“iwasshot in Joburg is a [South African] business venture established to provide a platform for former street kids who received photography training through the iwasshot FOUNDATION,” says Bernard Viljoen, the architect who founded the three-month project after community service for a boozy misdemeanour.
Initially teaching basic photography skills to street children, the project has expanded and now, flash forward, these budding artists receive six months of photography training, using disposable cameras to document their environment.
“From there they receive more in-depth digital photography and computer training for another six months. Once they have completed the year they can join the iwasshot brand and start generating their own income,” says Viljoen.
At the end of each year, an exhibition showcases the boys’ photography, which also goes on sale. The establishing shot this year shows boys holding disposable cameras, in a strong stance that says “I know what I am doing and I belong here too”.
FROM THE SHADOWS, INTO LIGHT
Viljoen says, “… how these boys are transformed, from when they started out to being proud citizens, actively participating in their society, discussing their camera angles, colour and composition, it is incredibly humbling to see”.
The project aims to enrich the lives of street kids who have found their calling through a lens. Viljoen wanted to further their opportunities, developing a skills transference division to create opportunities for economic growth, social development, and job creation.
Solani Dube, a former student at iwasshotin joburg, says he had no self-esteem; he was” living with no direction”. He had never thought of himself as a “normal human being”, but now he is studying law.
The words “I was shot in Joburg” can elicit fear, seeming more suited to a newspaper headline, but Viljoen thought it was an expression of life in Hillbrow, with its violent reputation.
“I believed that if a brand is relevant, conceptual and slightly controversial, that it will take off. It did. It has now been four years and we are going strong.”
Viljoen says the project aims to “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 hand-out.”
The project’s success has allowed the team to move into a permanent space at Arts on Main in the Maboneng Precinct in Johannesburg’s teeming central business district.
Toni Sithole, another student, says, “I am moving forward with myself, I am improving, and I am doing something for myself. I see myself in the future as a person, opening new doors for myself. Hillbrow is a new playground for budding photographers.”
He also wanted the boys “to 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”.
AN UNFAMILIAR LIFE
Viljoen is interested in people living on the periphery of society, people who don’t have a voice, but who have experienced so much in their lives.
Little previews of city life are exposed in the photographs; glimpses into lives unfamiliar to suburbanites. Shadows reflecting off a leg or a sign are fragments, enticing viewers to look deeper and be witness to a transformation, an invisible human being becoming a person with a voice.
Viljoen believes consistency is important with his charges as they have had such volatile, tumultuous lives. So each week, he showed up.
He says, “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. Iwasshotin Joburg is a way to claim something back, to make something of value, to be of value.”
Sandile Mdlalose says, “I used to eat out of rubbish dumps and beg. [Now] When people talk to me, they speak to me as if I am a big person. Everyone can do something for themselves; it doesn’t matter where you are from. I believe in myself now, I have a strength that I never had before.”
“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.”
To Viljoen, Johannesburg is the most interesting, textured city in South Africa.
“I’m lucky enough to work almost solely in the heart of the city, and over the years it’s become more striking to me. It’s the synergy of history, drive for success, passion and interesting, warm people that give Joburg a buzz of energy.
“If you walk around and experience the space – new and old – you’re always treated to a visual overload. Suburban dwellers, who don’t hit the streets of Joburg, never really see or understand its beauty. They’re blind-shot by unjustified fear.”
The snapshots, he says, capture the beauty, intriguing spaces, textures layers, and diverse people of Johannesburg.
“Hillbrow is an assault on the senses … the towering blocks of flats draw your eyes upwards and you’re mesmerised by the rainbow-coloured clothing hanging on practically every balcony, the rowdy sounds of street vendors bargaining and schoolchildren laughing and chatting.
“There are contrasts … the countless broken window panes glistening in the sun and the vivid colours of the fresh fruit sold by the vendors … the boys see photo opportunities lurking on every corner. Over the years, they’ve produced really powerful images.”
Pritchard Ndlovu manages the studio at Arts on Main. He says that the iwasshot space has changed his life; he now has a future and it’s thanks to the lens; “The photos allow the boys to tell stories. It is an incredible initiative that brings joy to the boys and inspires a sense of belonging.”
Viljoen adds: “I have succeeded in this if every kid is able to tell a story with their photos – their own – if I can make them feel worthy of sharing it with the world, visually documenting their stories, their observations, their hopes and dreams.”
First published on Media Club South Africa – Brand South Africa’s library of quality images and articles, available for free.