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With our On That Day series, photographers are invited to take us behind the scenes of one of their photographs.  Today, photographer Benjamin Hoffman relates his trip to Robben Island, South Africa.

"Before I moved to Cape Town for a few months, followed by frequent return trips, I had gone there for the first time to get the lay of the land, a first immersion. This photo was taken in the wake of a moment, it shows something that had just come to an end. 

On that day, I had visited Robben Island, or the island of seals in Afrikaans, a few kilometers off of Cape Town. During apartheid, the island was home to an infamous prison deemed unbreakable. Its prisoners included some of the future great political figures of the nation: Walter Sisulu, Govan Mbeki, and of course Nelson Mandela, who was an inmate there for the first eighteen years of his twenty-seven-year-long prison term. It was there that the leaders of the struggle against racial oppression set down the theoretical foundations of their political thought and of the relations that would become a feature of post-apartheid South Africa. It was also where Mandela built his public persona and his authority that went on change history.

I remember taking hardly any images at all of the prison. I had the nagging feeling of walking around a place of suffering turned into a tourist attraction. Visitors crowded into cells where a prisoner would have had barely enough room to lie down. 


Farewell Cape Town © Benjamin Hoffman

On the boat taking us back to the mainland, there was a couple sitting a few meters from me. They had visited the prison with the group. The two were browsing the pictures they took in Mandela’s cell. It takes almost an hour to cross over, with a relatively calm ocean. They remained silent, speechless the whole time. 

I watched them for a while before getting closer. Everything hung in the balance in this image yet to be taken: the pitching of the boat as it moved away from the island and the bobbing horizon, the attitude of the lovers, and my cautious presence at their side.

As I got closer, I realized their attention was elsewhere: in their minds they were still on the island. I looked at them for some time before taking the first shot. The young woman’s head was resting on her lover’s shoulder. She stared into the distance, while he sat slightly hunched over and motionless. Yet there was a tenderness between them.

Their attitude betrayed a palpable tension, an echo of destinies torn apart by the prison. I kept getting closer, less than a meter away, until I finally released the shutter. Two quick photos, then a third. They didn’t even blink. I would have liked to penetrate their thoughts, to go further in my shamelessness, but I respectfully backed away and returned to my seat. 

They never exchanged a word during the passage that took us away from the island. She kept her eyes fixed on the curve of the ocean.

I watched them until we docked. On that day, as I was taking this picture, I glimpsed the immutable weight of Robben Island on the history of this country. It was much more palpable than within the walls of the prison no one has ever escaped."

By Benjamin Hoffman

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