Photographing Dreams And Reality In A Johannesburg Suburb
Posted: December 8 2020 by www.creativereview.co.uk
On the outskirts of Johannesburg is Daleside, a small industrial suburb home to a primarily Afrikaner population. It was where photographer Lindokuhle Sobekwa’s mother had a job as a domestic worker, and also a place that was closed off to him as a child. “I felt that this place took a lot from me, my mother being the first,” he tells us. It’s meant that he has harboured unresolved feelings and a deep-seated curiosity about Daleside and its people for years. “I was denied entrance to what to me seems like a paradise,” he says, “and for me returning to Daleside as a photographer and an adult was to confront those feelings.” What he encountered was not what he expected.
Sobekwa, who comes from the nearby township of Thokoza, joined up with French photographer Cyprien Clément-Delmas to document Daleside as part of a collaborative photography project. The two met in 2012, when Clément-Delmas was invited by the Rubis Mécénat Foundation to teach photography in Thokoza. The programme evolved into Of Soul and Joy, a series of photography workshops for young people devised by Clément-Delmas and Magnum photographer Bieke Depoorter.
“Lindokuhle Sobekwa was part of this very first workshop,” Clément-Delmas recalls. “He was 16 at that time and had never touched a camera before. This is how we met.” Sobekwa has since gone on to become a Magnum Photos nominee, had his work published both locally and in international outlets like Vice, and contributed to Wellcome’s recent photography project examining mental health during the pandemic.
“Through the years we became friends and started to take pictures together in the township. One day, he suggested to explore an Afrikaner neighbourhood nearby,” Clément-Delmas says of the project’s impetus. When they arrived in Daleside to begin the project in 2015, he and Sobekwa were immediately struck by the “dry streets”, small houses “falling into decay”, and of course, the people they met.
The pair returned to photograph the area over the ensuing years, together building a body of work that serves as a study of class and struggle – one that speaks to both this insular community and, more universally, to whole sections of society that have been left behind. Clément-Delmas says he felt the people of Daleside “dream of a better, different life” but that “their reality wakes them up all the time. They are static dreamers, stuck in this town, in their lives and in their social class.”
When they first arrived in Daleside, the two photographers were initially met with apprehension from the residents. “We really supported each other in the process,” Clément-Delmas says. “We always felt we were stronger together, especially at the beginning when people didn’t allow us to photograph them. It took us time to get the trust of the people.”
Aware that the community wasn’t going to open up to them automatically, the photographers had to find other ways of encouraging trust, Sobekwa explains. “One was to stand in a local supermarket and ask people to take their photos and we would return their prints.” Steps like this, or Sobekwa showing the residents an album of the photographs he was taking, helped to bring them closer. “Slowly we were able to create some relationships and the people of Daleside were comfortable with us,” he adds. They began to receive invitations to photograph family events, and gave prints to the people they photographed for them to display at home, which had a lasting impact on Sobekwa’s outlook as an image-maker: “That motivated me as a photographer to see my work being appreciated by the people you photographed.”
The trust that the two photographers gained paved the way for an intimate, no-frills look inside people’s homes and private lives, and pages of remarkable portraits that meander between pride and vulnerability. Young people in particular encapsulate the tension between dreams and reality, perhaps best exemplified by Sobekwa’s portrait of teenagers posing as they lounge about and smoke, while another labours in the background – an image that contains echoes of Sally Mann’s 1989 image, Candy Cigarette.
The photographs have formed the basis of a new book, Daleside: Static Dreams, published by Gost, which brings together these contrasting visions of dreams and reality in the community. The photographs are presented side-by-side in two fold out books bound in one cover, allowing people to digest the images individually or as pairs, and highlighting the tension between the two perspectives of Daleside despite both photographers largely portraying the same people and spaces.
Yet the interrogation of these themes extends beyond the imagery to the process behind it. Clément-Delmas’ experience as a white person in Daleside was decidedly different to Sobekwa’s. Despite coming from France, Clément-Delmas was seen by the community as an insider, whereas he witnessed how Sobekwa was largely othered even though he lived only a few kilometres away: “It [says] a lot about the work still to do in a divided country.”
For Sobekwa, recognising that the Daleside community was grappling with similar issues and systems as the rest of South Africa helped him to empathise to some extent with the residents, “but there were also differences that made it hard for me to relate to them,” he says.
He encountered first hand the realities of life in a nation where oppression and legacies of racism are still felt. “Daleside was an emotional place for me,” Sobekwa says. “As much as I could relate to certain things that are based on their social systems that exist in my own community, I was still Black, I was often mistaken for either someone looking for a job or a criminal, and the need to always validate my existence exhausted me, but within that, some families welcomed me with warm hands and they taught me about the place and its history.”
Daleside: Static Dreams by Cyprien Clément-Delmas and Lindokuhle Sobekwa is published by Gost Books in collaboration with Rubis Mécénat; gostbooks.com
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