S’kop: Getting to Know Jozi

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There are parts of this city that most of us do not know exist. A daily grind so foreign to the middle class commute I’m sure most of our readers experience, that it could very easily seem like something out of a science fiction.

Tanya Zack is an urban planner with 20 years experience in policy, research and project work in the city of Johannesburg. She and photographer Mark Lewis have set out to tell some of these stories. They provide a look into ten ordinary, interesting, odd or outrageous denizens of the city of Johannesburg.

S’kop is the first in a series of ten photo essays that aim to explore the stories of ‘the butchers and traders and entrepreneurs who have made this business uniquely theirs, speak of the hardships of their work in the meat trade and the occasional rewards of making it on their own. It’s a story not just about an interesting and tough line of work, but about business connections and how to get things done, how to operate below the radar and, against fairly tough odds, how to make things work — more or less.’

I had the pleasure of being able to pick Tanya’s brain about the series and it’s beginnings, and what Wake Up This is Joburg aims to achieve as a series.

From my memories of our brief conversation at the launch and the general tone of her email replies, it is clear from the offset that Tanya has a passion for this city that few could ever hope to match. She was raised in Bertrams, one of Johannesburg’s oldest suburbs and the site of great social tumults. Bertrams was originally an upper class suburb, but found itself becoming home to many immigrants and almost just as many displacements over the past eighty years. To grow up in an area with such a history, it came as no surprise when Zack admitted that some of her passion ‘may well be a cathartic interest’.

Her exploration into the inner city started back in 2008, when as part of her job as an urban planner she decided that she needed to understand the challenges that faced development and upliftment of the so-called ‘bad buildings’ and ‘problem areas’.

‘I started walking the streets of the inner city and I was overwhelmed with the excitement of it. I learnt so much, saw so much I didn’t know existed in Johannesburg and also simply encountered these incredible experiences of interacting with people or of just watching. Photography became a natural extension for me in the act of watching and I spent many months taking photos. This was also a vehicle for access because each photo required conversation and permissions and so I got talking to people.’

And so she began a largely unplanned journey of collecting stories.

‘In some cases the stories popped up because I encountered them in my wanderings. In other cases, I set out specifically to understand a specific activity or person’s life and livelihood in the city. For instance, I followed recyclers over a number of days, and in some cases followed their stories over many months. Not every story is intended for publication. In fact most are just my personal encounter with my city.’

Mark Lewis, having done a great deal of documentary photography, found a common interest with Tanya in the collection of stories. And so, what began as an almost by-product of her work as an urban planner, morphed into a conscious journey of collecting stories of Jo’burg.

Brazenly striding into parts that no affluent South African would dare to tread, she carried with her a great sense of awareness of exactly where she was and that she may not be welcome. ‘I am not complacent about the dangers of living in and walking a crime ridden city and I try to be alert and to take precautions such as dressing casually and not carrying a camera, etcetera, in an obvious way.’

Zack seems to carry with her an empathy that I personally think is lacking in many journalists, tourists and all others that find themselves drawn to this world that can only be described as ‘other’.

‘I am conscious that even if I am in public space, I may be invading someone’s territory and that I am the stranger in that space. I enter all encounters in this way, with humility and with the curiosity that has brought me there. I am perfectly happy to be turned away or not spoken to. Everyone has that right and I am infringing so I don’t expect any special treatment. Yes, I have encountered hostility in unexpected places and amazing openness in places I hadn’t expected any. I have also been the object of deep suspicion and been cross-questioned about my motives.

I know I am not the best person to tell someone else’s story. I hope these stories will be of what I saw and heard, and what people told me, but I can’t escape who I am, and the limitations with which I see the city or see an area, a person, a community…so I guess the safest route if there is a deep urge to tell a story, is to claim it as your own story. It is your own telling of something. I don’t know if that makes sense but its what I think of when you describe the Somalian area — in reference to an anecdote of my own experience in the inner city. It is a particularly difficult area to work in and is also the site of a story for us, so I completely understand what you experienced there…we come to those spaces with huge disadvantage. Entering spaces where we don’t know the cultural norms, we don’t know the language, etcetera.”

Zack claims no agenda in wanting to bring about change and possibly integrating communities further. Rather, she claims a much more modest goal of satiating curiosity and perhaps sparking it in others.

‘If I can alert people in Jo’burg to something that feels a little lesser known and through that inspire a greater affection for this city of possibilitys, I will have achieved a lot. I hope that an empathetic view emerges in the work, I certainly do try to understand quite closely what people’s living and working conditions are and something of their personal stories.’

You can purchase S’kop online HERE

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