Samuel Napper’s series, The Wait, documents the psychologically difficult period emergency workers face before a disaster. It stunningly captures the half-reflective, half-pensive feelings that these subjects experience while on call. The emotion holds clear in their eyes, an adrenaline-inducing mixture of anticipation and sadness. PTSD is predominantly associated with war veterans. However, emergency workers experience similarly harrowing scenes, but their emotional sacrifice is often neglected. Samuel’s project looks to document how these moments in-between can feed into the subjects psyche, affecting them in vastly different ways. The series displays a serene stillness — the calmness before the storm.
Below we speak to Samuel Napper to hear more about the project
It’s Nice That: Why did you choose South Africa as the backdrop for this project?
Samuel Napper: I chose to go to Cape Town as their emergency services are operating within an immensely challenging environment of large socioeconomic divides, expanding metropolitan areas, water shortages, varied and expanding tourism set on a backdrop of mountainous terrain and the ocean. All of which is done under tight budgets and public scrutiny.
INT: Could you tell us more about The Wait; why did you focus on this particular moment of time?
SN: The idea for The Wait came about while passing by a London fire station. The firemen were sat in one of their vehicle bays on duty. It occurred to me that at face value, it looks like they have a relatively easy life. However, on further analysis, the state of being “on call” may be a semi-state of relaxation and anxiety in equal amounts, which I found intriguing and wanted to know if that was true.
INT: How did you develop a relationship between you and your sitters; did they have any memorable stories to tell?
SN: In reality, coming into a subject’s space and having a genuine interest in who they are and what they do, is the biggest hurdle. People can sniff out the disingenuousness very quickly, so making sure my attitude and approach were correct before even buying flights was the most important, this meant questioning my reasons for photographing each subject and the narrative behind the series.
Some of the subjects I photographed shared a few memorable experiences; from a lifeboat captain retrieving a woman who had been stabbed over 70 times and buried under sea covered rocks, to the Cape Town Metro Disaster Response crewman experiencing harrowing flashbacks every time he flew over a specific point of the city. The fireman who turned to sewing as a way of decompressing after particularly distressing call outs or a shark spotter who saved a British tourist’s life by running down from his spotting post and putting a tourniquet on the man’s half bitten off leg with his belt.
INT: How did the project emotionally affect you?
SN: On one of the days, I visited the NSRI (South African equivalent of the UK’s RNLI) Station 16. The entire station welcomed me with open arms and took me out for a bone breaking trip along the hardcore coastline in their rescue boat. I found out from speaking to the station commander that Station 16 was the first non-white rescue centre which was granted permission to open during the Apartheid-era government. They were only allowed to operate if they didn’t have any white volunteers, and bizarrely, weren’t even allowed to save any white people. They weren’t allowed to build a station or get any funds to buy a lifeboat, so the volunteers bought everything themselves. It’s incredible all the stories of humanity that come out during times of oppression and strife.
Hearing their stories hit me harder and made me appreciate these public servicemen more than I anticipated. We often call emergency workers “superheroes” but, in reality, this is just a cop-out to avoid acknowledging that they are also humans and they do pay a mental and physical price for what they see and do. Next time you hear of a gruesome road accident, collapsed building or gallant sea rescue, please spare a moment for the emergency workers. They’re just like us, only better.