The irony of Powertown, South Africa (a 30 image documentary series)

Discussion in 'Photojournalism, Candids and Street Photography' started by bendheim, Nov 8, 2005.

  1. It's been a long time since I've posted a series here - so for better or worse, here's the story of Powertown.

    I've often driven past this small informal settlement on my way to visit my father. But it's a long trip from my home to his place; all of a two day drive, so I've usually been too tired to stop. But I kept promising myself that I would. Finally, after some years, I did.

    Powertown, as it is called, is a cluster of shacks and dwellings that surounds an old deserted power station, hence the name. The irony of Powertown is that, like the deserted power station, it has no power, or electricity.

    That means that the poor families that live there rely on paraffin, candles and fires for their light and to cook. Quite often, I'm told, a house will burn down in the night because someone forgot to blow out a candle, or in a drunken state, mistakenly set fire to their house and possessions.

    Powertown is a pretty OK place, as far as poor areas go. The old power station is used by the kids to play in, and despite being dangerous with big holes in the upper level floors, it's still a giant playzone. People are friendly and generally welcoming. Everyone has a story to tell, and they want it to be told.

    People are really poor. Across the road there are two stores, a butchery and a bottlestore. At the bottlestore, people from Powertown spend their money on alcohol and get drunk; at the butchery, a collection is made for a weekly Soup Kitchen to feed the kids whose parents either cannot get work, or fritter away their cash at the bottle store. Life is filled with curiousities, contradictions and ironies, is it not?

    By night, when the drink takes over, there are occasionally brawls, rapes and arguements and a flash fire every now and again in a house punctuates the darkness of night.

    In the morning, all that's left of the house are the metal springs of a burnt out bed, and a pile of smouldering ashes.

    By day, Powertown is pretty normal. The kids generally go to a free government school; the mothers wash and clean and cook; the fathers sleep off the night before, or talk idly in small groups.

    When I next go back to Powertown, I'm going to take all these and more images, blow them up quite large, and stick them up in the Old Power station. That way, I'll give the people of Powertown a community exhibition of themselves -- no publicity, no pre announcement - I will just arrive with my tape and stick the images up.

    Powertown was an important experience for me.. In so many ways its a microcosm of South African life today...Poverty, violence, joy, color, life...and the real hope of the new South Africa...children, always filled with big smiles, always happy, no matter the odds. Indeed, they are our best hope for a positive future.


    (All images with either the D2X and 17-55 or the D50 and 12-24.)



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    Powertown, viewed from across the lake where the wealthy people live near the seaside, Cape, 2005


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    Powertown; detail, 2005


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    Inside the old power station, 2005


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    Kitchen and wine advert, house in Powertown, 2005
    Many colored folk working on the wine farms were paid part of their salary as alcohol in the apartheid era.


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    House, Powertown, South Africa, 2005


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    Grandfather in bed, with grandson, Powertown, 2005


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    Brother and sister, Powertown


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    From the first floor of the power station looking west, 2005


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    House No 24 and occupants, Powertown


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    Sleeping with Thabo, A picture of President Thabo Mbeki, Powertown


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    House with flowers, Powertown, 2005


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    Waiting for School, Powertown, 2005


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    Drinking in the afternoon, Powertown, 2005


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    Clothesline, old powerstation interior detail, 2005


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    Waiting for the bus, Powertown


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    Children, Old power station building, Powertown


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    Shoes, Powertown, 2005


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    The Flag of South Africa, Powertown, 2005


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    Woman at her dwelling, Powertown


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    The single shoe, Powertown, 2005


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    House entrance, detail, Powertown, 2005


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    Waking up in the lounge with coffee, Powertown, 2005


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    Woman in her house, Powertown


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    Girl with shoes on roof, Powertown, 2005


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    Two girls, Powertown, 2005


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    Soup Kitchen collection at the butchery in the nearby town, Powertown, 2005


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    Woman, Powertown, 2005


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    Cat amongst the shacks, Powertown, 2005


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    Mother and Child, Powertown, 2005


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    Kids Forever, Powertown, 2005


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  2. dbirdsong

    dbirdsong Guest

    Nice series Peter... The sky with the clouds are fantastic...
     
  3. PJohnP

    PJohnP

    Feb 5, 2005
    Peter :

    A powerful series of photos, depicting a side to SA that's not so apparent from this side of the Atlantic. Despite my reading the Daily Mail and Guardian most days - African news is quite sparse here - your photos carry an immediacy that dry articles about Zimbabwe's casting out of envoys just don't convey. Where the news media display (some) facts, you've clearly captured many of the feelings of that town.

    I'm especially taken with the level of trust shown by many of Powertown's people to your taking photos. Entering a poverty stricken village or town here would create a high degree of animosity in most cases, and yet, here you were shooting people in bed !

    Thanks very much for this series. You've once again kindled a sharp desire for me to visit SA.


    John P.
     
  4. Thanks a lot, John. That's the thing about South Africa..you can never be quite sure whether people will smile for the camera, or steal it from you.
    It's an amazing country, a mix of real optimism with equal measures of pessimism.
    I do hope you come here one day, I'll be happy to assist you with your plans.

    Peter
     
  5. PJohnP

    PJohnP

    Feb 5, 2005
    Peter :

    I was, BTW, also quite impressed with the use of the 12-24mm AFS for "people shooting". I use that lens heavily in my work photography - documentation of things in plants and refineries - but I've not used it for shooting people. You've obviously and clearly taken the measure of that lens combined with the D50, and apply it very well.

    As for getting to SA, that's a bit off in the future for me. I'm in the midst of about two months of travel for work, currently in west Texas, and I'm going to want a little time home at some point.

    But your kind offer will be remembered, and when you least expect it, I'll be on your doorstep inviting you out for a splendid dinner !


    John P.
     
  6. OK, I'm almost speechless.

    So many of your shot had me staring wide eyed at a place in the world and a part of life that most of us (USA, anyway) glimpse very infrequently in the select news we get.
    That is what is striking...nothing newsworthy there...just many people living their lives, captured phenomenally well by you. Thanks.

    I kept coming across "favorites" until I gave up trying to pick a favorite and just absorbed the images....then I came across "Woman at her dwelling" and it took my breath away.

    The human part of me didn't even care what equipment was used. Then the photographer in me recognized the wonderful use of the wide angles in the people shots. Using wide angles for people is so very much more gratifying than a distant long lens because of the necessary intimacy in the shots....making fleeting contact....getting to know the subjects...you, becoming a short moment in their lives...gratifying indeed.

    A heartfelt thanks for a great cultural series!





    Your "Woman at her dwelling"
    ............................................Wow, she keeps looking right into me!
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  7. Peter I am once again inspired by your photos. I remember the heartbreaking series you posted about the homeless children in the city. Your work has a real sense of style. The colors are striking and vivid. All I can say is thank you for sharing.
     
  8. Peter, this is a very powerful series. A big big 'thank you' for opening my eyes.
     
  9. Thanks a lot Phil, Matt and Vernon for your very kind words.
     
  10. Stunning work.

    Thanks for the wonderful story of that place and for the further inspiration.

    I'd be curious to hear what you think of the D50's tendency to more color saturation. I find I like it a lot. I would imagine what we see here is purposeful, though.
     
  11. Thank you.
    Thank you.
    I will be studying and learning from this series for a very long time to come.
    Thank you.

    [EDIT: the ultimate irony/contradiction....all those Cape Daisies in House with Flowers that we pay so much $$ for here at our Garden Centers simply to brighten up our summer patios.....]
     
  12. Thanks so much pictures are meant to evoke emotion and ours most certainly did that, your coverage is impeccable and make me truly thankful for what I could tell by your shots that the town welcomed you.
    On the technical aspect your shots are magnificent a true PJ you are. Again thanks so much Peter for sharing these I will share this with my children tonight so that they get a broader idea of what it is like in other parts of the world.
     
  13. Peter, once again you showed with your elegant way, portions of life well away from our ordinary reality.

    NGS or not -their loss- your PJs always manage to pin me down to my chair immobilizing my eyes and mind.

    Sometimes I catch myself eagering for more... but precious things come in small shares.

    Thanks for sharing your eyes with us.
     
  14. Thanks Ed, Andrea, Mike and Panos - your comments are truly appreciated. Ed - yes, I love the saturation of the D50, but in general I do enjoy rich colors, which is probably why places like South Africa, India, etc are so appealing to me. Sometimes it's overkill on faces but then I change to Adobe II in Capture. Panos, next year I'm headed your way for a photographic adventure....
     
  15. Chris101

    Chris101

    Feb 2, 2005
    Arizona
    Wow, what an incredible series Peter - you have out done your last such series, the Rockworld one. These pictures really show us what the world away from our freeways, tivos and cell phones is like. Wonderful. This place, although poorer than poor, is so ... alive! You've really shown Powertown as a good place - like I said ... Wow.
     
  16. Thank you for this series Peter. Captivating narration and images, as always.
     
  17. You know I will be very ...insulted if we don't meet... :biggrin:

    Greece way or Cyprus way??? Cause next August I'll be in Tanzania, Zambia and then maybe Botswana, South Africa...:wink:
     
  18. Peter................ truly haunting images of, for those those of us living in "normal western societies"....... a world that seems a million miles away from reality.

    Your photographs show that this IS reality and how many people, both young and old, live in this world. Truly heart wrenching and filled with emotion.
    Both happiness............. and sadness.

    These images should make us all realise how truly lucky we are.

    We are fortunate to have you on this forum. Take care of yourself.

    Graeme
     
  19. Chris, Frits and Graeme, thanks so much for looking -- and commenting!
    Panos: Yes, come to South Africa ! I guess if I go to Greece, I'll have to come to Cyprus too!! I wonder if I can I still afford Greece after the Olympics have been and gone...on my South African funny money?
     
  20. Thank you for your wonderful series. The depiction of Powertown, the intimacy of the pictures and the quiet dignity of the subjects taken capture the spirit of South Africa.
     
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