Photography

Kliptown blues

3976813773_955a6d976a_o(From the 4xAfrica show at Rayko SF, which runs through February 27. Click on the image for a larger version.)

Kliptown, Soweto, South Africa, 2009.

I took this photo while hanging out in a so-called “informal settlement” on the edge of Kliptown. People called the area Chicken Farm, supposedly because it had been part of a white-owned farm decades ago, before apartheid’s enforced racial sorting.

My guide that day was a friend of a friend, a “former thug” (as he was described to me) with a deep scar down the left side of his face. He grew up nearby, and remembered buying bread and sweets at the now-derelict shops. He got into the gangster game in his early teens, he told me, to provide for his family. By his last year in high school, he and his crew were stealing six or seven cars a week, mostly from whites in the northern suburbs, and delivering them to Nigerian middlemen who smuggled them out of the country. Later, his gang graduated to commercial truck hijackings and to home invasions. He insisted that he always urged nonviolence–at least at first. “‘Where’s our money?’” he’d ask the homeowner. “‘When you open the safe, it’s cool. We’ll leave you, and we’ll be gone. But it’s bad when you are not talking.’”

The thug did a few stints in prison, then got out of the game following a premonition that he was going to die violently. Nowadays he rises at 4 a.m. to get to his job as a landscaper in the northern suburbs, which pays less in a month than he used to earn in a week. To make ends meet, he still “consults” with younger car thieves on weekends.

Africa
crime
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South Africa
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Soweto, and the socioeconomic arms race

3976819575_5884ed3733_o3(From the 4xAfrica show at Rayko SF, which runs through February 27. Click on the image for a larger version.)

Elias Motsoaledi informal settlement, Soweto, South Africa, 2009.

I first visited Johannesburg in 1998 as a backpacker exploring Africa on the cheap. I had been to the developing world before, but nothing had prepared me for the bright, hard line that divided rich from poor here. The rich, mostly white, northern suburbs were hidden behind high walls, the bougainvillea laced with razor wire; some poor areas didn’t have electricity or running water. Sometimes only a highway separated the two.

Soweto, at the time, was closer to the bottom rung, a sprawl of Lilliputian brick houses and tin-roofed shacks, soot-filled skies and menacing guys manning the corners. I kept returning, and in the ensuing years Soweto has boomed. There’s a large and growing middle class (the media has dubbed them “black diamonds”), and the township positively bursts with new condos and malls and parks. The growth isn’t very surprising. After all, under apartheid, blacks weren’t even allowed to own homes. As Brian Mahlangu, an irrepressibly optimistic former banker who founded the township’s first home-lifestyle magazine, put it to me: “Soweto was never allowed the chance to grow; now it is being given a breathing chance.”

But it is an unfinished revolution. For most people, political freedom hasn’t yet translated into economic freedom. South Africa has the second greatest income inequality in the world, and many are tired of waiting for their share of the pie. Strikes have rocked the country in recent years, as miners, taxi drivers, and even the army protested low pay and unfair treatment. Land invasions by the homeless (which carry the whiff of neighboring Zimbabwe’s chaos) have spiked, and an ever-growing ring of squatter camps now encircles Johannesburg. “We are working toward an explosion,” Andile Mngxitama, a radical land-rights activist told me over drinks one night. “As I always tell the squatter-camp people: ‘Do you realize that you actually surround these wealthy people? You’ve got them surrounded.’”

It’s a socioeconomic arms race between the squatters and the middle-class, and it’s hard to say who’s winning.

Africa
Photography
South Africa
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The shebeen

afpc_rsa_shbn(From the upcoming 4xAfrica show at Rayko SF. Click on the image for a larger version.)

Diepkloof, Soweto, South Africa, 2002.

Under apartheid, blacks weren’t allowed to drink in bars designated for whites (though white-owned companies were happy to sell them alcohol), so unlicensed taverns–shebeens–sprouted from virtually every township block. Many of these bars are still around today, and most of them have the proper documentation. In my South African reporting I’ve spent equal amounts of time in churches and bars, and I prefer the bars–where you can play pool and Space Invaders, listen to Jay-Z or local house music, and have boozy, serpentine conversations about politics, soccer, and life in general.

Africa
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South Africa
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Atar, Mauritania

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(From the upcoming 4xAfrica show at Rayko SF. Click on the image for a larger version.)

Atar, Mauritania, 2007.

Riding the line between Arab North Africa and black sub-Saharan Africa, Mauritania is three-quarters sand and, thanks to creeping desertification, growing more desiccated by the day. This is the land of the Moors, Africanized descendants of the Arabs who once ruled Spain, a nomadic and arch-conservative people who lord it over their black countrymen. Slavery, though officially outlawed, is still a fact of life.

The Moors are (to generalize a bit) taciturn to the point of caricature, indifferent to outsiders, and uncommonly hostile to photographers. A man jumped out of a Mercedes to scold me for photographing a wall; even little kids wagged their fingers. “Haram!, Haram!” they yelled. It’s forbidden.

After a few days of these frustrating interactions, it was refreshing to stumble on a black neighborhood in Atar, the gateway city to the Sahara. Evening was coming on, and the desert was cooling off. The streets stirred to life as the sun began to drop. Kids swarmed everywhere, kicking a soccer ball. Adults emerged from their homes, headed for the market. People smiled at us.

Africa
Middle East
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South Africa
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Pimville, Soweto

3976811035_b50ec5dc0c_o2(From the upcoming 4xAfrica show at Rayko SF. Click on the image for a larger version.)

Pimville, Soweto, South Africa, 2009.

As an outsider, it’s easy to get caught up in the fear of crime that permeates life in South Africa–especially around Johannesburg, which just a few years ago had a violent crime rate four times that of Colombia during its civil war. In the late 1990s, a gorilla called Max became one of Jo’burg’s hottest celebrities. One day a burglar named Isaac Mofokeng, on the run from the cops, took refuge in the gorilla cage at the Johannesburg Zoo. Resenting this intrusion, Max attacked Mofokeng, and Mofokeng shot him, which only made Max angrier. Mofokeng barely survived the mauling. The bullets barely hurt “Mad Max,” as he came to be called.

In the run-up to last year’s World Cup, papers around the world predicted that visitors to South Africa would be beaten and robbed in record numbers, that no one would return alive. It didn’t happen, mainly because while the crime is real, it’s only part of the story.

Africa
crime
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South Africa
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Timbuktu

gallery_smith_chris_timbuktu_4x6(From the upcoming 4xAfrica show at Rayko SF. Click on the image for a larger version.)

Teenager at the Grand Market. Timbuktu, Mali, 2007.

Legendary places rarely conform to expectations. The pyramids in Giza are just as massive as you’d think but, at the same time, they’re strangely underwhelming, as if decades of camera-toting visitors had robbed them of their power.

Timbuktu—shorthand for back of beyond—is just as satisfyingly remote as you might hope, a dun-colored labyrinth on the edge of the Sahara. It’s been a bad couple of years for Timbuktu, though. There’s the global financial crisis—getting to northern Mali is neither easy nor cheap. Worse, Colombian cartels now ship drugs to Europe via West Africa, and Timbuktu, at the crossroads where Mali, Algeria, and Mauritania meet, is a prime spot on the smugglers’ route. There is also the regional Al Qaeda franchise, which has set up camp in the lawless deserts north of the city. They’ve kidnapped or killed both Westerners and locals. Just after New Year’s, a bomber hit the French embassy in Mali’s capital, Bamako.

Local friends tell me that much of the violence (such as the murder of a cop in the center of Timbuktu a couple of years ago) is just criminal score-settling, nothing political about it. Washington, D.C. appears to think otherwise. Special Forces teams are training the Malian army in counterinsurgency, along with the “hearts and minds” work of inoculating children and meeting with village elders. Indeed, the U.S. presence is small, but it’s noticeable. At the airport in Bamako, I watched an unmarked, narwhal-gray transport plane taxi to a stop the next runway over. The men who emerged had a distinctively American swagger, little flags on their flight suits.

Africa
Foreign policy
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City of Gold

457844090_229d4c3314_o2(From the upcoming 4xAfrica show at Rayko SF. Click on the image for a larger version.)

Johannesburg, South Africa, 2006.

Egoli–City of Gold–is Johannesburg’s African name, a sort of promised land for job seekers from rural South Africa, and indeed all of southern Africa. Few of these migrants get rich, of course. They fill the inner-city’s decaying apartment blocks and the ever-expanding shantytowns out on the veld, getting by however they can. But they keep coming. Here, at least, they have a chance.

Africa
Events
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South Africa
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The Couch Farm

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(From the upcoming 4xAfrica show at Rayko SF. Click on the image for a larger version.)

Kitwe, Zambia, 2010.

You can buy a lot of stuff on the side of the road: newspapers, cellphone chargers, occasionally auto parts. When I was last in South Africa, hawkers kept handing me flyers for “Dr. Mamba,” a traditional healer who promises cures for all ailments–monetary, psychic, or sexual. In Zambia, I came across this outdoor furniture market on the outskirts of Kitwe, a rough mining town near the Congo border. Rows of couches stretched to the horizon.


Africa
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San Francisco
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Urban Africa

Maputo, Mozambique

I’ve got close to 20 images in “4xAfrica,” an exhibition showing at Rayko photo gallery in San Francisco from January 27 – February 27. My photos span a decade of work, from Cairo to Cape Town. The opening is Thursday, January 27, from 6-8 pm, so if you’re in the Bay Area, please stop by and say hello.

The accompanying essay is below. For those who can’t make it to the gallery, I’ve put the photos into a set on Flickr. In the days to come, I’ll post a few of the photos, along with the mini-stories that go along with them.

457844090_229d4c3314_o1First we buy the meat, a pile of spicy red sausage, at a strip-mall butcher shop. Then we get the beer, lugging it past an armed guard at the door who zealously tears our receipt. Then the grilling commences, at a public fire-pit on the grassy verge separating the mall parking lot and the main road, which cuts through northern Soweto in a roar of honking minibuses. Hip hop and local house music blare from one of our cars. We eat and drink under the highveld sun.

As the beer flows, we talk about the world-beating incompetence of the national soccer team; about the perils of jealous neighbors paying witchdoctors to curse you; and about the merits of Facebook. A group of girls wanders by, and a few of the guys chat them up.

511089638_205e9fc2d0_o1My friend Tumi turns to me. “The first time you came here, were you expecting lions and tigers?” he jokes.

Mention Africa, and most people think of savannas and deserts, game parks and thatched-roof huts. It is a dizzyingly varied place–with so many countries and cultures, how could it fail to be?–and resists easy generalization. Like the rest of the world, however, Africa is rapidly urbanizing: by 2015, close to half of the continent’s population will live in cities.

3976819575_5884ed3733_o2Take Soweto, the largest of South Africa’s black townships, 20 miles south of Johannesburg and home to some 4 million people. It is a geography of extremes. Some neighborhoods are filled with tin-roofed squatter shacks, where people get their water from communal standpipes and filch electricity from the main grid. But it is also a place of crisp, modern housing complexes bristling with satellite dishes and monolithic new fieldstone-and-glass shopping malls. There are banks, luxury shops, and cafes where young professionals peck away on Macbooks.

3976811035_b50ec5dc0c_o1Indeed, what used to be an undifferentiated grey mass on apartheid-era maps, a warehouse to store Johannesburg’s black labor between working hours, has become a city in its own right. And Soweto is now part of a nearly unbroken strip of office towers, low-rise suburbs, and shantytowns stretching from southern Johannesburg to Pretoria, 30 miles away. Maybe 9 million people live here now, and more arrive every day in search of opportunities the countryside can’t provide. They call it Egoli, or City of Gold.

Places like Soweto are increasingly the story of how Africans live, from Mali’s low-slung cities, which unfurl across the land in dusty folds of cement and rebar, to Zambia’s Copperbelt, an archipelago of sleepy, seedy mining towns running along the Congo border, studded by precious minerals and checkpoints.

457886411_30ca203d12_o1My friends come from these places. Zé was working for a rental car company in Maputo, Mozambique, when I met him, and living in a decrepit Chinese-built skyscraper in the capital. The elevator hadn’t worked for years, so he trudged up and down the 14 floors to his apartment in the subtropical heat. Dale, a 32-year-old political organizer and jack-of-all trades, grew up in Lusaka, Zambia, part of the first generation of Zambians to be born in cities in large numbers. He sometimes goes out to his father’s small wildcat mine “in the bush,” as he calls it, and I get the sense that it’s almost as much an adventure for him as it would be for me.

457878679_0b79fab431_o1Urbanization, of course, brings with it a loss of tradition. Many of us have seen the news reports about Masai warriors working as night watchmen in Nairobi. But some of the old ways endure. There’s an African concept called ubuntu, meaning that one’s identity is bound to that of the family and the neighborhood. More or less, ubuntu enjoins people to look out for one another. In South Africa, it staved off the collapse of black society under apartheid. What the concept means nowadays for my friends is responsibility. These guys hold up the sky for everyone around them. Thami, a 30-year-old activist in Soweto, supports his son, his girlfriend, his mother, and her two teenage daughters by another father. Plus, because he has a job, every corner kid hits him up for cash. They call him a “cheeseboy,” and sometimes threaten him if he doesn’t cough up beer money.

457869073_d1487c4f98_o1Years ago, Thami’s elders marched in the streets, firebombed buildings, and at great cost won political freedom. Unlike their fathers and grandfathers, whose lives were largely defined by the anti-apartheid struggle, guys like Thami face different challenges. Unemployment in Soweto is estimated at 40 percent, so everybody has to hustle. Most everyone is an entrepreneur of some sort: door-to-door salesman, restaurateur, even car thief.

457869077_cd466fbf6e_o1Back at the barbecue, the bottles are piling up. Thami proposes a toast of sorts. “Sometimes when it gets too hard I think of how far I’ve come,” he says. “Just staying alive until now is something to celebrate.” He raises his beer.

The sun turns red, dropping behind the mall and, beyond it, the manmade mountains separating Soweto from Johannesburg. These hills, flat-topped heaps of castoff dirt and rock, are the byproduct of the gold mines that made Jo’burg the richest city on the continent. In the waning light, even these mine dumps look like bars of gold.

Africa
Events
Middle East
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San Francisco
South Africa
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The View from Zambia

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I didn’t get the chance to shoot as much as I would have liked on my recent reporting trip to Zambia, but I brought back a few images–of 1970s rock stars, couch farms, and tough little frontier towns, among other things. You can see them all here.

Africa
Photography
Travel

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