Street Photography in South Africa: Death of a Street Photographer

After an absence of almost three years, I'm about to take off for a week in Cape Town! The last time I returned to South Africa was around mid-2012 and I recall writing this overwhelmingly negative article about my impressions and street photography experiences at the time. I stayed on in South Africa for another year or so after this arcticle before moving on again, but have to admit that over time I started feeling slightly better about the charms that Johannesburg has to offer. Though my destination is different this time, I'm hoping for an overwhelmingly positive experience this time round. The original 2011 article (slightly edited):

While scoffing down a delicious "250g Cajun grilled chicken breast, topped with avocado, melted mozzarella, bacon, lettuce, tomato & sun dried tomato mayonnaise" burger, and sipping on an ice cold glass of South Africa's finest apple cider with two lemon slices, I cannot help but to reflect on another disappointing, failed street photography outing. Over the past six odd weeks, all keen and enthusiastic to start a new "Joburg Chapter" series of life on the streets of Johannesburg, I've come to a rather disappointing, and unexpected conclusion that being a street photographer here is a miserable experience.

 A Dapper Man (Durban South Africa)

A Dapper Man (Durban South Africa)

How shall I elaborate? Well ... ummm .. where the hell IS street life here? Virtually all major cities in the world have it in bucket loads. If not hustling business at some market or street stall, interesting characters everywhere use the streets for their personal entertainment and expression, a place for social interaction, meeting up with their friendly neighbourhood grocer, sharing emotion, walking the damn dog for that matter. People interact with different levels of emotion, express their individuality, just being human and doing what humans do! What's gone wrong with Johannesburg, a supposedly bustling cosmopolitan metropolis, the (self?) declared financial capital of Africa? Here people drive to work every morning in their satellite tracked cars, doors locked and windows rolled up, zipping down to their security guard protected basement parking spot at work. At five, they quickly emerge from it, slightly slower than after somebody farted in an elevator, rushing home to the relative safety of their electric fenced cocoons, spending the night at home watching Sewende Laan or something choreographed to represent "real" life as it should be. Once everybody have safely reached their homes, the already lifeless streets become about as active as a cemetery ... at night ... on Friday the 13th ... after the apocalypse, and ... by then it's not even dark outside yet!

 The Silver Flower (Jo'burg South Africa)

The Silver Flower (Jo'burg South Africa)

In a desperate search for something interesting to photograph, and to find the natural hunting ground of some pretty wonderful eccentric characters that do sometimes dare to venture into public view, I decided to visit a well-known "street"market, safely and "spontaneously" hosted on the rooftop parking level of a local shopping mall. Expecting that this will be at least the closest I'll get to a bustling African market that will cough up the most wonderful opportunities to observe and capture the finest moments that human nature have to offer, how disappointingly wrong I was! Apart from lacking any real, tangible character, it felt almost deserted. Where are the crowds of people interacting with their fellow human beings in the proverbial market square? Do people here really only dash between their offices and homes, and do nothing more to socialise outside their comfortable spaces?

Walking around with a camera, even one as inconspicuous as my favourite street tool, attract about the same eagle-eyed attention and suspicion as walking with an AK47 casually slung around my neck. So much for catching any spontaneous human interaction. Worse of all, when I dare to try and shoot a few vaguely interesting scenes, the majority of times I'm greeted with mild verbal abuse, and sometimes the very real threat of physical altercation. "This is somebody's private business! You can ask!" shouts one burly man, pointing at yet another "No Photography" sign buried somewhere under his merchandise.

 The Little Drummer Girl (Jo'borg)

The Little Drummer Girl (Jo'borg)

Street portraiture - forget it! The default instant reaction is either a mildly aggressive confrontation, or a demand for money. Maybe I shouldn't complain about South Africa not having any street life and soul ... this is it, and it's ugly! I bought some chilli infused fudge and went home.

 Jo'burg Subtle

Jo'burg Subtle

As somebody who's lived and worked in a few countries over many years, who's passport routinely run out of chapping and visa space before it expires, and having learned that regular culture shock can be a positive experience, I'm hard-pressed to remember where else I've experienced the same kind of general attitude in the 33 odd countries, and many more cities that I've visited. After long contemplation, and another cider, Karachi came to mind (apologies to my Pakistani friends, but at least Lahore was a much more positive experience) until I remembered an incident from a few years back. I was innocently taking a few snaps on a rocky beach before I was confronted by a huge man with a great big moustache, an attitude to match, and barking a language I could barely understand. It turned out that hidden, just behind a huge soil embankment alongside this beach, was a huge anti-aircraft military base. After some moments of confusion, and the kind intervention of another man, the situation was quickly resolved and turned into a friendly exchange of smiles, handshakes and a common understanding that I've been a naughty boy. This was near Latakia, in the north of Syria ... go figure!

 Living the Dream (Jo'burg)

Living the Dream (Jo'burg)

I'd love to hear from South African street photographers about their experiences and how they do it. Where do you dare to go to do your work?, Who are you? Any other street photographers out there with unpleasant or interesting experiences and observations to share?

Before a few South Africans get all upset and offended, in fairness, what's been good about my South African adventure so far? Most wonderful food and cider, and I've practically given up on my search to rather finding the worse pizza in town as opposed to my usual search for the best!

I guess it's time to start looking elsewhere for photographic inspiration while in South Africa, a different genre altogether, one that doesn't force me to deal with miserable human beings. South Africa has some of the best wildlife and landscape photographers around - I now understand why. Thank the Street Photography God that I still have to visit India on a regular basis. I'll go get my street photography fix somewhere else ....

-Michiel-