nelson Mandela was imprisoned in 1964 and spent 18 years incarcerated on Robben Island, before being transferred to Pollsmoor Prison, then Victor Verster Prison, from where he was finally released in 1990 after 27 years in jail. After he became President of South Africa in 1994, Mandela saw national reconciliation as his primary task. One result of this was that immediately after its closure in 1996, Robben Island was re-opened in January 1997 as a museum and visitor attraction and intended as a sanctuary of healing, and it employed both former prisoners and their guards as tour guides and in other roles. In his essay in the book, the former prisoner Lionel Davis describes how the reconciliation between these groups of employees was understandably challenging and hard won: “A few of the ex-prison personnel found it hard to let go of the authority they had previously wielded; the black staff were assertive in standing up for themselves; and angry exchanges were not unusual. The museum community proved to be a microcosm of life in South Africa with its ongoing racial tension.”
All of the book’s photographs were made facing south, looking from the small, flat island towards Cape Town across Table Bay, so that the iconic silhouette of Table Mountain forms a constant backdrop to various aspects of Robben Island’s harsh landscape and leftover infrastructure. As Sean O’Toole points out, this recurrent motif, “consciously quotes Japanese ukiyo-e artist Katsushika Hokusai’s method of describing varied and fleeting human action against the immutable geological backdrop of Mount Fuji.” O’Toole’s essay eruditely interweaves a survey of Palmer’s most important photographic work from the 1970s onwards with historical and environmental information about Robben Island and a detailed analysis of the philosophical intentions, aesthetic strategies and ideological intentions of Palmer’s work in A Stone’s Throw.
Both textual essays though, whilst providing helpful context, are very much secondary to Palmer’s central visual ‘essay’ in the form of its 64 carefully edited and sequenced photographs. They are arranged in groups of eight, each suggesting a notional day that begins with an exposure made soon after sunrise and progressing to one made shortly before dusk. A black page separates each group or day from the next. This repeated daily structure implies a potentially endlessly repetition that might suggest the experience of incarceration with its constant limitations against a backdrop changed only by the light conditions and the daily cycle of time passing.
Whilst none of the photographs are captioned, they clearly convey a sense of the island’s history not just as a penal colony but also at different times a wartime bunker and a medical asylum, and most recently as a site of tourism. Every single photograph evidences the significant human intervention in the landscape that these uses involve, and many bear witness to the consequent disruption, degradation and neglect of the land and its influence on the flora and fauna. Despite this, there is no actual human presence in any of the photographs – people are noticeably absent from view, whilst their material impact on the landscape is powerfully present in every image. The equally ubiquitous presence of Table Mountain in the background sets up a tension between the extreme slowness of geological time and the rapid rate of social change and human history evidenced by the layers of decay in the foreground. Yet we are reminded also of how painfully slow social change must have seemed to those opponents of apartheid incarcerated here for decades, emphasised in several of the photographs by the rapid and free flight of birds.
Roger Palmer, A Stone’s Throw, Fotohof edition, Salzburg, 2022, soft-bound, 160pp.