Photographer David Bruce, founder of the Ju/’hoansi Development Fund, left a life in bustling London, a career in creative advertising, and instead made a pilgrimage: a quarter of a century with the indigenous bushmen of Namibia - learning from them, and becoming deeply inspired by their traditions.
This sui generis indigenous tribe of Namibia call Bruce “The man who hears” - for although he wears a bone-anchor hearing-aid, David is an artist who truly listens. With the beauty of his lifelong photographic project - ‘Ju/’hoansi Bushmen of the Kalahari - before us, we spoke to David Bruce about what it was like to be behind the camera for 26 years, and what his and the ‘Ju/’hoan futures hold.
GM When did you first pick up a camera??
David I picked up my first camera when I was at high school. It was a 35mm Nikon FE. I shot all my pictures with Kodak Ektachrome transparency film and sold my first photograph to an equestrian show jumper for 30 rands.
GM Where did you grow up?
David I grew up in Durban, South Africa; as a young boy I had hearing difficulties and had my first ear operation at six years old. I was never going to be a good academic. We were a sporting family, my mother was a ballet dancer, my sister a windsurfer, and my father passionate about yachting and motor sports. In fact, I did race motorcycles. When I put on a helmet, I was in my own world nothing mattered, just taking on the next corner.
GM How did you feel about the world?
David I was aware of the injustices in South Africa and was forced to do two years of compulsory military service. Two weeks after I cleared out of the army, I left South Africa for England. My first job was as part of a three-man crew, delivering a yacht from England to America. The expanse space and beauty of the Atlantic captivated me.
GM You studied in London, is that right?
David I studied photography in London at the London College of Printing. Coming from South Africa, it opened up a whole photographic world to me. London was a wash of great photographers, museums and exhibitions. My camera of choice was a 4x5 inch Linhof Technika, influenced by John Claridge. He was one of those photographers whose work spanned across several genres, as was Albert Watson, whose work I discovered much later.
GM How did studying in London inspire your field of work, and projects?
David I practically lived in the dark room and amassed a collection of 20th Century photographic books, of which my favorites were and still are Irving Penn’s Platinum Prints and Stephen Shore. It was during this period that my hearing dropped to below speech level and I wore a very crude alice band with a hearing-aid on one side and a pick up on the other side, powered by a battery pack. This was the beginning of Bone Anchor hearing.
GM What type of photography were you doing before you started your work in Namibia?
David The only work I had done was at college. I wanted to be a photographic assistant to a good photographer but I could barely answer a telephone now that my hearing was as bad as it was. Instead I got a job as a motorcycle courier to earn some money, in between jobs I would deliver my photographic portfolio to various advertising agencies. In six months the only job I got was taking a picture of a large road sign, for which I was paid the sum of £500.
GMDavid, you have a striking and beautiful relationship to the ‘Ju/’hoansi bushmen. How did you first begin your relationship with the Ju/’hoan people and build trust?
David Spending long periods with the Ju/’hoan people made it easier. I based myself in a remote village called //Auru, which is still my base when in the region. My adoptive parents were ≠Oma Kxao and his wife /Am //Ao. They gave me a new name, calling me Bagon/ui, which means ‘he can hear’. Their reaction was not one of sadness. I quickly became part of ≠Oma’s immediate family and I shared everything with them.
GMHow did you communicate with them?
David The Ju/’hoan people are extremely humorous. Through my mishaps - like a flying mobile studio, taking portraits and encounters with elephants - it didn’t take long to become part of the village fabric of life. The younger generation and most men speak some Afrikaans. Mine is not the best but it’s functional. I call it Bushmen Afrikaans, because I don’t speak it to anybody else. I know quite a lot of Ju/’hoan words, and more recently I’ve been putting sentences together.
GMDescribe their existence briefly?
David The Ju/’hoan sleep outside and use their huts to store things and when it rains. There’s a natural rhythm to outdoor village life, living on the ground. It’s a physical existence.
GM What would you say your working/creative life was like before your trip to Namibia?
David It was non-existence; I had no commercial experience to speak of. Six months after I left college I travelled to Namibia. It wasn’t my intention to stay as long as I did. I thought I could put together a collection of photographic works that would get my career on the right track. Twenty-six years later I am still on the same subject.
GM Describe the region of the Kalahari in which you stayed.
David The Nyae Nyae Conservancy lies in the western Kalahari basin. It’s not a desert, as many perceive, it supports more animals and plants than a true desert such as the Namib Desert. It’s extreme, which takes some getting used to. Summer temperatures climb to 40 degrees Celsius and higher, and in the winter falls below zero.
GM Which do you prefer?
David Personally I love the summer months, with dramatic thunderstorms and prolific lightning. Nothing makes you feel more alive than a Kalahari storm. The clouds build up into soaring giants, the wind churns up the dust and thunder rolls in. Bolts of lightning begin to flash and streak across the skies accompanied by rolling thunder and driving rain. Vast areas and tracks are impassable. Then again, every season has its benefits. The enormity and beauty of the Kalahari is majestic. Coupled with the oldest culture in the world, is something to behold, I never tire of the Kalahari and its people.
GM What sort of wildlife can you encounter in the Nyae Nyae Conservancy?
DavidNyae Nyae is a bird lover’s paradise. After the rains, more than 10,000 water birds of over 80 species gather, including flamingos, wattled cranes and breeding slaty egrets. Approximately 2,000 elephants seasonally migrate through the region, with lions to the north, leopards, buffalo, roan antelope, and all common game. The highest numbers of wild dogs in Namibia are found in the Nyae Nyae Conservancy too. Both the Nyae Nyae Conservancy and Khaudum National Park to the north form part of the Kavango Zambezi Transfrontier Conservation Area, the largest wilderness area in the world, covering five countries
GM What are some challenges they have as a society?
David Prior to the early 1940s the Ju/’hoan roamed a region of approximately 90,000 sq. km. Much of their ancestral land has been taken away, and they are now left with 9,000. Hunting and gathering currently makes up approximately 40% of their subsistence income and it is not possible for the Ju/’hoan to live entirely off their land. Pensions, the harvesting of Devil’s Claw, casual labour, crafts and a trickle of tourism make up the rest. The abuse of alcohol in the government settlement of Tsumkwe, and lack of appropriate education are challenges facing their society.
GM How did your 26 years with the ‘Ju/’hoansi change how you worked with your camera?
David My process was generally not to carry a camera but to observe and interact with the subject. It is unrealistic to run around the bush with a medium or large format camera, and it’s not the precise moment that I am after, but a more contemplative approach. Seeing an image in the field creates opportunities to work with it back at the village.
If a hunter shot an arrow into an animal, the animal would be tracked, we would then collect my Land Rover and set up camp for the night. This made for an intermittent experience with hunters butchering an animal and a mobile studio a few meters away. Taking the subject out of its environment with a simple backdrop using daylight, allows the viewer to focus solely on the subject. A profile portrait of a hunter’s head with a severed Kudu head on his shoulder, or an elegant portrait of a hand covered in blood.