As a photographer, I have exactly one thing in common with Walker Evans: we both love signs.
Exterior wall of Mtsetse's Studio, Site C, Khayelitsha, Cape Town, South Africa. (Click directly on any of the photos to see larger versions.)
I spent most of last Monday in Khayelitsha, a sprawling suburb on the outskirts of Cape Town, South Africa, that's home to nearly a million people, many of whom are struggling to find jobs in a tough economy. During the bad old days of apartheid, the notorious system of white domination that came to an end in 1994, the law forced Africans and Coloured people forced to live in segregated "townships." Today, it's the cruel laws of economics that segregate the rich and the poor.
I was in Khayelitsha to meet some photographers and to find some signs.
Mtsetse Yiweni, left, and Lindeka Qampi, right, outside of Mtsetse's Studio.
Lindeka Qampi was my host. She's a member of Iliso Labantu, a photographer's collective that trains, supports, and promotes township-based photographers. (Iliso Labantu means the Eye of the People, in Xhosa.)
Mtsetse Yiweni was the first person that she introduced me to. He runs a photography studio out of a building that used to be a barbershop. Like most township photographers, he's versatile, shooting portraits, parties, weddings, and just about anything else people pay him to do. Unfortunately, the current recession has cut into his photography business significantly. So he's turned part of his studio into a shop that sells soda, chips, and similar things and another part of it into a video game parlor.
Mtsetse Yiweni in his shop.
After saying good-bye to Mtsetse, we went in search of signs. In Khayelitsha, they aren't hard to find and are a source of pride for many shopkeepers.
Shop that sells medicinal herbs.
Sign on the door of a restaurant that's housed in a converted shipping container.
Restaurant, eat-in or take-away.
An ID photographer's studio, outside of the Home Affairs office in Khayelitsha. (You can see a wider view of this trailer here.)
Some South African photographers make ID (Identity Book) photos in the same way that some American photographers make passport photos.
Maxwell in his studio, speaking to with Lindeka.
Lindeka also introduced me to Maxwell, whose outdoor portrait studio is next to one of Khayelitsha's commuter train stations. He makes his photos with a small digital camera and, then, connects it via a USB cable to a battery powered Canon printer. It takes him about four minutes to produce a very nice 4x6 print. He sells them for R20, which is about $2.25, a considerable sum for most people in the township.
Maxwell in his studio. (And, yes, he made a portrait of me, too. It's great. Money well spent.)
Khayelitsha's Mavusana barbershop.
Inside the Mavusana barbershop. In South Africa, people in the townships are much more likely to have a cell phone than a land line. (Land lines are expensive and unreliable.)
As you've probably guessed by now, the townships are bustling with activity. Unemployment is high and, because the government has been unable to make good on its promise to created millions of jobs, people have to rely on their own enterprise. The result has been an explosion of small businesses like those in these photos.
Lindeka and two of her children (the girl on the left and the tall boy on the right).
Toward the end of the day, Lindeka and I stumbled across a couple of her kids, hanging out at the mall, playing video games with their friends.
God is Love barbershop, Khayelitsha, Cape Town, South Africa.