Clint Strydom captures tormented history of prison in new exhibition

14 May 2017 - 02:00 By Tymon Smith
Clint Strydom in front of one of the cells that housed black inmates in No4 Prison.
Clint Strydom in front of one of the cells that housed black inmates in No4 Prison.
Image: SIMPHIWE NKWALI

When Port Shepstone photographer Clint Strydom started spending time at the No4 Prison at the Old Fort on Constitution Hill about six months ago, somebody suggested that he spend a night in one of the cells.

Over the 90 years of its operation, from its establishment by the Paul Kruger government in 1893 to its eventual closure in 1983, thousands of prisoners passed through the prison complex on the hill above Empire Road, Johannesburg, from Mahatma Gandhi to members of the Ossewabrandwag, and later anti-apartheid stalwarts such as Nelson Mandela, Oliver Tambo, Lilian Ngoyi, Joe and Ruth Slovo and Barbara Hogan.

The No4 section was built for black male prisoners and was notorious for some of the worst atrocities, deaths by torture and disease in the Old Fort's history.

"This place gets locked up at night and there's no one here," says Strydom.

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"The only security guy stands outside in the front - they can't find a guy to stand inside here at night - they say you can hear the footsteps of ghosts walking past, you can hear the screams and shouting. They say that people have tried to sleep here overnight and no one's ever made it."

Intrigued by the history of the space and a feeling that "there are still a lot of spirits hanging around who are still upset about what happened here", Strydom approached Constitution Hill Exhibitions and archive co-ordinator Gaisang Sathekge to produce a series of photographs, which he hopes will "hint at the anxiety and terror or frustration".

With a Hasselblad camera, and by devoting his spare time to "getting used to the space and gradually seeing the not-so-obvious aspects", Strydom has produced a series of close to 30 photographs for an exhibition titled "Hidden Shadows and Silent Voices of Prison No4", which will be shown in several of the cells.

Using what he calls "old-school darkroom techniques and C-type prints", Strydom's pictures show aspects of the architecture and objects from the museum to try and convey his sense of what prisoners might have felt as they were kept there, far from their families, in squalid conditions and under constant threat of torture and maltreatment.

Strydom says that while growing up during apartheid on the KwaZulu-Natal South Coast, he "didn't really know what was going on".

"We still haven't been told all these stories and you have to actually go and find them yourself if you want to know. When you hear the stories of what people went through here, I don't know how easily I'd forgive and forget."

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He also went underneath the prison where he took photos of the long tunnel leading from the cells to the courts.

"I went down there and it's quite scary ... there's a horrible wooden door that you have to open and low ceilings and then these medieval chambers with chains - like little torture chambers."

Strydom's work includes shoots for Aston Martin and the 2010 Fifa World Cup and he has had his photographs shown in the US, Europe and elsewhere.

He raises funds for his local community in collaboration with Thanda, a non-profit that helps Aids orphans.

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He hopes that the prison photos will catch the attention of those visiting the complex and prompt them to stop and think what incarceration must have been like for the prisoners held in the building.

It may no longer be a prison, and while the Constitutional Court was intentionally built here as a beacon of hope, for Strydom and many others, "the silent voices hidden in the shadows remain as custodians of the memories, ensuring that we never forget and never go back".

"Hidden Shadows and Silent Voices of Prison No4" is at Constitution Hill from Thursday until August 27