Jansen van Staden

2017 - 2020

South Africa; Kenya; Uganda

After the death of my father in 2011, I discovered a letter, written to his psychotherapist, about his time in the Border War. He dedicated his life to sustainable projects and education in African countries, and what I read in the letter took me by surprise. It was not the man I knew. The letter detailed horrific incidents he took part in, as a 17 year old boy. One paragraph from the letter, bothered me the most:

"...she stated that I joined and did what I did, because I wanted to kill people. It is truer than true"

Questions started harassing me. How was he raised? What influence did the apartheid regime and it's ideologies, have on the family? What circumstances could lead a 17 year old boy, to have such murderous intent? Where does all this violence stem from?

Through this journey, I discovered just how much my life has been influenced by my fathers' trauma. How my fathers' siblings are still affected by the ideologies of their father. Generations of trauma, ignorantly passed on, even through our genes. My generation, is the first of South Africans not to experience war. We have the opportunity and the responsibility to observe all this within ourselves. To ensure that it does not continue.

After the war, my father turned against everything the knew. He left his father, and family. He craved resolve. He wanted so badly, to be free from his shadows. But the consequences of his actions haunted him his whole life. He tried his best to keep it from his children, and his wives. Ultimately, it slipped though the cracks.

Microlight is a collection of anecdotes. And through telling these stories, I hope to open this discussion. I yearn for healing. I want to understand, so that I can accept, and move on.

- Jansen van Staden

Microlight is merely a photographic essay. Despite the fact that all the images are carefully carved and display in order to unveil, in a very sensitive and subtle progression within the story, one is struck by the story behind the images and the manner into which Jansen van Staden has managed to transform a very personal quest into a book that can be understood by anyone.

I see his project as a family and above all a personal psychoanalysis. It is a process that combines memories and investigation. There are always things we don’t know about our parents, about our families that, at times, should remain unknown. But despite all odds, Van Staden has decided to open Pandora, because, there is always a moment when knowing is better than pretending not to know. It is as if Telemaque would have embarked on the journey of trying to fill the gaps in his knowledge of his father's life. Ulysses had one a lot of things during his long Odysseus. Things that a son should not necessarily be informed of but that constitute, at the same time, his way out; the missing key for his own development.

Van Staden has carefully gathered the elements of a puzzle that will never be completed. Those elements appear before our eyes as ruins, remains upon which one should try to rebuild a story of his own. With the help of fragile micro lights that could vanish at any moment. In the end, the journey was worth the pain. The story stands on its own, aesthetically and, should I say, philosophically. It shows that truth does not necessarily rimes with reconciliation. Maybe a posthumous forgiveness.

- Simon Njami

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  • Pa, Lake Albert, Uganda, 2010

    Pa’s work involved training management on mega projects.
    Arguably, his most successful endeavour was his involvement
    in the construction and operation of an aluminium smelter
    called Mozal, in Maputo, Mozambique. These projects all
    followed a sustainable development strategy Pa formulated,
    which was later acquired by the World Bank. It involved the
    training of people local to the project, to construct, sustain and
    operate the project, empowering the local economy with their
    own skills and resources.
    In 2010, Pa was called upon by Henry Kajura, the then
    deputy prime minister of Uganda. Pa was to help facilitate the
    negotiations between the Ugandan government and a major oil
    company following the discovery of a large onshore oil reserve
    in Uganda’s Lake Albert region. Pa asked me to accompany
    him and to document the trip. We drove from his office in
    Northern Mozambique to Uganda and back in 21 days.

  • Pa’s ashes, 2018

  • The story of Pa’s chickens, the neighbour’s dog and Oupa’s gun

    Pa raised chickens in his teens. He was very proud of them. Upon
    returning home one day, Pa found all his chickens had been killed.
    The neighbour’s dog had gotten into the coop and mauled them. In retaliation, Pa walked into the house and opened Oupa Peet’s gun closet. Armed with a .22-calibre rifle and some bullets, he scaled the wall and found a spot on the roof. He trained his sight on the dog door and waited patiently for the dog to emerge. An eye for an eye. Apparently Pa got the hiding of his life. The gun now lives in Oom Stef’s gun closet, after Pa refused it as his inheritance.

  • Pa in his Voortrekker uniform.
    Photographer unknown.
    White River, circa 1973

  • The reconstructed microlight,
    as it still stands in the shed, about a kilometre from the crash site, Ukunda, Kenya, 2017

  • Doppies, 2018

    An installation at the South African Armour Museum in
    Bloemfontein, detailing how soldiers used empty bullet
    casings and a small piece of cloth to protect their ears
    from the deafening sounds of explosions and gunfire.

  • The story of Pa, the PKM and Corné’s lounge, Centurion, 2018

    The PKM, a Russian-made machine gun, was Pa’s favourite gun. The South African military did not issue this weapon so I can only imagine how he got his hands on one. An incident involving a PKM haunted Pa throughout his life. Pa and his team were searching a village for guerrillas associated with the South West Africa People’s Organisation. Gunfire erupted. A woman started screaming and ran out of her home carrying a mortally wounded child in her arms. Pa knew it was his bullets that had killed the woman’s child. Pa later told me that he sometimes found it unbearable to hold us in his arms when we were toddlers. I wanted to photograph a PKM in a lounge or a kitchen, to somehow portray how the trauma from the South African Border War is still present in the homes of South Africans. I found one at an armoury that deactivates and rents out guns and other
    weapons to the film industry. I arrived thinking I could take it with me, and have some time to photograph it. However, the gun had not been deactivated and required the additional expense of an expert. I asked the owner if I could photograph the gun under
    the supervision of a staff member, perhaps someone who lived nearby. ‘Yes,’ he said. ‘Corné lives upstairs.’

  • Pa, 17, in his browns, combing
    his hair before departing for
    service, White River, 1978

  • Wounded metal, Bloemfontein, 2018
    A thick piece of solid metal
    outside the South African
    Armour Museum illustrating
    the damage that can be
    caused by bullets

  • The M26 hand grenade
    Originally designed by the Americans, the M26 was adopted by aerospace and
    defence manufacturer Denel, and put into service during the South African Border War. The fuse burns for four seconds before the grenade explodes. It is
    very likely the same kind of grenade that exploded in Pa’s interrogation incident.
    In order to somehow convey the secondary trauma and loss felt by the family, I asked them each to pose for a hand-held four-second exposure.

  • Tannie Lisa and the
    four seconds

  • Pa in a village meeting,
    Hoima, Uganda, 2010

  • Pa, third from the right,
    with his R1 rifle, and fellow conscripts, during basic
    training, 1978

  • Ouma Kotie reading from the Bible before bed, Oudtshoorn, 2018

  • The story of the assegai and the Voortrekker dress
    Both the assegai and the Voortrekker dress have been handed down through generations. When he was nine, our great-grandfather loaded
    guns for his father during attacks on the family home by the Matebele, now referred to as Northern Ndebele people. It was during one of these confrontations that the assegai was acquired. The Voortrekker
    attire had been worn by our great grandmother.

  • Tannie Thea, after I had asked
    her to pose for a portrait,
    Newcastle, 2018

  • Pa. 2011

  • Tannie Susa, at the church’s
    mess hall, Lydenburg, 2018

  • Oom Joggie in the Outeniqua
    Mountains outside George,

  • Pa and I, by Ma, 1989

  • The story of Pa’s camera, the crash, and the surviving sensor
    A few months after I purchased a second-hand Nikon D3, I realised
    that the sensor was scratched. I knew I wanted to photograph what was left of Pa’s D3. So I had both cameras taken apart. Pa’s newer shutter and his spotless sensor were reassembled into my camera. I then proceeded to capture Pa’s D3 on its own sensor.

  • Microlight Dummy Book
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