Township Style Street Photography South Africa

Township Style Street Photography South Africa

A letter to my countrymen.


Dear Compatriots,

I thought I should write to you about the concept of Street Photography. Township Style Street Photography South Africa. The reason for this is because I feel lonely as a Street Shooter. There are so few, if any, street hunters in this country.

Where are you hiding, guys?

I think it’s about time you come out of the closet and discuss street photography publicly without fear or favour. Forget for just a moment about politics and poverty as well as unemployment and Radical
Economic Transformation.

Let’s talk and walk street photography. If you’re not familiar with the term, don’t worry. I am going to try to unpack street photography for you. My focus is on Township Style Street Photography South Africa. So, if you live in Sandton, Clifton or Ballito – just take a chill pill and we’ll talk about your area in the near future.

What is Township Style Street Photography South Africa?

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Township Style Street Photography South Africa – Collecting cow dung for fuel.

The term Street Photographer in the townships means an itinerant photographer. Also called ‘cameraman‘ (it’s mostly men who shoot in this way), he would carry his camera on the shoulder and go to places frequented by many people. Such as children’s playground and parks.

In most cases our ambulant shooter would just walk down the street hoping or expecting people to start the transaction by asking, ‘uya shuta? Or, ‘O nka dinepe?’ He would answer in the affirmative and the conversation ends up with him photographing whoever wanted their pictures taken.

This is how the township street photographer makes money with his camera.

And this is where the difference in meaning is sharply recognised. For example, If you think of people such as Valerie Jardin, you can see how the term Street Photographer takes on a different meaning.

I use the term Street Photographer in the conventional understanding. By street photographer I mean someone who:


  • Works alone
  • Shoots for himself 
  • Does not work for a client
  • Is not hoping to make money from his photos
  • Shoots for editorial or educational purposes


Township Style Street Photography South Africa in a Nutshell

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Township Style Street Photography South Africa – Learning to ride a bicycle.

Township street photographer means someone who lives in a township. It excludes township tourists who visit the Location for a day or two to shoot and see the place. Perhaps you’re motivated by noble intentions to shoot in the townships, such as to educate or train the locals. Perhaps you’re doing this to put a particular township on the map, so to speak. That does not in my opinion, make you a township street photographer.

I live in Mhluzi township near the town of Middelburg in Mpumalanga. I love shooting street photography for the reasons outlined above. If, like me, you too live in a township somewhere in South Africa and love shooting street photography for those or similar reasons, you are a township street photographer.

A township street photographer depicts or documents life in the townships. In most cases the images captured in this way will differ much with those captured in a town or city such as Middelburg or Johannesburg. For example, there are no Mkhukhus in the city. You only find these in a township.

In the early 1980’s Bona magazine published a comic strip called The Bafanas. It told the story of life in the township. I loved reading this comic strip so much that every month when I bought the magazine I would begin by reading the comic strip before devouring the rest of the journal.

Although it focused on a gang of criminals, The Bafanas resonated with me because it told my story. I was curious about what was going on in the townships in those days. As a young man fresh from eZabelweni or the rural areas of South Africa and living in the Hostels like all Black migrant workers during the Apartheid era, I could relate to the different characters in the story. I would feel sorry for Sticks (one of the characters) if he got into trouble. And I would equally be happy when Mathumbu got home without being mugged.

The Bafanas lived in the township. They were not Weekend Specials. To paraphrase a famous soft drink advert: they Lived Township Life, Slept in the Township, Woke up in the Township, Drank in the Township and Ate in the Township. They got mugged in the Township, Suffered or Struggled (umZabalazo) in the Township and smelled the tear gas in the Township.

A township street photographer is someone who would, sympathise and appreciate eKasi like any member of The Bafanas. He may have relocated to the Suburbs. But he grew up in the Township. Most of their extended families live ko-Kasi. He speaks or understand at least 2 South African languages excluding English and Afrikaans.

A township street photographer is a story-teller. The camera is his pen. The township is his canvas or studio. He does not shoot for money. He shoots for self-gratification. He’s an artist who finds solace, peace, and relaxation in his art. He enjoys sharing his skills with others, showing his work to those who appreciate it. He’s always eager to improve his knowledge. And practices everyday.

Like a poet, the township street photographer has an artistic licence. He shoots what he likes. He does not take orders from anyone. He is his own client.


Depicting Life eKasi

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Township Style Street Photography South Africa – Taming stray horses.

There are many stories in the townships. A township street photographer decides what stories he wants to tell. The townships are mostly poverty-striken and this tend to attract many people’s attention. But poverty and squalor are not the only things that characterise the townships. Life happens eKasi.

I once took a peek into someone’s Journalism study materials. And I remember reading the following:


“There are many stories happening everyday. Tell those stories. If you
can’t see them, you’re studying for a wrong course.”


A township street photographer sees things that most people take for granted. He turns the ordinary into extra-ordinary. Often he tells a story with just one photo. He captures life as it happens, when it

Some of his photos might invoke emotions in the viewer. His images can make you laugh, cry or angry. Your reaction determines the success of his images. But usually a street photographer is a neutral observer who merely records what he sees. He does not cause these stories to happen. He does not provoke his subjects to behave in a certain way.

Like a hunter, he roams the streets looking for something to happen in front of him. If something happens, he reacts by capturing it with his camera. He’s a keen observer and this helps him to see things that most people don’t notice.

Like a journalist, he always carries his camera with him. But he cannot plan his day. He does not know in advance what he will shoot or if there will be something worth shooting. And this sets him apart from many photographers. Street photography is a separate genre in and of itself. It’s not Journalism. It’s not Documentary. Nor is it Portrait Photography.


My Township Style Street Photography South Africa

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Township Style Street Photography South Africa – Wheelbarrow on the street.

My love for photography began many years ago when I first picked up a pinhole camera. I studied the craft through a Johannesburg-based correspondence college. My aim was to make extra money with my camera.

I had seen an advert in a magazine which suggested that I could make up to R350 extra a month with a camera. A silhouette of a cameraman taking pictures with a tripod-mounted camera captured my imagination.

It reminded me of the first photographer I had seen a decade earlier who had come to my home to photograph a newborn baby.

This love grew and I started reading photographic magazines and books to expand my knowledge. The first thing I shot with my single-aperture box camera was a tree on the banks of the Klein Olifants River in Middelburg.

Since then I shot anything and everything. Photography is my first love. It’s like a disease in my bones. There was a time when I wanted to give it all up. But I failed. I just can’t rid myself of the shutterbug.

But it’s street photography in particular that moves my world. And by this I mean what most people would refer to as Candid Photography.

Candid photography for me has to do with people. It excludes everything except people. I find this definition rather restrictive.

I prefer the term street photography because it’s so broad. Street Photography for me includes inanimate objects. Objects that tell a story of human life.

I think 90 percent of my photos are of people. But I also shoot anything that triggers a thought in me .

I started shooting street photography before I knew what it was. I just loved capturing genuine emotions and actions of people who were not aware of my intentions. I find that these pictures truly
show what I saw in the first place without spoiling it with a posed image.

Seeing photos in news-stories made me realise that it was not always possible for a photojournalist or press photographer to ask for permission first and then shoot.

I define street photography as follows:

Candid, unposed, unplanned, serendipitous, spontaneous.

When I go out in the morning to shoot street photography I don’t know what I will get. Or whether I will get anything. The suspense fascinates me. It keeps me on my toes. It makes me more observant. It
helps me keep looking, and searching for something to happen. At times I discover after the shoot that I’ve got a keeper.

I love such pictures because they are genuine and unpretentious. They truly tell the story like it is. My intention is never to ridicule or to portray anyone in a negative light. Rather, my photos tell you ‘this is what I saw.’ Whatever it is. I did not cause it to happen. I only managed to record it with my camera.


Why I Shoot Township Style Street Photography South Africa

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Township Style Street Photography South Africa – When things go awry.

When I hear people talk about shooting street photography in New York, Paris or Tokyo, I wish I could go and do the same in the Big Apple. Of course that’s just a dream that will never be realised.

I live in Africa. I can’t afford to travel to any of the exotic places mentioned above. So, what do I do? I can either continue dreaming about shooting street photography elsewhere, or start doing it right here, where I live.

Fortunately, the Townships of South Africa give me a variety of subjects for street photography. I know and have visited several townships already. And, more importantly, I live in one.

I remember one of the most established street photographers’ answer to the question ‘Why street Photography?’ He said: “In New York street photography comes naturally to you.”

I can’t make a similar claim about street photography in the Township. But to me Township Street Photography comes naturally. It’s true that I shot most of my work in the town of Middelburg. However, I feel at home eKasi. That’s where I live. And something magical happens to me here.

More often than not, photographic opportunities come to me. Instead of me going out looking for what to shoot, decisive moments come to me and say: ‘hey, shoot!’

I remember the other day I was at home relaxing with my wife and son. A boy came knocking at my door to tell me that a taxi had caught fire a few meters from my house. I grabbed my camera and went to take photos of the burning vehicle. I send three images to the local newspaper and one of them got featured on page 3.

So, my short answer to the question ‘Why shoot street photography in the township?’ is: Because I live here.


Why Street Photography?

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Township Style Street Photography South Africa – The iconic All Star.

It brings me immense pleasure. It gives me a sense of accomplishment. As an artist, I’ve always wanted to produce unique photos. The kind of pictures that no one can copy or claim it’s their work. Street photography gives me the opportunity to do just that.

I derive pleasure in realising that I can capture something that no one else can reproduce. I look for serendipitous occurrences. But sometimes what I shoot triggers a story in me. And this compels me to write about the subject. Yes, I shoot street photography for two clear reasons.


1. I love Photography
2. I love telling stories


My Top 10 Street Photography Influencers

1. Dr Jonas Rask
2. Rui Palha
3. Linda Wisdom
4. Rinzi Ruiz
5. Nicholas Goodden
6. John Free
7. Matt Stuart
8. Garry Winogrand 
9. Robert Frank
10.W. Eugene Smith


My Top 10 Street Photography Blogs


1. Street Hunters
2. Eric Kim
3. Street Shootr
4. Vice
5. Street Bounty
6. ShooterFiles
7. The Inspired Eye
8. Dan Ginn
9. Invisible Photo Asia
10. Street Photography Magazines


My Favourite Street Photography Podcasts


1. Hit the Streets
2. StreetPX
3. Street Photography Magazine Podcast
4. Photo Focus
5. Peta Pixel Podcast
6. The Candid Frame
7. Out Of Chicago


My Tools of the Trade


What gear do I use?

I used several cameras in the past. Apart from the very basic film point-and-shoot that came with my study materials in a correspondence course, I also had the pleasure of owning a few SLR and DSLRs. But the camera that I loved more was my tried and tested Fujifilm S700.

At the time of writing this piece, I use my phone to shoot the streets. That’s all I need.


10 Reasons Why I Shoot Street Photography With A Smartphone

1. It’s always with me
2. It’s easier to carry around than a normal camera
3. Helps me blend in
4. It’s inconspicuous
5. Produces reasonably sharp photos
6. Helps me get rid of Gear Acquisition Syndrome
7. I can share my photos immediately
8. Does not intimidate people like a real camera
9. Can be completely silent
10. I don’t have to buy a new camera


Township Style Street Photography South Africa – Smart Phone Version

A mobile phone is just perfect for street photography because I always carry it with. Remember the number one rule of street photography? Yes, always carry your camera with you. It’s more convenient to walk around with a phone in my pocket than to do so with a real camera.

Street photography is thus accessible to everyone with a smart phone. You don’t need to buy a new shiny and expensive camera to start shooting the streets.

Since almost every person on the street also has a cellphone, no one raises eyebrows when they see you taking pictures with yours. In most cases they won’t even know what you’re doing. They might think you’re reading messages or watching a video.

As far as picture quality goes, it’s true that you sacrifice this if you shoot with a smart phone instead of with a traditional camera. A real camera will remain superior to a cellphone device because the
latter has a tiny sensor in comparison with that of a DSLR.

But street photography doesn’t always place much emphasis on picture quality. It’s the moment that matters. Remember the saying: ‘the best camera is the one you have.’

Just think of the image quality produced by CCTV cameras. Now compare it with your smart phone photos. Which one is better?

A big advantage of shooting street photography with a smart phone is the fact that I can share my photos immediately. No need to wait until I get home and transfer pictures to my computer.

So, even if you don’t have a real camera you start enjoying street photography today. Just whip out your smart phone and start shooting.




Township Style Street Photography South Africa – It’s quite a mouthful, isn’t it?

Thank you for staying with me until now. By now you should have picked up the following points in this blog post:


1. This article is for South African Street Photographers, especially those who live or have grown up in the Townships.

2. This is my way of introducing myself to you. It is also my attempt at connecting with you, please feel free to contact me if you want to say hello.

3. Street Photography is a universal phenomenon and means different things to different people.

4. Of course I made a few assumptions about Street Photography in South Africa. One such assumption is that there are few if any, Black Street Photographers in Mzansi. Please prove me wrong by subscribing to my blog and leaving a comment in the comments section.

If you have any Street Photography related question please fill in the Contact Form with your queries and I’ll be too happy to help.

I hope you find this article useful.

What’s your take on Street Photography as a genre?

Do you know other Street Photographers based in this country?


Now Your Homework:


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You can see more of my photos on Instagram.


Till next week, Cheers.

Philemon Nkadimeng

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