Staff riding, the local slang for train surfing, is a widespread phenomenon in SA. Katlehong is one of the largest townships in South Africa and has played a key role in the history of the struggle against apartheid. The population is almost entirely made up of blacks, but strongly multiethnic: all the eleven South Africa’s official languages are spoken in the township.
The almost total majority of surfers are kids under 25. Amputations and death are really common. The Prasa Metrorail, the SA train company, is one of the foundations of their society.This connection between train and citizens remained very strong over time.
The spectacular and risky act of train surfing becomes the framework to tell the Katlehong’s young people social fabric.This place has been the epicenter of the anti-apartheid’s guerrillas, and on the eve of the twentieth anniversary of the facts that we all know , the situation of segregation has remained more or less unchanged in daily life.
In a context where violence, rampant poverty, abuse of alchool/drugs and infant birth/AIDS are the masters, the train surfing is configured as the search for a social redemption that will never come for the characters of this story.
Staff Riding is part of a long-term project about the township lifestyle 20 years later the struggle against apartheid.
Staff Riding has been selected as one of winning ’30 Under 30′ PROJECT.
The work will be included in a curated exhibition between IdeasTap and Magnum Photos held at Birmingham’S NEC festival 1-4th March.
How did you start photography?
I started when I was around 20, when I attended a biomechanical engineering course in Naples. Around this time I started to play around with my dad’s camera – in the beginning with no specific reason, but little by little I got more interested in the medium, up to the point that I enrolled in a masters course in photography. Around the age of 24, I decided to become a professional. I wanted to present the issues of my area, such as the Camorra, the local mafia. My first big project was about infiltrating and exploring their world and mentality.
What is it that you aim to achieve with photography?
When I started I was young and I thought I could change things; I could make the world a better place. During the years you realize, of course, that you’re just a tiny piece in the universe, so it’s not easy. But in my opinion, you can help people with your work, especially local communities. That’s in the present. Your work can also be helpful for the future generation, as you document your time and age. Maybe with this documentation they won’t repeat our mistakes.
Do you mostly work with a series of images or single images?
Just series. Even my Instagram feed is focused on a continuous flow of images. I believe the main difference between a professional photographer (or photojournalist) and someone who’s just an enthusiast is the attitude that makes you stick with a project for weeks, months or years even. That gives you credibility. The longer you do something, the deeper into it you get. So I don’t believe in the single shot. That being said, there are, of course, powerful single images. But they would be even more powerful if they were part of a larger series.
What did photography give you? Did you learn something unexpected?
I continue to do photography, because it gives me excitement. It gives me a chance to discover something every day. Most professions don’t give you such opportunities. Even for the most boring projects, I have to try to get a point of view that is essentially different from mine. You learn a lot from this, and you become a lot more open-minded.
When I was in Africa for the first time, I finally understood what racism was. I’m from Italy, which is a rather closed society compared to some other European countries. Thus in South Africa, I was the only white person in hundreds of kilometers, and I realized that us, white people, looked more or less the same to the locals. That made me think. Think about how people from this side of the Earth can feel when they come to the West from really far away places, most of the time with dramatic personal experiences.
What is the hardest obstacle you’ve had to overcome in your career so far?
I think the hardest thing you have to face on a daily basis – not just for me, but for most photojournalists – is the economic side of this profession. It’s not easy to get the money to go to the other side of the world for a story, knowing that you could consider yourself lucky, if you can sell the finished work, and only lose a small amount of money on the whole project. That’s why I also have to work as a commercial photographer, to fund my personal projects. Sometimes you have to let go of a specific story, because you just don’t have the means to get there and cover it.
There are other obstacles as well, of course, but they depend on your specific way and area of work. If someone wants to be a photojournalist, the smartest thing to do, is not just to study photography – that you can learn anytime – but study something different like politics or economics. Something that helps you go deeper and gives you the basis for a more profound understanding of your stories. If you want to make long term stories, you need to have a unique point of view. Not just aesthetically, but also regarding the themes and issues you want to explore. That’s what will make you a good photojournalist.
What do you think makes a great photo?
I believe the most interesting pictures are the ones with multiple layers. The ones that can be read from different points of view. It can give you something even if you don’t know anything about its background, but if you do, it gives you more and more. Its a picture that gives you something new, every time you look at it.
How did winning the Lucie Foundation Emerging Scholarship help your career?
The money that came with it helped me a lot. With it I could go back to Johannesburg for another project. With the Lucie Foundation Scholarship my work could reach people all over the world. People I could never have reached on my own.
Do you think photography awards are important?
I won some other awards as well in the last few years, and I have to say I’ve changed my mind about them. For photographers who are just starting, winning an award is always an arriving point. But in reality they are not that important. It’s a lot better to focus on your work and not to spend a lot of energy on looking for recognition. There are hundreds of different awards all over the world, that are totally un-useful. Foundations like the Lucie Foundation are really important because they really try to help emerging photographers to improve their projects. I think that’s the way foundations and people should work. Taking an award by itself doesn’t mean anything.