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When friends are few-the story of RockWorld (22img)

Discussion in 'Photojournalism, Candids and Street Photography' started by bendheim, Apr 22, 2005.

  1. When friends are few - the story of RockWorld

    Life has the habit of playing a double game; confusing your belief systems; taking you on a roller coaster ride between optimism and pessimism. Especially South African life.

    Yesterday, I was in one of Durban’s most luxurious resorts, giving a talk to a bunch of wealthy retired Americans over here on holiday; today I found myself in one of the cruellest, most depressing environments I’ve ever been in.

    The American visitors were delightful people. I think I could have a place to stay in every part of the US, next time I visit. Mostly retired and wealthy, they were here on a vacation and I had been asked to give them a talk on how democracy had changed and improved life in Durban, my home town. They listened eagerly, asked lots of questions, and said how much they loved being here. I felt proud, and after my talk, I remember thinking how, when we live with something or someone everyday we often fail to notice change. It’s hard to step back and see things from the perspective of an outsider looking in. The holidaymakers were here on a first class ticket, whisked from one luxury resort to the next, playing golf, seeing the wildlife, shopping and having a holiday here that I could never afford. It was good to feel rejoined to the world, after all the sanctions that Apartheid brought. Good to see tourists coming over here, and loving it.

    This morning, I was shocked back into another world. I knew places like RockWorld existed, but I’d never been inside one. It’s too dangerous. Chances are you will be robbed and knifed and perhaps never see the light of day.

    The building now known as RockWorld is barely a hundred yards from the City’s prime tourist beachfront, in a back of beach area that has steadily and slowly become an horrific urban ghetto. An Art Deco building, it once housed a delightful Chinese Restaurant, the Tong Lok. As a youngster, we’d go there to eat and then stroll the streets after dinner. Not any more.

    When the area got bad, the Chinese owner relocated his business to the suburbs, and unable to sell the building because there were simply no takers, he abandoned it.

    Briefly, it became a ghetto drug-ridden nightclub called RockWorld, before it sank into anarchy.

    Today, it’s full of street kids, unsupervised, unassisted and living in gangs. These youngsters – in particular the boys, prowl the streets, robbing people and begging. The girls, some barely 11, most under 16 are strippers in seedy ghetto nightclubs, or prostitutes on street corners.

    The boys are pretty much a violent lot. They usually surround their often much older and bigger victims, both white and black, and then will, without fear or worry stab you if needs be to get your money or camera. Many are addicted to substances or drugs, most to sniffing glue to make them high. Sniffing glue leads to mental and physical deterioration and these kids often don’t get past their teens, or are almost certainly crippled.

    RockWorld itself is a nightmare. There is no water and no electricity at all. The smell of filth and grime and human waste hits you the minute you walk in. It’s dark, broken and dangerous. Some kids even sleep in what used to be toilets and bathrooms. Rats the sizes of small cats run around and add to the health risk. It’s simply a horrible place.

    We were taken there by people who knew people and were 'connected' , so we were safe. It was odd walking around so freely in this inner sanctum of the ghetto. Tomorrow I might well be a victim on the street. But, strangely, especially when I showed the kids some of their pictures on the display of the D2H, they were able to manage a smile as only kids can. Somewhere, deeply buried below drugs, violence and the alienation of city life are the heartbeats of real kids. But now, they run wild in a city, which like all big cities, swallows its victims whole.

    I don’t think I will sleep well tonight.

    Technical notes - this was a difficult project with little light as there is no electricity and quite a few windows are boarded up. I used no flash; so please excuse any technical deficiencies. All images were shot with the D2H and 17-55 using ISO800-1600, depending on the circumstances


    RockWorld - Fast cars in the urban ghetto, April 2005


    Entrance, RockWorld, 2 pm, April 2005

    There is no light at all, and the only water in the building is that which leaks all around the entrances from a main that has been broken for ages.


    Teenage gang member, RockWorld, April 2005


    Shoes, bed and stick, RockWorld, April 2005


    Twelve year old girl with toy, RockWorld, April 2005

    Most of these girls are either strippers or sex workers. This girl lives in what once was a kitchen, but it has no water.


    Bedroom without light, 1.15 pm, RockWorld, April 2005


    Ghetto Blaster, mirror and occupant, RockWorld, April 2005 [/i]


    Fight Poverty, the corridors of RockWorld, April 2005


    16 year old sniffing glue, RockWorld, April 2005

    This youngster was found in the dark depths of Rockworld. He looks much older than he is.


    The gang, RockWorld, April 2005


    The Gang 2, RockWorld, April 2005


    The view from RockWorld, April 2005


    Young Man with smile, RockWorld, April 2005


    When days are dark, friends are few, Rooftop, RockWorld, April 2005


    Rooftop, RockWorld, April 2005


    Selling food to the street kids, 1.45 pm, RockWorld, April 2005

    This woman prepares food on a benzine cooker, for sale to the gangs


    Out of it, top floor, RockWorld, April 2005


    Rooms and spaces, RockWorld, April 2005


    Girl worker in her room, RockWorld, April 2005


    Looking at the view, RockWorld, April 2005


    Leaving RockWorld - The view out, 2pm, April 2005


    Waiting game on the mean streets outside RockWorld, April 2005
  2. Yet another very touching photo-story from you, Peter.

    As per usual, your technique is wonderful and your compositions are at once both appropriate and insightful.

    Thanks for sharing...
  3. JeffKohn


    Apr 21, 2005
    Houston, TX
    I would say you did an excellent job of using available light. These are powerful images accompanied by a heart-breaking story. Thanks for sharing.
  4. Leigh


    Feb 19, 2005
    I'm touched by not only your photos, but with the compasionate way that you tell your stories. You truly have a gift my friend. I will confess I cried as I read your story and viewed your pictures. Thank you for sharing.
  5. Stunning, poigniant, beautiful, artistic, revealing, daring, brave, important, dramatic, amazing, concise, intelligent, poetic, angry, imaginative look at a life that most of us can only imagine and which only photos could really bring to life.

    You are an a very talented individual. I salute you and appreciate your work and the risk you took both physical and emotional to bring it to us.
  6. Why aren't I seeing these in Time magazine? I really enjoy your work and the way you share yoru experiences with us. Thank you...and if you ever are in NY, you definaetly have a place to stay(but you must love dogs).
  7. Peter, what a story you have told with your words and camera. This is surely a glimpse into the dark world of the poor and forgotten. Some of the lost children of the world. Thank you for sharing your talent and this glimpse into the seamier side of life.
  8. Dave Crausby

    Dave Crausby Guest

    Thank You.

    Superb images of reality.

    better than a lot of the stuff I admire at Magnum.

    Dave Crausby
  9. Peter,

    What you do is just amazing!! I don't know what to say after reading and viewing your excellent photojournalism!! WOW!! I will say, thank you so very much for sharing this experience and life with us. It does give you a real life perspective of what is going on in other parts of the world. Again, thank you!!
  10. Thank you

    Thank you folks. I really enjoy being here, and this has now become the place I post material first, sometimes weeks in advance of the magazine I do. That's really because this is the only website I know where people look at content first, and the visual messages and emotions, rather than being hung up on technicalities and 2/3rds rules and blah-di-blah. I only ever shoot from the heart, and this site is like family to me. Thanks again.

    To 4labs - yes I love dogs, we have two "fur" children of our own, even if they are just daschunds...Thanks for the kind offer!
  11. Chris101


    Feb 2, 2005
    Dang Peter, those are some powerful images. Very creatively shot as well. The thing I am curious about is your motivation. (I am not questioning the validity of your motives, but rather the nature of them.) Who are you aiming these images at, and why? Like most people, when I see ugliness, I tend to look away, yet here you not only looked, but (obviously) interacted.

    There are places very much like Rock World in most US cities, yet we wall them off emotionally from the rest of the city. If we could see them, what would we do: Give the beggars a few cents then continue on our way thinking we had done a good thing is my usual solution.

    But when you see somebody like the guy on the left in the photos of the gang of four teenagers, don't you want to grab him and shout "You still have life in your eyes! Run! Run from this place, this life and never look back!"

    Thanks Peter for sharing these human emotions of compassion and helplessness.
  12. Hi Chris
    Thanks for your comments. I agree, there are places like RockWorld everywhere. In a way, the urban universality of places like RockWorld is motivation in itself. I've lived and grown up in a country where the privilged were sealed off legally from the poor and downtrodden for most of the 20th Century. As result, many of the advantaged classes here are naive in the extreme about post-apartheid South Africa. So are others elsewhere, assuming that the right to vote was an instant cure-all.
    The last 10 years of democracy in South Africa have seen a lot of things change, but in some ways we live in a society more divided than ever before, if not by race, then by wealth. There are growing numbers of rich and poor, and an eroding middle-class.
    Street kids are one of the more visible aspects of everyday life for those that head off to work in their cars; they beg at street corners, at traffic lights, they mug people in the street and yet, I have asked myself..where do these youngsters go to at night? Is there no redemption for them (in a non-biblical sense)?
    Metrobeat, the city magazine I edit, has as one of its objectives, the notion that we need to understand each other better in our city; and become more empathetic as citizens. Wherever I can, I try to open people's eyes to each other and different reality that exists, culturally, sociially and economically. And, the "humanity" that we commonly share. Most importantly, I have never done this for sensation. I think you will agree that I try to convey neither sympathty nor sensation in my images; empathy yes, and I do try to get people to express something of who they are, and what their story is through visual communication. I never objectify the people I photograph - they are not my "subjects"; rather they are partners for a while in a visual communications process.
    Breaking through barriers that have long been taboo here has had it's rewards, not for me or my colleagues, but for the people who have been featured. A short while ago, one of my colleagues who ran a story on a severely disadvantaged youngster, was excited to find that a reader had offered, no strings attached, to pay for the education and care of that person.
    I guess the 'why' for me has always been the desire to spread understanding and empathy for the marginalised people of cities, wherever they are, using the two skills that I have (even if these are small in magnitude) - communication through language - verbally or through images. I think that cities are hard and alienating places for many. My wish is simply to portray the human side to the ghost figures that we see, be they people sleeping on park benches,loitering on street corners or marking time in a lonely room in an old age home.
    In some ways, my own experience of life has been marginal, but in a very different way. I was the class nerd, nose in my books rather than the hero on the sportsfield, and when I left school I came to this city on my own, knowing no-one at all and having no relatives or acquaintences here. Of course that is different now, many years later, but I have always found it easier to relate and converse with the underdog rather than the arrogant.
    Well, I hope that helps.....?!

  13. Chris101


    Feb 2, 2005
    It sure does Peter, thanks. I have interacted with 'street bums here in Phoenix. The fact that the weather is nearly always tolerable has attracted a lot of people who, for one reason or another do not live a normal life with a house, family, etc. I worked with one man, who had just spent many years as a homeless drug addict. Upon getting his job, he tried to live a normal life, however this was not to be.About a week ago, he came to see me to tell me that he could no longer work, had been diagnosed HIV positive, and that he believed he needed to be without any employment to receive State health aid.

    Upon hearing that he was unemployed his landlord evicted him, even though he said he would continue to pay rent. Yesterday Clint came by again and said that he was going to try to 'get a place on the streets' and that I would probably never see him again.

    Anyway, experiences like that cast my own motivations into question, that you can also make such artful photographs is amazing to me. Thanks again for this essay.
  14. Greg


    Apr 5, 2005
    Fayetteville, TN
    This is WAY past my photographic ability let alone the way these photos impart feelings upon oneself. Very moving and thought provoking. it looks as though each was a snapshot but it's also obvious that the technical portion of this project is as thought out as the scenes themselves. Excellent. Excellent.
  15. Peter,

    Wow! This is touching, moving, real, hard, and incredibly well done. Not just the technical aspects and the creative angles of course, but you actually show the "inside" of these unfortunate and poor souls: their being comes through your portraits, somehow. Did you capture that through the eyes? I don't know. It's clearly very special.

    Have you considered assembling these stories and publishing them in a book, not just a photography book, but a book with words, your words, about the human condition?

    Thank you for sharing this with us. It's greatly appreciated.
  16. hans


    Feb 5, 2005
    The Netherlands

    Thank you.

    The sniffing boy rips me apart,seen to many destroyed lives.

    Your style is an inspiration for me
  17. I'm impressed. True gift of a photographer is to speak through images and the message you've shared with us is extremely provoking.
  18. Gale


    Jan 26, 2005
    Viera Fl
    I have to echo all the comments here.

    Marvelous work Peter.

    Thank you for sharing what I see way to much of.
  19. VERY powerful... moving.... each person has their own story... each gang has its own origin... I'm blown away by these pictures.. truly excellent captures
  20. Peter,
    Your photos are incredible and the story is riveting. Thank you for posting.
    Your story stirs my memory and takes me back many years, please allow me to share:
    I have been in Durban several times in the late sixties and have mixed memories.
    On one side, the beautiful beach, aquarium, surf and the Bay with the Bluff point (if memory serves me well). Much of the city is beautiful, but I also remember wandering into the Black sector (remember, Apartheid was still at its height then). I think it started near a big Bazaar. I recall walking by a large open-air building where colored people were hoarded inside around concrete tables and given something to eat, the smell and the looks of which was pretty bad.
    Some folks declared me to be nuts to even have been there and said I could easily never have gotten out. A place with high contrast indeed.
    Here is a pic of young me (taken in 1969) in a Riksha near the Aquarium, I believe. Taken with my Minolta SRT-101:

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