How photography helped get S. African teens off the streets

Two formerly homeless youths show off a collection of photography-based crafts. The youths were taught photography by the project 'I was shot in Joburg'.
Two formerly homeless youths show off a collection of photography-based crafts. The youths were taught photography by the project 'I was shot in Joburg'.

In one of Johannesburg's most crime-ridden neighbourhoods, a South African architect is helping transform young people’s lives by showing them how to use a camera. The project 'I was shot in Joburg' was launched back in 2009. Since then, it has helped more than a dozen black teens shun street violence and earn a living by teaching them a new art: photography.

'I was shot in Joburg' is a small company run out of Hillbrow, a poor neighbourhood plagued by violence in the heart of South Africa's economic capital. More than just a photo studio, it has become a workshop whose employees make products inspired by the photos snapped by the outfit's up-and-coming photographers, such as cushions, T-shirts and photo frames.

Six of the young people who have been trained at the centre are now employed full-time, while another eight work there on a part-time basis. And for a dozen more, the training program has served as a springboard to find more work or get back to studying.

A shop that sells photo crafts made by 'I was shot in Joburg'.

"They photograph buildings, street corners, shapes and shadows all with one goal in mind: to tell a story about Johannesburg"

Bernard Viljoen is the founder of 'I was shot in Joburg'. An architect, he's also a keen photography enthusiast.

In 2009, I had the desire to share my knowledge of photography with young people having trouble finding their place in society. I thought that perhaps they would want to document their immediate surroundings, the Hillbrow neighbourhood, known as being a rather dangerous area. The idea was to show them how to see the beauty that is all around them, to open them up to new ways of seeing and new ideas.

We started with a group of a dozen or so youths aged from 16 to 20. I taught them the basics of photography: how to find an interesting subject, how to play with light, colours, composition, contrast, how to frame their images... We got together once a week for six months to take photos, discuss our work, and go to see photo expositions. They were so proud of their first exhibition that I decided to continue. Then I came up with the name 'I was shot in Joburg', a play on words that sticks in the mind and also helped us get noticed.

An employee making photo frames

"Most of them had to flee their homes, often because of violence"

The students photograph buildings, street corners, shapes and shadows all with one goal in mind: tell a story about Johannesburg. We work around themes that we determine beforehand, like, for example 'find the beauty', 'write the future', 'welcome to our Hillbrow'.

Most of them had to flee the family home, often because of domestic violence. We only work with youths already living in shelters, because we have to make sure their primary needs are fulfilled before even thinking about enrolling them in a creative course. These organisations help us find the young people that are the most interested in our project. They had already shown their desire to get themselves off the streets by staying in a shelter. We help them obtain their own financial security in order to keep them at arm's length from their old lifestyles.

The training sessions are paid for by the logistics company Barloworld as part of its wider social program. Iconic photography brand Nikon also supports the project. As for the rest, Bernard Viljoen says that the money earned from exhibits and the sale of photo crafts is enough to both keep the company afloat and pay its employees. As an added bonus, one worker explains, 10% of the profit made from the sale of a photo or a product derived from it goes back to its author.

"I'm proud to be able to pay for my dinner and rent because I worked hard for it"

Les Radebe took part in the project's training sessions. He now manages the company's arts and crafts shop.

One of my friends had taken part in the training course. I quickly realised that learning photography and, on top of that a handicraft, would give me a real shot at being able to stand on my own two feet.

The photo I'm most proud of shows the green light on a pedestrian traffic light. In my opinion it's a way of symbolising change, the possibility of moving in order to break down barriers, leading you on to an infinite number of possibilities. It's the symbol of that moment in life when we finally decide to take things into our hands to improve our lives.

Les Radebe's favourite photo.

Before taking part in 'I was shot in Joburg', my life revolved around figuring out how I was going to find my next meal or who would be kind enough to offer me one. When you're living on the street, sometimes you have to stoop very low just in order to eat. Now, I'm proud of being able to pay for my own dinner and rent because I worked hard for it. I'm also proud to be able to help and give hope to other people who, like I once did, find themselves living on the streets.”

A photo taken by a trainee of 'I was shot in Joburg'.

In the 1980s, both blacks and whites lived side-by-side in Hillbrow in relative harmony, despite South Africa's system of apartheid. But in the 1990s, white people began moving out, causing the neighbourhood's economy to collapse. Hillbrow quickly became Johannesburg's most dangerous area. Nowadays, 4,500 homeless people live on its streets, while another 100,000 families live in informal settlements.