The Street Photography South Africa Project
Welcome to the Street Photography South Africa project. This project is about Street Photography In The Townships Of South Africa. Using Mhluzi Township as a model of all townships in this country, it will feature images taken exclusively in Mhluzi by yours truly. This is my way of sharing with you what life is like in these ghettos. I live here, so I believe that I’m better positioned to portray the life of a street photographer in the Townships of South Africa.
Street Photography South Africa
This post is very different from all the other posts that I’ve written before.
My earlier blog posts sought to inspire and motivate you to shoot more.
Starting this week, I’ll be telling you a lot about my Street Photography South Africa project.
My stats show that most of you guys and gals are reading this from the
USA, Canada, the UK and the European Union.
I know that this is a generalisation, since some of my readers are in India and Italy.
The point is that this blog appeals to Westerners more than to my
Hence my decision to write more about my work in South
Africa and to help you understand this country a little better.
In this post I’m going to share with you what it’s like to shoot
street photography in a South African Township.
I’m hoping to give you a mental picture of life in the townships of South Africa. Hope you find it interesting.
Please feel free to tell me what you think about this slight change of focus. I value your opinion and am looking forward to hear your reaction in the comments section.
South Africa is a land of contrasts. And for a street photographer this country is like paradise.
There are two extremes that cannot be ignored or overlooked here – extreme wealth and abject poverty. There is a First World and Third World South Africa.
Also called Locations, eKasi, Skomplaas, or Lokshini, this is where Black people live. The economic disparities and contrasts of this country are clearly apparent in the Townships.
I live in Mhluzi Township. Mhluzi means gravy or soup in the Ndebele language. It’s situated about 5 minutes’ drive to the west of the mining town of Middelburg in Mpumalanga, one of the nine provinces of South Africa.
The other eight provinces are:
Kwa Zulu Natal
Gauteng, Western Cape and – Kwa Zulu Natal are major tourist destinations and loved by many Westerners.
Mpumalanga is also an attractive tourist area. It’s home to the Kruger National Park, God’s Window and the Echo Caves, to name but a few.
Street Photography South Africa
The people of South Africa speak 11 official languages. Afrikaans, English and Zulu are the dominant ones. If you speak one of these three languages you’ll have no problem communicating with the locals.
In addition to the official languages spoken in this country, there are many foreign languages spoken, such as French, Portuguese, Swahili and Amharic.
Street Photography South Africa
As far as street photography goes, South Africa is no different from other countries. This is especially true if you restrict your visit to the cities and towns. But if you go to the Townships, you’ll discover a totally different experience.
If you’re visiting the country from the USA, Canada or the European Union, you’ll find the townships very fascinating indeed. A word of warning, though. Don’t do it alone. You must have a local tour guide or host.
There are many things to see and experience in the townships, but if you’re a tourist it’s advisable to not venture there alone. I remember Thomas Leuthard bemoaning the fact that, as a white person, he stood out in the crowd when he was visiting Addis Ababa in Ethiopia. That’s exactly the problem. White people in the township stand out.
This attracts shady characters who might want to rob you of your possessions. They might be tempted to grab your bag or steal your camera. But if you have someone showing you around you’ll be safe and you don’t need to worry too much about safety. I think this is just plain common sense.
A local knows the area better and will avoid so-called crime hot-spots while taking you to areas that will be of interest to you.
Street Photography South Africa – Mhluzi Township
Street Photography in Mhluzi Township
Shooting street photography in the Mhluzi township is both exhilarating and scary. The township is home to people of different ethnic groups and nationalities. Life here is both boring and exciting at the same time.
One moment there’s absolutely nothing to shoot. The next moment things happen so fast you’re spoilt for choice about what to shoot. Depending on what you like to photograph, you can do so peacefully or face danger from unexpected quarters.
African people generally don’t mind being photographed. Especially when there’s something important happening. Such as a party, sports games or protest marches. But things can turn ugly without warning. For example, some people might expect to be paid for their photos. And if you don’t have the money to pay them or you just prefer not to do so, they will ask you to delete their pictures.
Protest marches present a good photo opportunity for street photographers who like documentary or photojournalistic images. But it’s important to understand why people are protesting. Some of these protests turn violent when some participants don’t want to be photographed for fear that their employers might see their pictures in the local newspaper or even on television.
Photographing a Stay-Away might be a bad idea unless you do so with extreme caution.
If you like street portraits you can find many willing subjects in the townships. Ask them about their life experiences, their dreams for their children, their political affiliation etc. Keep them talking and you’ll win their hearts. Show them the photos on the LCD screen of your camera and promise to send them the photos via WhatsApp or email. If you’re adventurous you can promise to make them famous by publishing their photos on the internet or in the Local newspaper.
Organise yourselves into a small group of no more than 10 people and ask your host to also act as your security guard. Yes, your tour guide will know how to protect you and who or what to protect you from.
Street Photography South Africa – How I Shoot Street Photography In Mhluzi Township
I started shooting street photography in 2009. At the time I did not know what street photography was. I photographed anything and everything.
From religious rituals to political marches. I did not know what to shoot or
what NOT to shoot.
So I experimented with everything.
I also shot portraits or general snapshots. But these were the least of
my favourites. So I purposely avoided shooting people because I did not
really enjoy doing so.
There are several DVD’s in my cupboard full of photos of Landscapes, Flowers, Insects and other things except people.
Shooting people was like an inconvenience to me.
There was a time way back when I actually loved to shoot portraits for a fee. It was during the Film days and I used my camera as a source of income where I would photograph someone and charge them something like R10 per photo.
This business model worked. But not perfectly.
Some people did pay me for the pictures that I had taken of them. Others refused to pay because they either did not have the money or they simply did not like the photos.
Some of the photos came out under, or over-exposed. Or the
entire film came back from the lab blank. It was a tricky business.
Making money in this way was frustrating and a waste of time.
But this is how most cameramen (freelance photographers) operated.
And some made a killing this way.
In the Townships you walk around with your camera hanging on your neck or shoulder. People approach you and ask for a photo. They ask how much you charge for a card (postcard size) snapshot and then you shoot. No one pays on the spot.
You can ask for a fifty percent deposit, but some customers won’t have any money to pay you there and then. In that case you shoot and hope that when you deliver the end product after a week or two, they will then pay.
I ended up with stacks of unwanted photos.
This frustrated me so much that I decided I don’t want to shoot people anymore.
Which is why in 2009 when I bought my first digital camera (Fujifilm S700)I avoided photographing people with the exception of friends and relatives. These I would photograph for fun and as an experiment. I did not expect my subjects to pay. And none of them offered to compensate me for the snapshots that I would give them from time to time.
As part of my quest to improve my photography skills, I bought and
read various photo magazines.
One of these was called PIX and it was my favourite. In PIX magazine I stumbled upon an article on Street Photography. I enjoyed reading that piece so much that I would read it over and over. This was interesting stuff. Photographing people without their permission allowed the shooter to capture candid moments.
The author of the article pointed out that in South Africa Street
Photography would be easier to practice in the townships. I did not
understand his reasoning at the time.
Here was a White guy who lived in town or in the Suburbs, telling me, a township dweller, that I can shoot street photography in the township. Incredible! I knew what life was like in the Location.
And street photography seemed a dangerous approach to the craft. As time went on I slowly mustered the courage to shoot strangers.
I started practicing with my acquaintances, friends and colleagues.
The results were inspiring and soon the fever caught on.
One day I was walking around looking for photo opportunities and
something extraordinary happened.I was not looking for candid moments.
Rather, my aim was to shoot locusts or grass-hoppers and see if I could
replicate some of the photos I had seen in a magazine.
I was alone in the veld, or so I thought.
As I sat on a rock looking at these tiny creatures, someone not far
from me was performing some religious ritual.
I was completely unaware of this person or persons. When I got up to walk back home I saw a smoke. The grass had caught fire. There was no one around.
Terrified, I went to investigate the cause of the fire. That’s when I discovered a burning candle. Next to the candle was a tub of snuff. I realised then
that a person or persons were ‘communicating’ with their ancestors
Communicating with the dead is an African custom and most people in
the Township believe that this is the way of getting in touch with
their dearly departed.
I couldn’t resist the urge to take pictures. In part because I wanted to prove to my wife what I saw. But also because I was intrigued by this practice of communicating with dead people.
Russian Tourists Visit A Sangoma In Mhluzi Township
A few days ago a ProTours bus transporting visitors from Russia
stopped in Mhluzi.
The tour guide for this leg of their journey was Ms Sarah Mahlangu, owner of the world renown Something Out Of Nothing. She had decided to show her guests something out of the ordinary for foreigners.
The bus stopped at Mrs Ngoasheng’s house. A well-known sangoma or
traditional healer, Mrs Ngoasheng is a spirit medium and people
consult her for their fortunes.
People also go to Sangomas (aka iNyanga) if they feel that they’ve been bewitched or need to communicate with their dead.
At the Sangoma’s place these tourists saw how the initiates or
student sangomas are trained. Listening to the beat of the African
drums, the Russians and their fellow travellers took photos and
recorded this experience on Video.
The Street Photography South Africa Project In A Nutshell
The Street Photography South Africa Project will showcase my photos captured in Mhluzi Township between 2009 and 2016. It will also feature a Bonus Section that will discuss current street photography in the township. So, it is not only about the past but also very much about the present.
The Street Photography South Africa project will feature more of my work as a street photographer in this country and tell you about street photography in the Townships of South Africa.
I’m eagerly awaiting your opinion on this topic. Do you want to read more about street photography in my country or would you rather read about How To Improve Your Own Shooting Skills?
Please leave your answer to this question in the comments section below.
Your Homework: Please share this blog post on your favourite social media platform. Thank you so much for your support.
Till next time.