“Courage in the face of overwhelming odds”: Star Wars Families in South Africa

The last few years have been testing for Lillo and Robyn-Lee Bergh and their nine-year old son, Eli. Following an extended period of strain on both sides of the extended family, their marriage ended up isolating them even further. “When my husband and I got married, he was disowned by his family for choosing a dark-skinned girl,” Robyn says. “I fell pregnant very quickly, at a time when life fell apart for us. In addition to that, my family also turned their back on us. We were both young, scared, and without any support.”.

It was also around this time that Robyn, a self-proclaimed “Star Wars geek”, introduced Lillo to the Force for the first time. For Robyn, the films had played a major part in her childhood; raised by a single mum, her Star Wars video tapes were a prized possession. “Star Wars babysat me,” Robyn says, “[My mum] had to go work, and wake up early in the morning, while I was still asleep. She drove to Jo-burg, came back, and I was already in bed. So I spent a lot of time by myself — and that’s how I started watching Star Wars. I escaped into this imaginary world where everything was okay, because I grew up poor.”

This however, had not been Lillo’s experience. “He hadn’t even heard of Star Wars!” Robyn exclaims. “I said, ‘We need to fix this.’” Lillo agrees. “I was not into Star Wars at all,” he remembers, “but I fell in love with Darth Vader, and the whole progression from good to evil — from the light side to the dark side — and I’ve been hooked ever since.” It is a passion that has since been passed on to their son — Eli is planning to commemorate the forthcoming final film by building a Star Wars memorial on Minecraft — and now the films play a central role in the family home. “I wouldn’t say [watching Star Wars together] has brought us closer together because we’ve always been close,” Lillo says, “but we can identify with certain characters within the first trilogy, the second trilogy and the third trilogy. And whether good or bad, we’ll always find ourselves.”

This was especially true during those difficult early years together. “During the period we went through, it was very hard to explain it to Eli because he was so young,” Robyn explains, “so I would just pop in the DVD, go to a certain scene and say, ‘well, Anakin feels exactly the same way you do too,’ and that helped a lot. I don’t think we would have gotten through that period without Star Wars.”

It is not just Eli who sees himself in the characters. “I think I relate to Luke a lot,” says Lillo, “because growing up, I didn’t really know my dad. He was a very distant person in my life… The fact that Luke doesn’t connect with Anakin is very symbolic of my dad’s relationship with me.” This has had an effect on Lillo’s own understanding of fatherhood. “I want to care for [Eli] the way Darth Vader cared for Luke in the end… he kept trying to persuade Luke to come to the dark side, but it was actually him that needed to change. That, for me, is very significant, in that I needed to change as a person so that I could father Eli.”

For Dutch photographer Pascal Vossen, commissioned to make a narrative family portrait of the Berghs, the centrality of the films to the family’s life was plain to see. “This story is more than just a sci-fi series to the fans,” he says. “It’s packed with countless life lessons in which people find guidance to make the right decisions.” What surprised him most was “how much the Star Wars saga is intertwined with people’s lives, the choices they make and the amount of strength and knowledge they harvest from the Skywalker story arc.”

Vossen is a photographer drawn to narratives of family and hardship, with much of his personal work focussing on, as he puts it, “following a family, and the struggles they face in life.” Perhaps unsurprisingly then, the Berghs’ story resonated strongly with him. “It is amazing to see how generous and courageous they are,” he says, “how they chose their own direction in life, [and] dealt with setbacks and rejection to come out much stronger on the other end.”

The result is a series of rich, meditative portraits that sensitively examine the bonds that unite the three of them, focusing on the minutiae of daily life in their home of Nigel, South Africa: paddling in the lake by their home, the brush of hands at the dinner table, Robyn pulling on her seatbelt in the car. The photographs are quiet but contain a palpable intensity: there is a seriousness and thoughtfulness to every facial expression and gesture. Vossen sees this quality in his work as a byproduct of his medium. “What I like about shooting film is that it’s a slow process,” he explains. “You kind of give the people that you’re photographing time to calm down and relax while you’re loading film.”

The pictures betray traces of the difficulties the family has faced, but they also reflect the hard-won happiness and security of the family today. As Robyn says, “Today, adversity has strengthened our bond. Our story epitomises coming of age and courage in the face of overwhelming odds. We see the light at the end of the tunnel and are ready to embark on our new adventure as a family.”

In the short term, however, the final Episode awaits. So what do the Berghs want from the new film? For Lillo, it is closure: “I’m looking forward to seeing everything come together,” he says, “because there’s lots of loose ends currently, and when it’s like that, I feel like there is something more. I just need to see what that is. I think that’s important for me right now.”

The photographer himself admires the Skywalker saga and the themes it has explored over the course of the eight, soon to be nine, films. “One of the aspects I have come to appreciate from Star Wars is the power of resistance,” he says. “These are stories that are playing out across the world again today — the underdog against the massive, unchallenged corporate military. In the present day context, Star Wars becomes quite subversive.” 

“I just hope it’s epic,” says Eli. “I want something epic.”

Star Wars Families presented by eBay is a collaboration between Lucasfilm and British Journal of Photography in advance of the release of Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker. An immersive photographic and editorial project, it sheds light on families around the world who have enjoyed the magic of Star Wars for nearly half a century.

The Star Wars Families commission is organised by Studio 1854 in collaboration with Lucasfilm. For more information on sponsored content, visit 1854.studio

To hear about upcoming commission opportunities, register with 1854 Commisions.