Madoda Mkhobeni is a street photographer, and for over a decade has been documenting the daily life struggles of people who reside in inner-city Johannesburg and Soweto. His project – Trolley Pullers – forms part of a long-term project focusing on the lives of migrants who collect recyclable materials, the challenges they face, and the ways law enforcement practices and city policies impact their livelihoods and well-being. Madoda sees Johannesburg as a city made up of spaces in which everyone is claiming a specific space. His photo story ‘Trolley Pullers’ aims to show spaces and realities of people which most of society does not (want to) pay attention to.
MA student Esther V. Kraler was in conversation with Madoda Mkhobeni who gave a personal account on his way of working, the role of time and space in his project and the friendships he formed along the way.
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How did you start your project ‘Trolley Pullers’? How did you get into contact with the people and what was your role in the group? Because you spent quite some time with them and also stayed with them for several months, right?
How I started the project…I used to be a potraiture photographer and doing street documentary. Long time ago, at a place called Newtown Mall Junction, before they built it, there was a place called ‘couch and coffee’. Next to ‘couch and coffee’ when you jump the robot, there is a restaurant there. Before there was a restaurant, there was homeless people who were living there. Everytime when I pass, I will ask them for a photo, take them a photo and then come back, submit the photo. And then, I didn’t make a follow-up photographing them. Up until then, they told me, come and take us pictures. So, I started photographing them – without thinking about what was I doing.
What was interesting for you [about that]? Why did you approach them or what was your idea about their lives?
My ideas in photographing them…I was interested in a small black trolley that they were using. Me, I was following this trolley and then this trolley introduced me straight to these spaces, these private and public spaces. Then, I started doing the project.
When I was doing the project, what I witnessed was that it’s differet people and they are occupying a space. A space which I could say, it’s an outskirt space in the city. And as a photographer what I did is to spend time with them, without having a clear clear direction of what was the story was I working on by that time. I was interested in documenting now and then because what I used to do was photographing the city but when I am tired, I would go and visit them, take pictures. It was then, I started noticing that there is something. There is a story here.
So, why do you think the people let you into their space?
I sold my trust to them. I made it sure that I don’t dissapoint them. I do by all means to put my trust in them and then they put their trust in me. First, it all started by portrait photgraphs that I was taking them. They will ask me, ‘Would you bring my photo, are you sure?’ And I will say, ‘I will bring your photo.’ When I come back, bringing those photos, I will relax, sit around the fire or bask in the sun with them, watch them do whatever they are doing. I was not shutter-happy in taking pictures, just spent time. Probably two, three hours without taking pictures. As I am going in and out visiting them, they start noticing me that ‘Ok, there is a man with a camera.’ Some were not friend at first, some were very furious at me. Some did not want me even closer to them.
What were they afraid of, you think? What did they not like?
Later at some stage I discovered that they have got their own personal stories, where they come from. Some they run away from whatever criminal activities that they were doing, more especially those who are local, from here in South Africa. The one from outside countries, they were very fair to say to me, ‘We have papers, we hide our papers underneath the rocks somewhere. If it is raining or there is election or we want to do something or the police would produce these papers.’ They were very fair to me, to tell me that.
But I think others, they had their own personal stories. They will related that stories after some time, long time ago that, ‘You know why I don’t want you to take me a picture? I have got children, I have got family, I don’t want to appear somewhere. I don’t want to appear somewhere.’ Then I will notice that they will buy their story.
But there is some sitting there, operating there all the time. They were very kind to me, up until they said to me, ‘Ok, you can take pictures, do whatever that you want to do.’ Even for me now, everything started to be easy. Because how they approached me, I even spent time where I wanted to go to them in the Northern suburbs and then they tell me that ‘You can come and sleep’. When I was sleeping with them, they were sharing stories and then they would use a pen and a paper and write notes, write their names. Up until they gained trust, they were open to me to take them pictures.
What do you think were their motivations to trust you or to let you tell their stories? Or did everything just sort of happen? Because at first you approached them without knowing that there will be something that you want to tell, right? So how did that transition look like?
It automatically happened, there was no plan at all. I didn’t wake up in the morning or write a brief that I want to do a story. There was nothing like that. There wasn’t at the start using a camera. Some of the stories they come when I take photos randomely and I visit people and I look at their environment and then I come back. But most of the stories that I do, I start from the photographs that I take. Once I am at the lab, I print those photographs, I spend time, I look at the photographs and then, that’s when I am going to have ideas, or when I go in and out of that space or that public space. That’s when I start to say, here, there is a story, I can do something. And then that story will grow as I go in and out.
So, maybe you can tell me a bit more about how you see your role as a photographer?
In documenting these stories. My role as a photographer is to go deeper with stories to an extent that I push myself to the edge. I am not time-limited, I don’t have deadlines to submit, I am not in a rush to publish. The only thing that I do is spending time as much as I can and then again the stories that I do…I do stories that even the mainstream media cannot easily reach or someone who is carrying a camera will have a tough time to do that story. So, I spent time to make sure that I share these stories that I do with the same people that I photograph. And try by all means to fit to his shoes. How he lives that space or as I am photographing that person.
But isn’t a photo always framed in a way? Because you decide in what light you present something, right? So you have the power to create an image in a way.
The way I frame, the way I produced my work, I make it sure that I can lead the viewer. The composition of how am I going to describe the place, it will tell you where is this place but I will make sure that there is a decisive moment. I work more especially with moment. I am coming from a background of street photography where I look at small things, even if it’s a symbolic image or it’s a simple action but I will look out for something that is very interesting in that picture. So, if I am doing a photo story, it becomes very very easy to do it. Everything is there for me, there is nothing I am going to change. There is nothing that I am going to try to photograph it in a vice versa way. Once I am there, I am there. All the pictures must tell what’s going on, where is the place, I don’t have to hide anything. I am trying to be very very open and honest with the images that I take when doing photo stories.
Related to that, coming back to the ‘Trolley Pullers’. How did you communicate that you will also publish some of the material?
You know, when I worked on the story, there were those who would say to me, ‘Do the story, make sure the story don’t appear in Zimbabwe.’ But as we were discussing some would say, ‘Oh no, we can’t allow Madoda to photograph us and then we built bridges or walls and tell him how to photograph us but one day when we’re happy, we ask him to take us pictures randomely and then he take those pictures. So let him do his own thing and photograph the way he will photograph but Madoda, if the images will be used, can you make sure that you will use them after some time, not now? Because now, we are here, we are struggeling.’
How do you feel about publishing material that is very personal and close to you and people who you have become friends with?
For me, it’s a loss, at the same time, it’s an opportunity. I feel like I am losing my baby here. I feel like something that I have worked for for years, how it must go out there, people must see it, even the spaces are no longer there. They are all dead spaces. New buildings. Even the people that are in the photographs, in the process of making the story, they passed away when I was there. I have images of those people that they would say, passed away. It would strike me so bad because when I get home, I would check the archive, I could see that person, come back to them, they would ask me, ‘Bring the picture!’ So today seeing the work, I don’t know, it’s a loss. There’s nothing I can do. The work must be out there.
Why do you want to put it out there? What do you want to say with it?
So much has happened in Jo’burg. Jo’burg has changed and is slowly changing. I have documented Jo’burg for a very long time. I have the material and I feel that it’s time now. Because if I don’t use the material, the story will be lost. It was time that allowed me to photograph the guys. Now, it’s another time. I am sitting here at ACMS.
When they allowed me to enter in their lives, they told me things that I was not even sure of, things I was not aware that they exist. These were not homeless people who just crashed at an open space and then worked on the recycling material while they get payed, they get drunk or they do all sorts of bad things in town. These are responsible people, people who have got families, people who write letters, people who are concerned with their lives in Johannesburg, people who are futuristic with their lives.
I want people [who look at the work] to discover their [the trolley pullers’] life, how are they living away from pulling the trolley. Because most of the time, people, they see them [the trolley pullers] on the street, pulling the trolley. They don’t know where they [the trolley pullers] end up, who are they, they see them [the trolley pullers] in a scrapyard metal, taking recycling material. They are not sure why there is people. They see them in a car windows, they see them in a taxi, they see them on TV, but they are not exactly sure who are they. So with the story that I was doing, I want them [people looking at the work] to go deeper with me as I was doing the story, understand these people [the trolley pullers], understand the meaning of the space to them, understand the meaning of leaving their home and coming here in Jo’burg, why did they come to Jo’burg, what were their purpose here in Johannesburg.
About the author: Esther V. Kraler is an MA student in Ethnic and Migration Studies at Linköping University. She completed her BA in Transcultural Communication at the University of Vienna. With her work, Esther wants to tackle the unspoken, to shed light on how who we are and what we do is influenced by structural and personal realities and to support alternative possibilities of knowing/being/feeling in the world. She is currently an exchange student at ACMS, and is also a maHp intern.