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A life ended too soon

When I was editor of the Cape Times and decided in 1998 to launch a project called “One City, Many Cultures”, I knew that I needed the best people to work on it.

It was going to be an editorial project for which I was going to hire some of the best writers and photographers in the country. I therefore needed the best possible coordinators. I found them in Jennifer Crocker, who was then an assistant editor at the Cape Times (who would coordinate the writers) and Garth Stead, who would coordinate the photographers.

My choice of Garth as the photographic coordinator raised some eyebrows because he was still, at about 26 or 27, considered to be very young to take responsibility for such a huge project.

But Garth turned out to be an inspired choice and the photography in “One City, Many Cultures” was among the best I have seen published in any South African newspaper, even up until today.

“One City, Many Cultures” was aimed at creating a more tolerant, more diverse and integrated city of Cape Town, at a time when intolerance was rife in the city. Every day, we delved into the different religions and cultures that existed in the city, explaining how they related to the important things in life, such as birth, growing up, coming of age, weddings, growing old and death and remembrance.

Garth did the job with professionalism but also great enthusiasm. But he also brought another dimension to this job. He included a developmental angle, which was his passion. He got established professional photographers to work with up-and-coming young photographers and initiated an award for both professionals and younger photographers.

One of the young photographers was a security guard at Newspaper House, the building which housed the Cape Times, who later became a reporter/photographer at the Cape Argus.

Garth left the Cape Times at about the same time as me but nor for the same reasons and over the years, we kept in touch. I was very pleased when, after he had freelanced for a few years, he landed the job as pictures editor at Die Burger. At the time of his death, he was Cape Town picture editor of Foto24.

Over the years, he won several awards, including the prestigious Fuji Press Award, and remained committed to developing young photographers, especially from historically disadvantaged areas.

I saw him for the last time last week when we both attended a function of the Cape Town Community Housing Company, on whose board I serve. I was the programme director at the function and Garth was taking pictures for Die Burger.

I remember thinking that he was very reserved and not his bubbly self. Whenever I had seen him in the past, he was always bouncy and full of life. This time, he seemed down and not himself.

A week later, on Monday 19 October, ironically as we celebrated Media Freedom Day in South Africa, I got the news that Garth had passed away. Indications are that he took his own life.

I, like many others, was completely shattered. I could not believe how this young man, aged 37, the father of two young boys, aged 10 and five, could have decided to end his life.

I refuse to speculate on why he did what he did but I know that it was not an easy decision. I know that he loved his boys more than anything else in the world and would not have wanted them to grow up without a father.

All I know is that Garth’s life was one that ended too soon. Rest in peace, my friend.

Author

  • Ryland Fisher is former editor of the Cape Times and author of the book Race. This is his second book, following on Making the Media Work for You, which was published in 2002. He is executive chairperson of the Cape Town Festival, which he initiated while editor of the Cape Times in 1999 as part of the One City Many Cultures project. He received an international media award for this project in New York in October 2006. His personal motto is "bringing people together", which was the theme of One City Many Cultures. It remains the theme of the Cape Town Festival and is the theme of Race. Ryland has worked in and with government, in the media for more than 25 years, in the corporate sector, in NGOs and in academia. Ultimately, however, he describes himself as "just a souped-up writer".

7 Comments

  1. CoCo CoCo 20 October 2009

    It puzzels me reading the articles about him and a few others that are said to have taken their lives, that people refer to them as happy, bubbly people. Surely if that was the case then they wouldnt have taken their own lives. I have had a suicide in my family and yes it was the same thign. Happy and bubbly but you could see the struggle with depression in her eyes. Until she finally hanged herself. What we felt more than anything was anger. At our selves and at her for leaving us with only memories. Let’s refrain from using those terms when it comes to suicides and let’s call it as it is. My sympathy to Garth’s children! They dont deserve to have to go through this for the rest of their lives.

  2. Carol Campbell Carol Campbell 20 October 2009

    Hi Ryland,

    That was a beautiful tribute. He was such a sensitive soul – it can only be deep and, more than likely, untreated depression that caused him to get to the point of taking his own life.
    Over the years I have grappled with mental health issues in my immediate family and it doesn’t ever make sense. I feel for his boys – exactly the same ages as my two.
    Hope you are well.
    Fond regards
    Carol Campbell

  3. David J Smith David J Smith 21 October 2009

    Shit, what horrible news. Garth was one of the good dudes. We went to school together. And even though he was a few years ahead of me and I didn’t know him that well, I do remember him well. In fact, I remember him better than I remember most of the boys who were in my actual class. He was a smart dude. Whenever you were around him, you felt that he knew stuff you didn’t.

    I wish I had the privilege of knowing him better, so I coulda learnt more of that stuff from him.

  4. Stanford Flanagan Stanford Flanagan 21 October 2009

    It is unfortunate that a person so gifted would see suicide as a way out of whatever he was struggling with. All of us, and the powers that be., who are left behind are allowing suicides and family murders to continue without doing ABSOLUTELY NOTHING about it. What is it that makes individuals think it is an easy way out. Loved ones left behind have to pick up the pieces, and sometimes this just leads to more suicides. If there is anyone out there contemplating suicide, or consider taking the lives of their partners and children, think again it does not solve the problem, it actually worsens it. I implore you to face the problem head on. Speak to a friend a colleague, or a family member, but deal with it. Our world is the worse, for losing people who could have added value to society. May God protect his sons, and wife,or partner.

  5. Shelagh Shelagh 22 October 2009

    I suspect that suicide is not a choice. It is a belief (a knowing?) that there is no choice; a decision made in such terrible darkness that one who’d never been there would not be able to comprehend. This is the depth into which depression can take you. Yes, my heart goes out to his children and family – what a shocking loss and burden – but it also goes out to anyone living in that secret hell.

  6. Sunney Sunney 23 October 2009

    I have not known Garth. I did have the pleasure of meeting his boys. We have been so touched by the passing or the way in which Garth chose to leave…
    I have had an enormous amount of feeling with him since the news came, his family and still do..And Shelagh, I agree with you so wholeheartedly…Thank you for not judging and describing the situation so eloquently

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