PDN Photo of the Day

A Lifelong Obsession with Finding Shelter in the Desert

Cry Sadness into the Coming Rain is photographer Margaret Courtney-Clarke’s visual homage to Namibia, the country in which she was born. The images in the book highlight the stark circumstances everyday Namibians face. After living abroad for decades, Courtney-Clarke returned to Namibia in 2009 and found a country struggling with rapid development, the migration of people from rural areas to urban ones, and the desecration of the Namib Desert. According to Courtney-Clarke, 85% of Namibia is under mining concession by international mining companies. Their presence, plus a four-year drought, has been a source of rapid transition within the country. Courtney-Clarke’s photographs, states the press release, “evidence her passionate concern for human enterprise and failure, and for an inhospitable environment infused with remnants of apartheid as well as hope.”

In an email exchange, Courtney-Clarke told PDN the following about Cry Sadness into the Coming Rain, recently published by Steidl with a foreword by South African photographer David Goldblatt. The conversation has been edited for clarity.

My hope is to take viewers to familiar places, then ask them to question their perception of those places within the “New Namibia,” a vast country that is being sold off to mining magnets and unsustainable tourism. For this reason I have turned my lens on the aspirations of the poor, their quest for shelter and water in a ravaged land, and on the environment in crisis.

Twenty-seven years after independence, the struggle for a majority of Namibians is to subsist and often to merely exist, on the very land they fought for. Twenty-five percent of Namibia’s 2 million people live a basic life in informal settlements. They live inside rudimentary shelters and in shacks, without the security of ownership. In a supposedly wealthy country, thousands of Namibian families live on patches of desolate and overgrazed land where survival depends on a drop of rain that may or may not fall.

My lifelong obsession with the notion of shelter comes after hitchhiking for 15 years across the African continent in search of homes, shelters, house decoration, and building techniques using local materials that culminated in a trilogy of books.

Some of the lighter moments while shooting “Cry Sadness into the Coming Rain” were spent around the fireplace at the home of Gottlieb ǁGaseb aka Die vioolman, “the violinist,” beneath the Brandburg Mountains. With his keyboard wired to my car battery, broken guitars strung together, tin buckets turned upside down and using seed pods to keep the rhythm, we were joined by the small community on the farm, sending music into the cool nights.

The most harrowing experience in these past few years was being chased in the dry Ugab river bed by a herd of wild elephants!

In “Cry Sadness into the Coming Rain” I explore the volatile and unstable space around me, the informal survival and shelter from the sun and sand amidst ecological disaster and the contradictions in the landscape where cultures and identity are at odds with neocolonialism.

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  1. As always, Margarette’s photography has documented a mostly unseen world (to the vast majority of us who are privileged to have lived our lives in relative safety, stability and comfort), and poignantly, brought that world into focus. Margarette has been an inspiration to me: her compassion, perserverence and sheer courage are and endless source of wonder.

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