31 May 2012

District Six - A Forgotten Injustice

District Six, for those who are not familiar with South African history, was named the Sixth Municipal District of Cape Town in 1867.  Located to the southwest of central Cape Town, which evolved around it, the area became, by modern standards, a slum which occupied prime land.  Originally established as a mixed community of freed slaves, merchants, artisans, laborers and immigrants, District Six was a vibrant centre with close links to the city and the port.  By the beginning of the twentieth century, however, the history of removals and marginalization had begun, with the consequent decay.
The first to be 'resettled' were black South Africans, forcibly displaced from the District in 1901.  As the more prosperous residents of Cape Town moved away to the suburbs, the area became the neglected ward of the city.  In retrospect, I am quite sure that this was a deliberate ploy on the part of the municipal authorities.
District Six was where the Cape Carnival street bands originated (called the "Coon Carnival" in those days).  The minstrels dressed up in bright silks and satins, with their faces painted in the style of Al Johnson and played the banjo and sang traditional folk music, which had it's roots in the American deep south, while dancing through the streets on January 2nd, or "Tweede Nuwe Yaar".  One of the most well known folk songs is “Daar kom die Alibama” (There comes the Alibama) which refers to the Confederate commerce raider CSS Alabama, which called at Cape Town for provisions in August of 1883.  Some of South Africa’s most celebrated traditional dishes have their origins in the kitchens of District Six.  Babootie, Cape Malay lamb curry, Koeksusters (plaited deep-fried pastries soaked in a light syrup,) Waterblommetjiebreedie (literally water blossom stew, a lamb stew with water hyacinth blossoms) and smoked Snoek (the Cape Barracuda or Thyrsites atun) all come from District Six.   
In 1966, District Six was declared a white area under the Group areas Act of 1950, which was the only means the apartheid government, could find that would allow the demolition of the area as "slum clearance".  The bulldozers moved in and the area was all but flattened by 1970, and re-named "Zonnebloem".   60 000 people were forcibly removed to barren outlying areas aptly known as the Cape Flats.  The families that were moved away are now having their land restored to them, with modern housing having been built to replace the demolished homes.
The thing that I remember most about District Six was the laughter of children as they played in the streets and alleys.  The people were ever friendly and hospitable, and despite their poverty, they were proud.  I loved to walk around indulging in my passion for street photography, and found many willing subjects.  I shall always remember one particular morning when I was invited into the home of a colored lady and offered tea and cookies.  She said that she had seen me wandering around taking pictures on more than one occasion.  It was a very humble home, but spotlessly clean.  The tea was strong and sweet, and the cookies were traditional, spicy and delicious.  Her name was Mrs. Peterson and her husband and son were stevedores at the Cape Town docks.  The old Methodist church, which was abandoned when I took these photographs, is now the District Six museum and cultural centre.  Some of the families had lived in the same houses for generations.
Just above District Six there was a clothes laundry with rows of concrete troughs all under a vast iron roof.  Each trough had a single cold water faucet.  The washer woman in the photograph was one of many who worked in the wash-house.  She did my friends weekly washing and ironing for 2/6 a basket.  That's about ten pence in today's money.  The wash house was provided and maintained by the city council (or municipality, as it was called).  The washer-women did washing in these troughs for most of the bachelors and many of the guest houses in Cape Town, in cold water summer or winter, and hung it out to dry on long lines  and then ironed it on wooden tables using real cast-iron irons heated on a brazier.  You never saw such white whites!  Some of them worked there from the time that they were little girls, helping their mother, to old age.  "Ownership" of a wash trough was passed down through the family from generation to generation.
Not many people remember District Six as it was in its heyday.  I was privileged to have been welcomed there, and I treasure my memories of the place and the people.

Graham Serretta, London, 2012

2 March 2012

Canon 5D MkIII - is it all we expected?

So, did we get what we wanted?  Not really.

Resolution:  The 5DIII has 22.3Mp, not the 36Mp that I predicted.  For practical purposes, that's not any real increase compared to the MkII, which has 21.1Mp.   No 41Mp sensor either, then.  This makes sense if Canon are targeting the movie producer.  You don't need 30Mp to record 1080 HD movies.  As a matter of fact, I'm surprised that Canon didn't use the same sensor as the D1-X, which is 18Mp with 6.95 micron photo sites.  We did get the variable resolution options though, 3840 x 2560, 2880 x 1920, 1920 x 1280, and 720 x 480.  Sensitivity is from iso 100 to 25,600, which is on a par with most cameras in this class today.  It's how the noise levels are handled that counts, and I'm pretty sure that we will be impressed with this aspect of the MkIII.

Auto-Focus:  As I predicted, the new camera has a similar AF system to the D1-X and the 7D before it, with even more cross-type focus points than I predicted - of the 61 focus points, 41 are of the cross type, with 5 dual type points.  The customisable AF configuration presets as in the D1-X are also available.  I just hope that the AF point markers on the focussing screen in the viewfinder are nice and discreet and not the big ugly black boxes of the 7D.

Processor:  One DIGIC 5+ processor.  I admit to being somewhat ignorant of the finer specifications of the new Canon DIGIC 5+ processor, but I am nevertheless surprised that the 5DIII has only one processor, and not the dual processor set-up of the 7D.  Is the DIGIC 5+ unit as capable as dual DIGIC 4's?  Doubtless, someone will tell us.

The maximum frame rate is in the region of 6fps - no big deal by today's standards, and so far I have not seen any reference to the buffer size. apart from the stated burst depth of 18 RAW images or virtually continuous JPG recording.  The rear LCD, while being larger than the MkII at 3.2 inches and 1,040,000 dots, is fixed, not articulated,  Is this because Canon didn't want to compromise the "ruggedness" factor, or because there are a number of after market video viewfinder attachments being produced by 3rd party manufacturers that would not be compatible with an articulated LCD screen?  Somehow, I think it's the former.

For file storage there is a UDMA-7 compatible CF card slot as well as a SD/SDHC/SDHX card slot.  No built-in Wi-Fi support though, which is a great pity.  One of the reasons that I have gravitated to using my Nikon D7000 for location shoots in preference to the Canon is because the client can view the captured images in real time on an iPad without compromising reliability or image quality, and I don't have to cart a laptop around with me.

For the movie buff, there are two video compression options supported - interframe ALL-I and IPB.  The addition of SMPTE timecode support is the thing that really impresses me.  It also means that Canon are listening to their customers!

According to the specs, the weight of the MkIII is the same as the MkII at 950 grams with battery, and the battery is the same model as the MkII and the 7D, the LP-E6.   

For those who feel the need to camouflage their lack of photographic ability by applying effects filters to their shots so that they can impress their friends as they shoot, the 5D MkIII has a new "Creative Photo" button.  This enables direct access to the quick HDR function, as well as the picture control feature for applying various picture styles to RAW files post-capture, as well as offering a side-by-side image comparison mode.  I don't know of a single pro or enthusiast photographer who would buy such an advanced camera and edit his pictures in-camera!  I certainly would never risk it.  News photographers are a different story, but they certainly don't apply effects filters to their images before transmitting them to their editors.

Following Nikon's and Pentax's lead, The camera firmware also applies corrections for lens axial and lateral chromatic aberrations, vignetting and distortions directly to the JPG images,   And according to Canon, "the new full-frame sensor combines with the vast processing power of DIGIC 5+ to improve image quality by virtually eradicating the presence of moirĂ©, false colour and other artefacts."

What about the anti-aliasing filter?  Canon's answer to Nikon's D800E is the miraculous ability of their post-capture RAW editing software, Digital Photo Professional 3.11, (supplied free with the camera) to apparently create image detail previously removed by the anti-aliasing filter!  I quote -

 "New in DPP v3.11 is Digital Lens Optimizer – a revolutionary new tool designed to drastically improve image resolution.  Digital Lens Optimizer (DLO) precisely imitates lens performance, with a series of complex mathematical functions replicating each stage of the journey of light through the optical path. Using this information DLO can correct a range of typical optical aberrations and loss of resolution caused by a camera's low pass filter, by applying an inverse function to each shot to take the image nearer to how the scene appears to the naked eye. This creates exceptionally detailed, high-quality images with highly manageable file sizes, providing photographers with maximum image quality and greater flexibility."  

Is there a tie-up with the makers of the Lytro Light Field camera here?  Or have Canon re-invented the laws of physics?  Whatever, in my opinion this is Canon's attempt to persuade potential buyers away from the Nikon D800E, which I find somewhat embarrassing.  Ho Hum.....

The list price is a little higher than the 5D MkII was when it was released, if inflation is taken into account - $3,500.  That's not bad compared to the $6,800 for the 1D-X.

I think that the 5D MkIII will take up the baton from it's predecessor and carry the flame to higher ground.  But I don't think it's as good as it could have been.

20 February 2012

When the're gone, they're gone!

I was horrified to see, on YouYube via my best Beloved's Facebook page, a video of a rhinoceros that had had it's face hacked to pieces by poachers, who had removed not only it's horn, but most of it's nose and upper jaw.  The rhino was still alive, and in obvious agony.

While this sort of blatant, evil cruelty brings a red mist to my vision, it is only one incident of many such incidents that are taking place at an ever increasing rate throughout southern Africa.

According to savingrhinos.org, the actual tally of rhinos killed since 2007 is as follows:

2007:  13
2008:  83
2009:  122
2010:  333
2011:  448

and the tally so far in 2012 is over 40, and it's only February!  

A glance at the figures shows that the slaughter is increasing at an exponential rate year on year, and it will be obvious to anyone with half a brain that the rhino population cannot sustain this rate of decimation.   It is also disturbing to note that the majority of poached rhinos in 2010 and 2011 were lost in the Kruger National Park, with the numbers escalating there more than elsewhere.  Something smells..... 

Alarmingly, the number of arrests of poachers is low, due to the lack of resources of the various conservation authorities and game reserve managers, but more alarmingy the successful prosecution of suspected poachers, (and many are not "suspects" but are caught red-handed, with blood up to their arm-pits) is even lower, with only 5% of the total of 397 arrests being convicted in 2010.  Some cases are regularly and continuously postponed or deferred, and case files simply disappear.

Giving hope for the future, the arrest of three Mozambican nationals for rhino poaching in South Africa recently resulted in 25 year prison sentences being handed down by the court.  The cynic in me thinks that the judge may have had a vested interest in rhino conservation - but I hope that the sentences were just the result of good justice and that such sentences become the norm from now on.

Rhino are not the only endangered species being targeted by the poacher's guns - elephant are also being killed for their ivory despite the stringent international restrictions on the sale of ivory,  The recent proposals by SITES to lift these restrictions and once again allow commerce in ivory make me despair for the future of the African elephant, and I wonder what the hidden agendas are that motivate such lunacy?  Of course, the answer is money - it always is!  Man's greed - the most destructive of all evils.  Stupidly - yes, stupidly, most westerners, who wield the collective and individual economic power to bring change, don't believe that saving a species of animal such as the rhino is all that important!  What's in it for them?  I wonder if most people even know what the term "extinct" really means?   

How do we bring change to this deplorable situation?  As with most things, education is the key, and the will to force politicians to bring pressure to bear on the countries where the spoils of the poaching are purchased and consumed by an ignorant populace, to not only curtail the importation and trade in these products, but to introduce educational programs to diminish the future demand.  It's a cultural problem, you say?  So was slavery in England and the USA, and so was opium in China, but change happened!  We just need the awareness and the will!
I am delighted to read that Sir Richard Branson is putting his considerable weight behind the conservation of the Tiger in India.  Virgin’s non-profit arm, Virgin Unite, is partnering with Wild Aid in India for the tiger conservation effort.  Tiger poaching is just as serious a problem in India, and just as dangerous to the survival of the species, as rhino poaching is in Africa.  Bravo, Sir Richard!

If you want to help the survival of the rhino, you can start here;

and if you want to help prevent the Tiger from becoming extinct, start here:

To read more on the Rhino Wars, see the March National Geographic on-line feature, here:




Out of Africa

Once upon a time, we had a farm in Africa.....and a game reserve called Ulusaba was owned by a family member.  In 1985 it was a wondrous place, on the border of the Sabi Sands conservation area adjacent to the Kruger National Park in South Africa.   In those days, there was only one rock lodge and one river lodge, and it was an unspoiled paradise.  It was sold to the De Beers corporation, who in turn, after discovering large supplies of ground-water, sold it to Sir Richard Branson, who has developed it as one of his exclusive Virgin resorts.  Sir Richard, as one would expect of a dedicated conservationist, has accomplished this with great sensitivity to the ecology and the environment, causing as little intrusion into the natural order as possible, yet providing a facility that encourages people of influence to experience the wonder of Africa at it's best.

Photographs can never convey the true spirit and beauty of such a vast landscape because there is so much more that just the visual aspect.  There are the sounds, (and the background sound of the African bush is unique in all the world, made up as it is of birdsong, baboon barks, monkey shrieks, lion grunts, elephant rumbles, hippo snorts, fish-eagle cries, zebra whistles and antelope snorts) the smells, (of the damp red earth after the rain, the dust when there is no rain, the scent of the acacia tree blossom, the dung of the wild game, the putrefaction of the odd carcass, the scent of the grasses and the smell of the water-holes) and the all pervasive, almost spiritual, presence of the continent, which is the most captivating influence and which is the thing that will seize one's soul and make one forever a child of that land.  This is the Africa that my best beloved and I love and miss.

We can only hope that some of the measures being used today to conserve the wild game and the environment, will be effective, and that our children and their children will still have the opportunity to venture into this magical wilderness and see the creatures to which it is home, in their natural environment. 

You can see more images of Ulusaba taken during a visit in 1985, here:

You can see what Ulusaba is like today, here: