I had the pleasure of going to a photo exhibition/film screening last night. I was invited by Clare, who has been diligently devoted to photographically documenting my journey. The exhibition was in downtown Cape Town last night so i walked up to see what was going on. The photos exhibited were what people call “street photography”, and they were taken by mostly young, up and coming photographers. All of the pictures were taken in the townships; kind of a “day in the life” kind of thing. The images were striking and beautiful, yet dripping with contrast and irony. One picture that really struck me was of a young boy laying on top of a toilet, in a seemingly “informal settlement”. It was one of those toilets you find in the “developing” areas, where the people have to go outside to use it. The boy was laying on top of the toilet and the picture was taken from below. Just under the boy’s face, there was something written on the toilet with paint, “Better life”. Striking.
After a crowd gathered at the venue, they played a film about the Then and Now photo exhibition. The film focused on the journey of photographer Paul Weinberg, travelling around visiting friends from his past. But these weren’t just any friends. Paul and his 7 comrades were visual messengers from South Africa to the rest of the world during the Apartheid Era. They were documentary photographers, of all different races and backgrounds, that were dedicated to documenting the “wrongs” of Apartheid from all different angles. For instance, Guy Tillim’s pictures often displayed the graphic violence of the ground level in the townships, whilst Gisele Wulfsohn’s photos showed images of the “other side” of Apartheid, often capturing images of domestic workers being mistreated and the ugliness of “white superiority”. Each photographer doing their part, playing their role, to get out the story to the rest of the world about what was going on in South Africa. If not for these brave photographers, and others like them, the rest of the world may not have gotten a clear “picture” of what was going on in South Africa during those dark years.
It got me thinking. What if the rest of the world would have become calloused to seeing pictures of young black children crying and running from military police, images of black men being malled by police dogs, photos of the hundreds upon thousands of people murdered by the Apartheid Regime and the many other atrocities captured on film. If people just accepted that “that’s happening” and were not moved by what they saw, Apartheid might still be around to this very day. But people were disgusted by what they saw. They protested. They wrote letters to their governments. They rallied. They fought. And the images they saw were the wind that fanned the fire that burned within them to cry out and fight for change.
2008. There are children living on the streets of our biggest cities. Cape Town is one of the most popular tourist destinations in the world. It might possibly be one of the most beautiful ones! But it is a city that stinks with harsh contrasts. Much of the poverty of Cape Town can be “hidden” from tourists, but the children that live on the streets cannot. They are a direct reminder of the past, a thorn in the side of tourism, a nuisance to businesses and an embarrassment to the government. But the saddest part is, they are a part of life in Cape Town. People accept the fact that they are there. Locals pass by them without even thinking twice; calloused by daily images of a young child digging through a rubbish bin for food. Foreign tourists alike are calloused in their own way. It is almost as if they “expect” to see “street children” in a third world country and they patronizingly take photos of and with them, and give them food and money enabling their drug use and life on the streets. Very few people are “struck” by the image of a child living on the streets of Cape Town. If you took the same child and placed him or her in a different context, say Zurich, people would be shocked! They would approach the kid, try and help, be uncomfortable about the child being there, and be moved to do something. But in Cape Town, we have accepted it as the norm.
Many people have asked me what i hope to achieve with my 16 days on the streets. At the very least i hope to stir conversation and dialogue about the situation of these children. Thinking bigger, i would love to create an awareness that reaches the masses. An awareness where the vast majority says, “wait a minute! it is WRONG to allow a child to live on the streets!!”. Where the majority of the people do not accept it and no longer see it as “normal”, but view it as child abuse to allow a child to live on the streets. Not to pass by the child feeling bad, angry, sad, guilty, but dis-empowered to see a solution and merely move on with life. But that the image of a child living on the streets would be so strikingly WRONG to a vast majority of people that change would be inevitable. That mere awareness and acknowledgment of the masses is the foundation we need to begin to tackle this huge social ill. And with that foundation laid we can begin to put in the work and structures to see real change come in the lives of these children.
I urge you to no longer view these children from experience, whether past, present or future. But see them for what they are: children who have been robbed of so much, but need us to be adults and guide them and direct them towards better choices. I sit here with tears in my eyes and beg you not not be calloused by the images of children…CHILDREN living on the streets. Allow the images of them to burn in your mind and haunt you, as they do me, to the point where we all push for change together!