A Personal Journey into the Soul of South Africa

In the series The Twist of a Knee, CJ Chandler explores his deeply complex relationship with his homeland while simultaneously reconciling with the only place that he can still call home.

In the series The Twist of a Knee, CJ Chandler explores his deeply complex relationship with his homeland while simultaneously reconciling with the only place that he can still call home.

He had always wanted to leave his home.

It was a natural rite of passage, leaving behind the small town where he was born and raised, the parental guidance that had fostered him.

It was only natural in those vivacious years of impetuous youth to pursue bigger adventures in bigger cities, far from the family nest.

“I saw my home as a place of mundanity, boredom—where people were stuck in their routines, lacking ambition,” South African photographer CJ Chandler says of his hometown and that hunger to leave—that restless, at times privileged, attitude, distinctive of the adolescent years.

But then he returned.

For him, home was—and is—Makhanda, more commonly known as Grahamstown, a 70,000-habitant town on the wooded slopes of the Suur Mountains in the Eastern Cape province of South Africa. It was there that Chandler lived until graduating from high school.

And as he set out for broader horizons, his photographic project, The Twist of a Knee, brought him back home.

Awarded a Tierney Fellowship after college, he took the opportunity to focus his lens inward on his hometown, which, like many other cities in South Africa, bears a complicated history of colonialism and integration. He wanted to pay homage to the tradition of South African photographers making monographs on specific towns, and explore the broader significance of photographing a space. Soon enough, though, his project evolved into a reflection deeper than a mere survey of territory.

“I was conflicted,” Chandler says. “I didn’t necessarily see that place as my home but rather the place where I grew up, a place with which I had a deep, uncomfortable connection with unbridled uncertainty.”

The photographing approach didn’t evolve organically. “I came at this project as an outsider,” he admits, only recently coming to terms with his feelings of not belonging. At first, setting foot again in Makhanda, he wasn’t sure what to go after. “I don’t know if there was something I wanted to find. It was more of a journey of chance.”

And this sense of chance played an important role in Chandler’s work.

Keeping as a reference Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, Agee and Evans’ legendary attempt to document impoverished rural areas of the United States and its residents, Chandler felt bound to a similar style of documentary investigation, albeit in his hometown in South Africa.

Among the “number of unpredictable chances” that Agee enumerates in his writing, there was “the twist of a knee,” which Chandler instantly related to an uncomfortable thought—the state of uneasiness he confronted when photographing a place that felt both foreign and “traditionally” familiar.

At the time, his father was also undergoing knee surgery for an old injury, when a bad fall in a hockey game turned his foot backward, his knee twisted.

Here the familiar and unfamiliar converged in Chandler’s experience, leading to an unexpected opening, a private and public exploration, an intimate discovery and understanding.

We find testimony of these “unpredictable chances” in many of Chandler’s photos. In one, we recognize his father’s swollen knee, photographed some days after the surgery. The close-up on the body’s detail isolates the element and extends it in time. The scar from the original injury runs up to the knee, reminding us of both the twisted and the straight qualities in Chandler’s story.

For the majority of the project, Chandler proceeded without a plan, feeling at times drained by the aimless nature of the process. But when his father asked him to come along on a job, his access to a variety of spaces and people suddenly broadened. The project zoomed in on the parental figure, then the family—becoming more personal.

The final result is a photographic investigation that yields multifaceted insights into the soul of South Africa, and the process of discovery on which Chandler quietly but unabashedly embarks.

A picturesque portrait of Sanele Mboto, drum major at St. Andrew’s College, the same high school that Chandler attended, shows the dignity and composure of this young man, wearing the hat of his prestigious position, achieved through sheer will and hard work, despite the limits of his underprivileged background.

In another, a dead Kudu bull is hoisted onto the back of a bakkie, having been shot as it trotted out of the thick veld. It’s a photo about the animal, about hunting—an important part of life in South Africa—but also about the labor involved. It is such continued exploration that allows Chandler to reconcile with his past, the person who he was, and the man he now is, returning, understanding.

“While I still feel a complex relationship with South Africa, I know that this is the only place that I can call home.”

All photos © CJ Chandler, from the series The Twist of a Knee


CJ Chandler is a South African artist and photographer. Through his practice, he aims to investigate the photographic medium while focusing on chance, process, ritual, historical narrative, and the everyday. Find him on PHmuseum and Instagram

Lucia De Stefani is a writer focusing on photography, illustration, culture, and everything teens. She lives in New York. Find her on Twitter and Instagram.


This article is part of the series New Generation, a monthly column written by Lucia De Stefani, focusing on the most interesting emerging talents in our community.

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