Change the world


A group of Nelson Mandela University students have formed the basis of a photography project by Michigan State University professor Peter Glendinning in honour of the 25th anniversary of South Africa’s democracy.

Glendinning arrived in SA in January to begin the project with interested students from universities in all nine provinces.

The students were tasked with creating works inspired by the words of the country’s first democratic president, the late Nelson Mandela, in his inaugural speech: “Each time one of us touches the soil of this land, we feel a sense of personal renewal.”

The project, aptly named Attached to the Soil, encompasses portraits of South Africans in the 25th anniversary year of freedom, and required students to submit photographs that best interpreted Mandela’s words in contemporary SA, using someone else as their subject in a location where the subject felt attached to the soil.

Glendinning also collaborated with the students in gathering oral histories and creating landscape video segments to form a multimedia portrayal of the subjects.

Ten NMU students took part in the project.

“I am moved by the passion the students showed in their work,” Glendinning said.

“It’s been an inspirational journey to be exposed to how SA photographers view and interpret the story of their own country.”

Glendinning is in SA as a Fulbright scholar. He is visiting for the first time in 20 years and will return to the US.

Staff and students in the photography programme of the visual Art Department who collaborated with Prof Pete Glendinning during his time at the university.

NMU student Lene Swanepoel, 20, planned the photograph of The Herald and Weekend Post vendor John Paul, who has been selling papers on the corner of Strandfontein Road and La Roche Drive in Humewood since 1983.

“For me John Paul is an inspiration – the way he takes a job like selling newspapers and turns it into such joy every morning,” Swanepoel said.

“He’s the perfect subject for me because it’s as if he’s the sun shedding light and energy into all these flowers [his customers] – that’s how he fits the ‘attached to the soil’ theme.

“I had been thinking about the project for a while when my mom mentioned him and I remembered how I always see him with a smile whenever I pass by, and notice how he is friendly to everyone.”

When asked how he had managed to sell the newspaper with a smile every morning for more than 35 years, John Paul said: “I don’t sell papers, I spread joy and the paper sells itself.”

Glendinning is in SA as a Fulbright scholar.

He is visiting for the first time in 20 years and will return to the US in August.

“The number of students participating in the project from any individual university is a direct reflection of the passion of their lecturers in encouraging them to share their voices in regard to SA, and clearly the photography lecturers of NMU conveyed that strongly,” Glendinning said.

NMU contributed 20% of participants in the project, he said.

“Throughout the project, what has stood out the most for me is the pride SA photographers have in their respective cultures.

“Elements of their cultures keep showing up in their work,” Glendinning said.

The photos will be printed by Glendinning when he returns to the US, where he will use a traditional darkroom process to create them by coating archival paper with platinum emulsion.

“SA is the source of 80% of the platinum in the world, so the prints themselves will have been attached to the soil.

“Platinum also is very precious and is representative of the vast riches of the country, and the vast differences between the living conditions of people in different places.”

Glendinning also chose platinum for its potential to stand the test of time.

“It’s important to me that in 2044, the 50th anniversary year, and even 250 years from now, the pictures be available as a means by which people may reflect on the meaning of being attached to the soil, and of being a South African, both in the context of this 25th anniversary year and in the future,” he said.

The works will be exhibited in SA in 2020, once the project is complete.

Photograph of John Paul, Herald and Weekend Post newspaper vendor.

Photograph by Professor Peter Glendinning from Michigan State University in collaboration with John Paul and Lene Swanepoel who is a second year photography student in the Bachelor of Visual Arts Degree course. ©2019


This article appared in The Herald (South Africa) of 23 July 2019 written by Zamandulo Malonde


Contact information
Mr Glenn Meyer
Senior Lecturer / Course Coordinator For Photography Programme
Tel: 27 41 5043141