KLIPTOWN PHOTOGRAPHY PROJECT

Teaching documentary photography to the youth of Kliptown, South Africa

The Kliptown Photo Project is dedicated to creating opportunities for the high school students of Kliptown, South Africa, one of the oldest informal settlements in Soweto, where residents live with up to four generations of their families in one or two room shacks without electricity, running water or public services.

In July 2014 we went to Kliptown and worked with one American photographer and three young African photographers to run a week long photo workshop for 15 students. We believe that learning photography is a way to foster creativity and connection. We wanted our students to show us the world through their eyes and gain skills, confidence, and agency through the process.

We provided digital cameras for each student and worked with them in the classroom, the community, and the computer lab, teaching them everything from lighting and composition to how to photograph strangers and upload their photos to facebook. The students were hard working, enthused, and hungry for knowledge; it was an exciting and powerful week for all participants.

An exhibition of the photographs taken by the students and their teachers took place a month after the workshop at Mashumi Art Projects in Soweto and was a great critical success. The students were able to see their work in the gallery, which was an empowering and thrilling experience for them. Photos are also available for sale on this website.  Proceeds from the exhibition and sale of photographs will go to the Kliptown Youth Program to further their educational and arts programs in the community.

Browse through our store -- you can purchase photos taken by our students and instructors to help sustain the project or you can simply make a donation to sustain the project. 

Ulwimi ululodwa alonelanga, which is a Zulu phrase meaning, "One language is never enough."

Seeing Kliptown with New Eyes

The informal settlement at Kliptown is a slum. There's really no nice way to put it. Here in Kliptown, there are very sporadic (or no) municipal services. It is a community abandoned by the larger community.

There are spigots for water in the community -- about one spigot per 900 to 1,000 residents. Sometimes the spigots run dry. Sometimes the lines are huge to get the water, which makes having water, for cooking, cleaning and drinking, a constant priority for residents. Living here, you can assume nothing, so being prepared with several back up buckets of water is essential to getting through any given day. 

As there is no refuse pick up, trash is strewn everywhere, often in fields or areas which become sort of de facto dumps, but which are immediately adjacent to homes. Here in the informal settlement, there are anywhere from 45,000 to 55,000 residents (I think an accurate census is particularly tough in this neighborhood) -- 50,000 people create a lot of trash. With nowhere for it to go, you find it everywhere, but most at the edges of town where there are some big fields full of trash. With no pick up, the trash is periodically burned. It is a distinct, acrid smell, the smell of burning trash. 

The residents, all 50,000-ish, use port-a-johns, about 10 families per potty. There are groups of potties lining the streets and alleys. Each group of 10 families chips in to pay for the emptying of the potties. If you think about 10 families and estimate five people per family, that's 50 people per toilet. Even in June and July, in the winter, when the air is dry and cool, those can become quite pungent, too.

When we arrived in the mornings, our host would drop us at the entrance, and we walked probably 500 yards (roughly the same in meters), down one of the main streets. It is rough dirt, although there are chunks of pavement here and there -- it seems like, at some point, there may have been an attempt at having an asphalt road, but it's best days are long behind it. The leftovers of this attempted paving make the footing worse, not better. The road is rutted and rough and there are streams of water running down and around and across the road, most of which stem from the community spigots. You have to constantly be aware of the footing, or you'll twist an ankle or fall on your face into a puddle of dubious origin. 

In rainy season, this road is an impassable mud bog. 

I've painted a pretty grim picture. And I wanted to do that because, although working with the KYP was incredible, there is such a huge need for so many things here in Kliptown. The conditions are desperate. 

All of that said, coming into Kliptown day after day, having it be 'our office', as it were, we got comfortable. We relaxed into it. The more like home it felt, the more I could see it, which is to say, see it more clearly, or see it on a deeper level.

The houses are shacks. Most have corrugated tin roofs. Many are built so that they form a small courtyard with three or four other houses. Some have small yards (no more than say five feet by five feet) and those with yards often have fencing marking off the yard from the common territory. Very often, old bed springs, shorn of any fabric, now rusted, are used as fencing. They are strangely beautiful.

As the week went on, I could see the care people put into maintaining their little space. Every morning, women were out raking or sweeping the dirt which made up their yard or walkway or courtyard space. Sure, the street might be lined with trash, and the fumes from burning garbage might burn your nose, but their yards were immaculate. Sometimes, I'd dart out of the classroom and just take a wee stroll around, trying to just open my eyes to really see. What I saw were men and women clustered in those courtyards, or sitting together in yards, or sitting alone, washing clothes (and often shoes) in buckets of soapy water. Clean laundry hung on every available space.

The more I walked, the more I saw, the more I exchanged pleasantries with everybody I passed, the more it became clear that, in many respects, Kliptown is a town like many other towns. And, in fact, it's a lot like the little mill town where I grew up. Most of the people work. There are hard-working people here, and probably a few lazy ones, too. There are families of all kinds of shapes and sizes -- aunts, uncles, grandparents living with nuclear families. There are kindly neighbors and some annoying ones, no doubt; there are lots of kids, a few bodegas, butchers and a makeshift barber shop under an overpass. Like many neighborhoods, there are some characters to be avoided, but by and large, this is a very tight-knit community. 

It was a gift to be able to immerse ourselves in Kliptown. It afforded us the ability to see this place through a new lens. Our ability to see was bent and re-cast, refracted, hammered into slightly new shapes; it was polished and worn until we could see things which had previously been invisible to us before. Time provided us that gift, but so did our students, who shared their photos of the place, but who also told us a bit more about themselves, their lives and their families with every passing day. 

Linda and I dreamed up this project to help our students see. We wanted to 'break their eyes open,' which is to say, make them see themselves and their world anew. I hope we did that. For certain, our week in Kliptown broke our eyes open, too. 

Photo below by course instructor Tila Nomvula Mathizerd.