“What are you looking at?”

It’s a question I get asked a lot, especially when I travel and take pictures with my camera. Often, when I take several pictures of something, someone else will come along and snap a shot as well, (just because I am). My answer is sometimes I’m not sure what I am looking at! Sometimes I’m just drawn to photograph a subject and my plan is to shoot and figure out why I did later. At the District Six Museum, a museum that commemorates the lives of the people who used to live in District Six, Joe Schaffers was educating me on Cape Town history. I was drawn to photograph a stack of street signs while Joe explained how they’d been removed when apartheid forced everyone in the neighborhood out, abruptly displaced its people, and then razed their homes and businesses. A year later and still thinking about the images I brought back, I looked up the the street names.  

From the top down: RICHMOND = splendid hill. TYLER = a worker working with roof tiles/housebuilder (old). PRIMROSE = i.e. “Led down the Primrose Path”/pursuit of pleasure often with disastrous consequences. BALMORAL = castle in Scotland, favorite for the Royal Family/brimless hat/heavy laced boot. EATON = English Colonist/colonialism in America/riverside village. VIRGINIA = virgin Queen, pure chaste/”Verginius”/associated with Latin, Virgo, maid/LegendWhen Appius Claudius began to lust after Verginia, her father Verginius, a respected centurion, killed his daughter to preserve her chastity. MUIR = moor (Scottish)/open grassland with poor soil/moor a boat-tie or chain so it will not get away.

The names of two streets really caught my eye, RICHMOND, the capitol of VIRGINIA in the United States. Richmond is a city about an hour from where I live in Virginia. Visiting the District Six Museum in Cape Town, South Africa was seeing these signs a coincidence? In places foreign to me I find it natural to search for connections to my home. In breathtaking, beautiful South Africa, so far from my country it was easy to forget the colonizers of the countries were the same.

The street TYLER, I discovered, is a name having to do with building things, yet District Six was torn down. The PRIMROSE Street sign meaning sent chills up my spine with its’ connotations – a prophetic postmortem. BALMORAL, a royal reference, a hat – hmm, a heavy boot. I let that sink in. EATON Street represents colonialism, associated with riverside villages; associated with another era, often romanticized. VIRGINIA, my state, I’ve planted roots there, it’s proudly one of the first of America’s thirteen colonies and the colonists defeated the British in the last battle at Yorktown. The battlefields are the outskirts of my neighborhood. Queens, virgin maids, killing daughters to preserve chastity. Wow, nothing I think of when I think of Virginia, yet the origin of its’ name. MUIR Street, open grassland – poor soil – yet the fact was District Six prior to 1966 had been thriving – so vibrant a community! District Six really is now empty grassland, moored and tied up next to the Atlantic sea – water that connects Cape Town to Yorktown.

These things, a part of what I was looking at a long way from my home and peering through my own lens. I was drawn in to the story these street signs silently symbolize.

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