This is Robert Mdamalala and when I met him in the park he had been working out of the same spot for 11 years - that was in 2004. He would come to work in a suit and tie every day, dressed pretty much as you see him. When I went back recently he wasn’t there any more and nobody could tell me where he’d gone, but at this point he’d been coming to work for 11 years.
2001 was the beginning of a huge resurgence in interest in the inner city which was terribly derelict at that time. I was invited onto this public art project that asked artists to engage with the culture and economy of Joubert Park, where we are now, and the Johannesburg Art Gallery, which is behind me. With my interest in photography and not knowing Johannesburg very well yet, I was incredibly excited to find the park was full of street photographers. So that the centre of the culture and economy of the park was the work of the street photographer. And at the time, there was an east west access of the park was operating, these were the two gates that were open and there was this incredibly rapid movement of people walking to the park as there is now. There’s this constant movement. And at the same time I was very struck by how the photographers occupied incredibly intense and fixed positions in the park which some of them had been occupying for upwards of twenty years.
As you can see, I’ve used a very shallow depth of field. I was interested in the photographer themself being the focus of the image and the park is represented in a very generalised kind of way. And in most of the portraits you can see a kind of blurry, green bougainvillea background. Not all of them are as close up as this one. There are forty in total, but the park is always a very generalised backdrop and the focus is on the photographer.
Mduduzi Ntshangase: My uncle was a photographer – he’s still alive. He took me to Joubert when I was a boy – 16 or 17 years old. So I came here for his business and then shortly afterwards then he promoted me to my own boss. He gave me a camera and I started to work for myself.
TK: The photographers are often migrants and many of their subjects are also migrants. And I was interested too – I’m very interested in the notion of how people perform their identities for the camera. And I was interested in these particular photographs how people who have a tenuous hold on a new life in the city of Johannesburg perform an identity or perform a family relationship or a personal relationship people would change many times. They’ll wear the outfits they wear to their church, they’ll wear their best clothes that are reserved for special occasions. They’ll perform multiple identities and commission the photographer to capture these identities that are often at odds with what is really happening in their lives.
I was interested in how their body of work had become such an extraordinary social history archive, an unorganised one, but nonetheless each one of them at any time carries in their bag lots and lots of unclaimed photographs that have been commissioned and that between them, between these 40 photographers, was this extraordinary informal social history archive that documented who was coming to the city 20 years ago and who’s coming to it now.