It sounds like a Hollywood script. A Joburg architect on holiday in Cape Town commits a misdemeanour and gets sentenced to three months community service. Not wanting to have to return to Cape Town he proposes to the court that he contribute to a community closer to home. He comes up with the idea to work with a children’s shelter to train youngsters in how to take photographs with disposable cameras. The plan is to work towards an exhibition of their work after three months. “All I wanted was to give them a night they would never forget,” says 35-year-old Bernard Viljoen.
Cue the scene of the judge stamping “accepted” on the proposal. That was the start of the project called “I was shot in Joburg”. Now two years later an end to Viljoen’s “community service” is nowhere in sight. When I contact him for an interview after buying one of the project’s photographs at Market on Main, in Joburg inner city’s Maboneng District, he is on his way to Cape Town to launch “I was shot in Cape Town”. Bloemfontein is next.
The shelter he chose first was the Twilight Children in Hillbrow. “I live in Killarney. It’s about three minutes from my home. Scary,” he says, referring to the disjuncture between the two worlds that exist within such close proximity, so much a part of the South African story. I remember going on a guided Hillbrow walk shortly before World Cup 2010. We rounded a corner and the spaza shop owner jumped out of the doorway and said “W-e-l-c-o-m-e t-o S-o-u-t-h A-f-r-i-c-a. W-h-e-r-e a-r-e y-o-u f-r-o-m?” He was clearly disappointed when I told him I live a few kilometres away. He shook his head, disbelieving.
Viljoen is white, Afrikaans, very tall and has a shock of blond hair, qualities that would definitely make him conspicuously out of place on Hillbrow’s streets. But on Monday afternoons you will find him at the shelter or walking around the suburb with his charges looking for the next good shot.
He says it was when the first images started coming back that he got hooked. The original group included 15 boys, ranging in age from eight years old to 22. It wasn’t easy to get started. “For the first few lessons I couldn’t connect with them. I struggled. And then I spoke to someone at the shelter and she said that so many people come in and out of their lives. ‘If you want to break through, just be consistent, just show up’.”
The boys I speak to tell me the same thing. They didn’t warm to the project at first.
“The magic of it,” says Viljoen, “was that I had no expectations in the first year. I was very naive.” He’s honest about it not all having been easy. There have been conflicts and controversies, lessons learned along the way.
He trained the boys and young men in how to take pictures. “I said find beauty where you thought there was none. If you move your eye, you can see a different world and whatever you see can make an impact on people. You can make an impact on people”.
The photographs are little vignettes of city life, cityscapes and signs, a boy’s shadow captured on a tar road. They are evocative; something about their perspective makes you want to piece all the fragments together and then take another look at the city. But it’s not just about taking pictures “I was shot in Joburg” is about creating products to sell, that can bring in an income to sustain and expand it. Each year 70 photographs are chosen by the group to be printed and sold. Credit goes to the group and not to an individual photographer. These are the canvases at Market on Main. “They claim them all as if they are their own.” Viljoen is constantly looking to build the project. The group also does shoots for corporate events and have found themselves having to navigate between champagne and caviar company conference at Sun City and life in Hillbrow. That’s part of the learning too.
Viljoen’s says the aim is “To create quality products; to establish a brand. We want to become part of the South African economy rather than sitting at a robot begging for a handout.”
For some of the boys, the project has also meant feeling more at home. There are stories of neglect, abuse, being orphaned. Abandoned in different ways by the families and systems that give children the love, support and nurturing they need, “I was shot in Joburg” is a way to claim something back, to make something of value, to be of value.
I speak to 16-year-old Tony who is helping man the market stall where they sell not only the photographs on canvases but a range of other products including T-shirts, photo frames, notebooks and fridge magnets all bearing their trademark images. He is softly spoken, serious. He says: “I’m the quiet one” and beneath a gentle gaze you can sense a child who has been deeply wounded. When he talks about his first photograph a lightness comes over him.
“I never dreamed of holding a camera. I love art and if you have an art eye you can take pictures. My first photograph… I was walking with this young guy, he’s about 13 years old. We were in the park, I was wearing my school uniform. He pushed me and I shot myself, my leg in shadow.”
Tony describes his favourite photo. “Three of us were walking back from school, through Newtown and there’s a wall with Hugh Masekela and Miriam Makeba painted on it. The photo is of three boys in Joburg. We like showing things in the city with words that are written on the walls. Graffiti explains a lot. The words all say something about Joburg. I feel it is a part of me.”
“I tell them the cameras are like our little AK47s,” says Viljoen. “They give us permission to walk the street. If you keep it in your hand it elevates you above the everyday street life”.
I speak to 20-year-old Solani. He’s an articulate advocate of the project. Studying for his matric he plans to enrol at Wits University for a law degree next year. He’s been living at the Shelter for 8 years.
“I was never interested in photography. Before I started I thought taking pictures was all about having a camera. But it’s much more. You get to meet different people, learn different things. I feel different from everybody.” I ask him about about his favourite photograph. “It’s definitely the one that says ‘Home of hope’. In the situation I was in I never had hope. I was in hardship and alone and then someone gave me the opportunity to be part of this. Now I can see where I am heading.”
If it’s going to be a Hollywood movie, it deserves a happy ending.
* www.iwasshotinjoburg.co.za Photos by Sihle Maku, The Times. A version of this story was published in Sunday Times Lifestyle. You can buy photos and other products from I was shot in Joburg at Market on Main on Sundays