‘After a delicious lunch of brain, liver and lung stew, we drove around – and spotted these guys just hanging out in a car’
Iwent to South Africa with my girlfriend in the autumn of 2016 for a friend’s wedding. We had a six-hour layover in Johannesburg airport before flying back to New York, so we decided to take one last trip before we boarded the plane.
Some friends who lived in Johannesburg said it wasn’t the safest of cities – they told us to do some shopping to kill time. Five hours in a mall sounded awful, so we got chatting to one of the tour guides that hang around the airport and he agreed to take us to Soweto, the township south of the city.
Soweto is vast: more than a million people live there, around a third of the population of Johannesburg. Like most townships in South Africa, the vast majority of residents are black and many are extremely poor. Most homes are assembled from salvaged materials: bricks, scrap metal, that kind of thing. And there’s very little infrastructure connecting it to the city.
Our tour guide was probably in his 40s, a kind, trustworthy and down-to-earth guy. He had grown up in Soweto and was extremely proud of his roots. He navigated the old beaten-up roads expertly, pointing out local landmarks and telling us histories we knew very little about.
Soweto occupies a special place in South African history. Mandela lived there for around 15 years, and it’s where he returned to when he was released from prison on Robben Island. It played an important role in the struggle to end apartheid. We visited Mandela’s house, a tiny ramshackle building with old family heirlooms and artefacts of the struggle. It was an incredible piece of history at the heart of the colourful chaos of the township.
Our guide showed us more than just the tourist sites, though. We insisted he take us for lunch at his favourite local restaurant. We drove to a tiny hole in the wall you’d never see if you weren’t looking for it, almost like a garage. We ate this enormous offal stew – all brains and liver and lung – served with a kind of pureed corn that was a little bit like polenta. It was so delicious.
Just after lunch, I took this. Because we only had a short stint in Soweto, I took most of the series out of the window of the guide’s car. It wasn’t hard to get a great photo, though: the streets are so uneven you can’t pick up any speed. The blue car wasn’t moving – I’m not even sure it worked. These two guys were sitting in it, almost pretending to be driving, or perhaps just hanging out. I thought it was funny, so I took the shot. That’s how I like to do most of my street photography: on gut instinct.
There was something about the colour of the car against the beige houses in the background that summed up the spirit of the place. Soweto residents aren’t rich, but the whole place overflows with colour and life. It’s one of the few places I’ve been that is really creating its own culture: new customs, new fashion, new art. It’s not trying to be anywhere else – it’s its own town, with its own history and its own future.
Soweto is a proud place, and its residents are proud to live there. Driving through the township, you occasionally see flashy sports cars, or beautiful villas. It seems like people stay there even when they’ve made it big. It might not have the amenities of Johannesburg, but its sense of community is pretty unique. People stay because they want to, not because they’re trapped.
This photo was received really well, and it’s now the album cover for a great jazz band. It feels like the world is starting to pay attention to Soweto. It’s starting to inspire musicians and cultures way beyond South Africa.
But this photo wasn’t the only reason that trip was so special to me. A day before this photo was taken, I asked my girlfriend to marry me. She said yes. Travelling around with my new fiancee made Soweto a place I’ll always hold dear.
The rest of the Soweto series can be found on Michele Palazzo’s site.
Michele Palazzo’s CV
Born: Ravenna, Italy, 1968.
Studied: Architecture at the Università Iuav di Venezia, Italy.
High point: “My first solo exhibition in Milan last year.”
Low point: “The times when I don’t have the urge to go out and shoot.”
Top tip: “Go out and shoot. Don’t wait for the perfect camera, use whatever you have, practice and keep going.”