Seeing serendipity in a complex career

BY Lesley Stones, February 23 2012
Arnold and some of his photographic works in the Resolution Gallery
Arnold and some of his photographic works in the Resolution Gallery. Picture: MARTIN RHODES

SPEAKING to former diplomat Millard Arnold about his eclectic career is a confusing task. While most tend to choose one, or at most two, career paths, Arnold’s relationship with paid employment has been a varied affair. He’s been a sports journalist, a Wall Street lawyer and a US diplomat in South Africa. He also fought in the Vietnam War, worked for a human rights organisation, advised the government in Botswana, and once ran a construction company. Did we miss anything? Probably, but if Arnold can no longer remember all the elements of his own career, what chance do I stand?

Oh yes, he’s written two books about Steve Biko, and was a part-time actor for a while, but he turned down the offer of a modelling gig. That’s a shame, because this “six-two tall, skinny black guy”, as he puts it, would have looked quite something striding down the catwalk.

Arnold is far more passionate about being behind the camera than in front of it, leading to the hobby – although not another career – of photography. His photographs are now on display in Seeing, his one-man exhibition at the Resolution Gallery in Johannesburg.

When we meet ahead of the opening night, Arnold orders a sparkling water. “I only drink six months of the year,” he says. There’s a story behind that, he says, and it soon turns out that there’s a colourful story behind much of Arnold’s life.

“When I was a diplomat somebody told me – it later proved not to be true – that it takes four days to get alcohol out of your system. In diplomatic work you are at functions every night, so there wasn’t a day I didn’t have alcohol in my system, and I thought that’s not a good thing – but I’ll join you in a glass of Chardonnay tomorrow, because it’s not every day you have a show opening.”

Actually, it’s not that rare for Arnold any more.

He won his first prize for photography in 1973 in an exhibition staged for members of the Association of the Bar of the City of New York. He won another prize in 1978, by which time he’d exhibited in the African Art Gallery in London, at the National Geographic Society, and had work published in the Washington Post. Even so he still gets nervous, because his soul, as well as his shots, is exposed to public opinion.

“My photos say a great deal about who I am, so in effect I’m exposing myself and my form of self-expression to people who will judge what I have to offer. To be truthful, I am petrified by that moment when I am going to be judged.”

We live in an era where photography is a universal language, he believes. “People are visual by nature. They see, which is why my show is called Seeing. Not all music appeals to everyone and not all music is going to resonate with someone, but pictures do. People look at photography and it connects them with a feeling or an emotion or a thought they have had before.”

Arnold speaks eloquently and thoughtfully, and has a large cache of entertaining stories to draw upon.

His brief film appearances began with an odd tale of coincidence that starts with a dinner to honour former US president Bill Clinton. It ends with him making weekly trips to Mozambique to play the doctor attending to “Ali”, the boxer portrayed by actor Will Smith in the film of the same name.

Surely sitting around on a film set waiting for action is frustrating to someone who seems to be permanently busy? Apparently not. “Once you have acted it’s addictive,” he says. “First you get a little tiny piece in a movie. In Ali I had a speaking role but it got cut out. Then you get a role where you speak, then you get a scene, and then you want more and more.”

One regret is that he hasn’t had the opportunity to do more acting. “It’s a fascinating experience. Once the lights go on and everyone focuses on you, it’s serious. There may be 30 people around you and in the midst of all that chaos you have to carry on as if nothing is happening.”

As to why he has had so many careers, he can’t articulate a straightforward reason. Much of it has been serendipitous. “It’s gratuitous. I have often equated my life to Forrest Gump – how strange things happen to you.”

He recounts numerous incidents of an opportunity arising because of where he was or who he met. He makes it sound more haphazard than by design, but as a smart, calculating man he must have given a lot of thought to every move. Opportunities may have been unexpected, but the decisions were no doubt definite.

He quit journalism when too many of his stories were rewritten. Not because they were bad, but because he quoted black athletes in their own streetwise vernacular, which was not good Washington Post style.

Instead, he enrolled at law school, and law has remained a strong thread throughout his life. He only recently retired as the legal counsel for Murray & Roberts.

His love of and fascination for South Africa was compounded by marrying a local woman. But it started long before that, when his brother gave him a copy of House of Bondage, by photojournalist Ernest Cole.

“It was about the situation in South Africa and it was the first I’d ever heard about what was going on. I thought the issues of racial segregation were American. I looked at the book and had no idea what a profound impact it was going to have on my life.”

The book caused him to focus on international law, and he organised the first global legal conference on the international legal implications of apartheid. One of the invited lawyers later became the US ambassador to the Human Rights Commission, and appointed Arnold as the deputy assistant secretary for human rights and humanitarian affairs.

Arnold doesn’t believe his illustrious CV can take the credit for him being invited to exhibit his photographs, although it has oiled a few doors.

“It’s this Forrest Gump thing again, with things happening in bizarre ways. I’m certainly not a great photographer. But I can say I have won prizes and I can say I have been published. It’s my great passion.”

He sees photography as a way of sharing the often mundane moments in our lives that we sometimes fail to appreciate.

Seeing includes pictures of Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu, a man photographed by millions. “What makes me think the pictures I have to display are special enough to make people want to see them, much less buy them?” Arnold asks, and then answers himself. “If you have done something as long as I have as a photographer and you think what you have done is good, there’s a desire to see how others react to it and see others appreciate it.”

A photograph is incomplete until it is seen by a viewer who judges whether it has captured something special to deserve the arrested attention triggered by a great photograph, he says. Arnold hopes his images have that magnetism that stops people in their stride.

Seeing runs until March 7 at Resolution Gallery, Chester Court, 142 Jan Smuts Avenue, Parkwood, (011) 880-4054