10 QUESTIONS: Mark Lewis and Tanya Zack

BY ALEXANDER MATTHEWS

Urban planner Tanya Zack and photographer Mark Lewis are behind Wake up, this is Joburg, a 10-book series of stories about people living in Johannesburg.

Mark and Tanya, tell me about your relationship with Johannesburg.

Tanya Zack: I have always had a passion for the inner city (I was raised in Bertrams so some of this may well be a cathartic interest). I have always lived in Johannesburg. But from around 2008 I had the opportunity through my work – doing research and policy – to work on some of the big issue areas of the inner city – such as so-called “bad buildings”. My approach has been to try to understand the underlying conditions and causes of the challenges that face Johannesburg. Of course this sounds like and is policy speak but at a more personal level it is also true. I have become convinced that I need to spend more time in understanding and in diagnosing what I see in the city before I can hope to respond to it as an urban planning practitioner.

I started walking the streets of the inner city and I was overwhelmed with the excitement of it. I learnt so much, saw so much I didn’t know existed in Johannesburg and also simply encountered these incredible experiences of interacting with people or of just watching.

Photography became a natural extension for me in the act of watching and I spent many months taking photos. This was also vehicle of access because each photo required conversation, and permissions and so I got talking to people. The next stage in this unplanned journey was the collection of stories. In some cases the stories popped up because I encountered them in my wanderings. In other cases I set out specifically to understand a specific activity or person life and livelihood in the city. For instance, I followed recyclers over a number of days and in some cases followed their stories over many months. Not every story is intended for publication. In fact most are just my personal encounter with my city.

Mark Lewis: I was born and schooled in Klerksdorp and then moved to Joburg where I lived in Yeoville and Berea. I then moved into the inner city and lived and worked in Jeppe Street and Wanderers Street from 1979 through to 1983.The city then moved to a very different soundtrack. I then left Joburg and only returned to live 3 years ago. My association with the city in the beginning was witnessed through a closed window in and out of Maboneng but I became increasingly excited by what I saw and was looking for an excuse to start walking and experiencing the newly occupied spaces. So my reintroduction to the city was largely facilitated by Tanya as we began trawling the streets for stories and I finally had found the excuse that I had been looking for.

How did Wake up, this is Joburg come about?

TZ: Mark Lewis and I found a common interest in the collection of stories as he has done a great deal of documentary photography and so we embarked on a conscious journey of collecting stories of Joburg. We are both taken with Johannesburg as a city of surprise and a city constantly in the making and in the remaking. It remodels itself, it changes uses, it attracts new people and it is constantly shifting in dramatic ways. This is most obvious in the inner city, where we have found many of our stories.

What do you hope the books will achieve?

TZ: We hope that an empathetic view emerges in the work – we certainly do try to understand quite closely what people’s living and working conditions are and something of their personal stories. But beyond looking more closely and the huge privilege it is to get access to anyone’s life to look that closely, we don’t have a change agenda: we have a curiosity agenda. We really wanted to know about these things ourselves. We think other people may also find them interesting.

The stories and photographs come out of a curiosity and passion for the city and for knowing what “lies behind”. For us, the exploratory journey allows us to learn something about people’s intimate engagement with the city, often through making a living. It also allows us to take a closer look at spaces in the city, their use, their re-use and ordinary or unexpected aspects to these spaces. Perhaps these stories reveal something deeper about the city as it is today. There are layers in the telling and care is taken to illuminate a bigger story in each image. These are also layered. In terms of integrating communities etc. I have no such ambitions for my project. If we can alert people in Joburg to something that feels a little lesser known and through that inspire a greater affection for this city of possibilities we will have achieved a lot.

Wake up, this is Joburg 5/10 Cover
“Good Riddance”, the fourth book in the series, has just been published.

How did you find the stories you showcase, and how long does it take you to research, write and photograph each one?

TZ: We find the stories by trawling the inner city. We walk and drive and look. And of course we spend a lot of time chatting to people, scouting for ideas and possibilities. We brainstorm possible spaces and activities and we try. We follow these leads and some open up stories. The research takes many months and in some cases we are telling stories of people who we have interviewed and watched over several years. It is an enormous privilege to be allowed that much access to individuals and building up those relationships takes a long time.

For each of you, what was the most memorable moment from working on this project?

TZ: For me the most painful moment was a visit to the home of the protagonist in our Yeoville story, Inside Out, where so many of my preconceptions were turned up as the family was divided on whether or not to allow a portrait to be taken for the book. I learnt something deeper than I had ever understood about the agony and complexity of being migrant in Johannesburg.

The most joyous moment for me was an unexpected encounter with a reclaimer (whose story does not appear in the books yet) who fashioned his trolley into an army jeep.

The day we spent on the top of the landfill site where men were reclaiming from trucks and birds were swooping up amidst the waste and against the backdrop of the city was magical.

ML: For me it was the moment we walked into Kazerne to witness the chopping of cow heads (the first story). Firstly I had never seen such a thing and also the realisation that this journey was about to begin both with Joburg and Tanya.

Wake up, this is Joburg 5/10What made you decide on the 10-book format, and are there plans to combine the books into a single one?

TZ: We thought we would create one book and proposed this to Fourthwall Books. Bronwyn and Oliver had just been at an international book fair and were inspired by the idea of individualised art books that are each beautiful artefacts that together make up a collection; the idea of 10 books was theirs. Each then is a single photo essay and each book allows enough space for a lengthy essay and rich displays of photographs. The photo book is an innovative format and allows the narrative and images to interplay well.

The first editions of the first three books published have sold out. We hope this reflects a demand for the work and we would like to create a composite book perhaps of larger format that really showcases the images and that could knit the stories together.

Wake up, this is Joburg 5/10Together, the words and images tell the story. Explain how the collaboration process worked – did you work together, or do interviews and photography separately?

TZ: We work together. This is necessary because the whole process is entirely interactive – what we are seeing and what different angles we each notice in the tales we hear or the places we look at all combine into both what images will be chosen and what story we will weave.

Mark, what has been the greatest challenge when photographing this series?

ML: There has been no specific challenge other than the eternal challenge of representing what you see in a meaningful way that satisfies both me  and the story.

Wake up, this is Joburg 5/10Why did you decide to make the text available in two languages?

TZ: The idea of translating the work came from Bronwyn Law-Viljoen who works closely with the Language School at Wits. Each story is translated into a language other than English, that matches the story. We have used Zulu, French, Portuguese and Sesotho in the books that have been published so far. The broadening of language broadens access but is also a tribute to the protagonists of our stories. The translator for Good Riddance commended Bronwyn for “leading from the front” in this initiative of translating the work.

A project like this involves intense research, preparation and execution. How did you go about funding this process?

TZ: The production of the books is very costly and they require external funding. We depend on sponsorship to cover some of the basic input costs and have had assistance from GIBS Business School and from IFAS for two of our books. But we are still trying to raise the funding to allow the further books to be published. Fourthwall has covered some basic costs and we have also committed our own monies to costs. To date our own input, research and photography, editing and layout has not been covered and has been a contribution that the four of us (me, Mark, Bronwyn and Oliver) have made to make the series possible. The sale of each book funds the future books.

Wake up, this is Joburg 5/10Good Riddance, the fourth book in the series, has just been published by Fourthwall Books.

 

Snapshot of an urban Africa

BY RASHIQ FATAAR

Against the backdrop of rapid growth, urbanisation and globalisation across Africa, Afropolis: City, Media, Art  showcases  the evolving nature of 5 African cities through a showcase of media, art, and narratives; each exhibits of contemporary urban African life.

Born as an exhibition at the opening of the Rautenbauch-Joest-Museum in Cologne in  2012, and then translated into English, the book is produced with the support of the Goethe-Institut and edited by Kerstin Pinther, Larissa Förster and Christian Hanussek.

The book’s strength is in its conglomeration of representations of  the African metropolis through contemporary life rather than grand ambitions and visions. Each representation seeks to challenge perceptions of a modern African metropolis that is unlike the mega-cities of New York, Shanghai, London and others.

With a focus on five cities — Lagos, Nairobi, Kinshasa, Cairo and Johannesburg — the compendium makes good on its aim to expand our notion of urbanity and the city from the African perspective. While the lens of a mega-city may be a limiting entry point, the catalogue is not prescriptive in what  form and shape the African mega-city should take.

The juxtaposition of contributions, whether it be from scholars like Edgar Pieterse and AbdouMaliq Simone, artists and designers like Sabelo Mlangeni and David Adjaye or photographers like Uche Okpa-Iroha and Van Leo, presents the respective African cities in a more multi-faceted, layered fashion, drawing us away from traditional narratives of a struggling Africa in dire need of infrastructure.

The strength of the visual content is that it is not included as an interlude between written parts but gives a face to the challenges of infrastructure and transport alongside that of refugees, grassroots initiatives in media, contemporary art and photography.

For the South African reader it houses Johannesburg inside this compendium, which echoes Simone’s view that the city is “about as far away as one can get from the popular image of the African village” but, also, at once makes Johannesburg part of a broader African dialogue on cities often missing in similar discussions.

Afropolis finds a balance between being academic and insightful, while being youthful, and comical. Given its roots as an exhibition, it purposefully seeks not to achieve a flow and easy transition between topics and cities, but rather takes the reader on a journey of an exhibition of singular pieces but within a larger but less important mega-city narrative.

While it is certainly not a singular voice in driving a new dialogue about the evolution and development of the African metropolis, Afropolis is able to curate a snapshot in time, illuminating where this evolution may head and the actors in the media, art and academic world that may be driving it. Introducing other African cities through future editions could maintain the momentum of the dialogue and showcase even more from cities on a continent that will fill the front cover page of the coming decades.

Afropolis is published in South Africa by Jacana, and is available from Kalahari.com.
Rashiq Fataar is the founder and director of Our Future Cities, which includes Future Cape TownFuture Johannesburg, Future Lagos and Future London.

Unpicking the African city

BY BRETT PETZER

This year’s bedside book for those perplexed, fascinated, enthused and enraged by the African city is Rogue Urbanism : Emergent African Cities edited by Edgar Pieterse and AbdouMaliq Simone. The poetry, photography, narrative and academic writing that sing this continent’s shift towards a new primacy of the urban over the rural condition are cautious offerings. This is not the final word on an urbanism disobedient to the current found wisdom on cities, nor is it the first (readers of Counter-Currents — a 2012 work produced by UCT’s African Centre for Cities and also edited by Pieterse — will be deeply satisfied to know that the subediting of this volume is, at last, as good as the layout design).

One of the simplest aspects of the book that speaks most powerfully about its implicit mission to make an African work on an African theme – as much in its physical and intellectual production on home ground as in its subject matter – is the very light way in which it features several entries in French. These are not corralled away in an appendix but natural and unflagged parts of the text. This fluid, interwoven multilingualism makes the index feel like any busy African urban market: big ideas are being trafficked here – many not of the culture, language and perspective you were sold on the cover. The book is much the better for it, and it is to be hoped that future editions may expand to include Portuguese, Arabic and KiSwahili writing.

Perhaps the strongest part of Rogue Urbanism’s offering is the richness and timeousness of its offering as a collection. This is in excess of the power of individual contributions (such as the matchless Nnamdi Elleh on underprivileged urban housing as the central challenge to modernity, or Simone on the imaginaries of the urban economy in Kinshasa, or Orli Bass on pre-colonial versus post-apartheid urbanism in Durban).

Beyond the illustrations of the texts, it is Rogue Urbanism’s full-length photo essays that contest and contextualise the claims made by the scholarship. Rogue Urbanism is not only for academics, nor is it entirely effortless for the casual reader. It asks the academy to engage with an affective dimension of the urban experience, as captured by photographers and in text; it asks the casual reader to engage rigorously with the social, cultural and political paradigms and processes that subtend lived experience and narrative. If this is the future of a hybrid academic-popular publishing, we could be at the start of a golden age.

Rogue Urbanism is published by Jacana is available from Kalahari.com.

Brett Petzer is an urbanist, journalist and French-English translator.