A city refracted

Johannesburg’s inner city has, since the mining town’s formation, served as the first stop for new arrivals. As such it has always been vibrant and in a constant state of flux. I initially started photographing the area in the nineties when racial segregation laws were being lifted and black South Africans had begun moving from the outlying townships to the city. A monograph of my black and white images from that period, The Inner City, was published by Ravan Press in 2000.

During the past two decades, simultaneous to white people vacating the inner city, increasingly the area has become home to new immigrants from all over Africa. Certain districts and blocks of flats are now dominated by Nigerians, Ghanaians and Somalis. Much of the physical infrastructure from the apartheid era remains, however the new occupants have adapted the structures to their way of life and culture.

Johannesburg is a unique city. It is made up of separate communities that differ greatly in terms of wealth, education, race and cultural background. The city is a stark reflection of the country’s social polarization and in many ways refutes the dream of a rainbow nation. For example, many residents living in the suburbs of Johannesburg have not ventured into the inner city since the mid 1990s and visa versa.

The reason for returning my attention to this area is not just to document external changes. The city’s increasing social polarizations have resulted in me being an outsider in a neighborhood that is less than 10 minutes drive from my home. This has facilitated an opportunity to transform my engagement with the subject from the viewpoint of the local to that of the foreigner. It has become necessary for me to hire a bodyguard in order to pursue my photographic work freely in this area.

I have chosen a photographic approach that could be seen as approximating a tourist’s response to visiting a foreign country. The images are unstructured and the content of the frame is at times seemingly random. Photographing in colour not only provides an immediate counterpoint to my earlier body of work, but also accentuates this untutored, snapshot-quality. Many of the images are blurred by movement or have a limited field of focus. The images therefore take on a dreamlike appearance resonant with the sense of disorientation tourists might experience when finding themselves surrounded by a foreign culture.

The title reflects both the lack of racial integration within the city as well as the photographic approach.