Tarnishing an entire nation with information that reinforces negative stereotypes is not something I engage in lightly. So it’s with a degree of uneasiness that I write about my experiences of doing photography in Johannesburg, South Africa, in connection with matters of violent crime.
The majority of people I met on my recent trip to Jo’burg were really wonderful, friendly, and no doubt entirely law-abiding. Hence it seems grossly unfair that they should end up being lumped in with a minority of desperate and sociopathic compatriots; a minority that is a potential threat not only to privileged photographers flying in for a week of photo thrill-seeking, but above all a threat to the safety of their fellow citizens on a daily basis.
Yet it would be equally irresponsible of me to write about my experiences of doing photography in Johannesburg while just glossing over the issue of safety altogether. In any case, the issue is not one that can easily be ignored. Even if you knew nothing of Jo’burg’s reputation in this area prior to arrival, the situation would soon become quite clear: extreme economic inequality and segregation; downtown streets devoid of human presence; gated properties surrounded by razor-wire fences; the ubiquitous signs reading “warning, armed response.”
In Joburg, becoming the victim of violent crime is a very real possibility. This is true even for the city’s most streetwise inhabitants – who will generally know where they should and should not risk going, and how to react if things ever do become dicey.
But no matter how clued up and seasoned a traveler you may think you are, an outsider just can’t possibly know these things. What’s more, you will likely be instantly identifiable as an outsider from a distance of several hundred yards; simply due to your way of dressing, or even walking. Here the risks are multiplied severalfold.
Now add an expensive and desirable looking piece of consumer photographic technology into the mix, and the odds of coming out in one piece start looking decidedly unattractive. Worse still, unless you just wish to stick to photographing heavily-policed tourist sites, the act of photographing is likely to necessitate visiting precisely the kinds of locations also favored by muggers.
For example, street life in Joburg is often very lively and interesting, and in my experience most people are pretty happy to be photographed. This certainly makes Johannesburg a very promising city for street photographers.
But attract the wrong attention, or turn the wrong corner, and you could very quickly find yourself in a lot of trouble. Certainly the tactic favored by photo flanneurs of randomly criss-crossing a city on foot would not be at all advisable in Johannesburg.
At best you might explore certain safer pockets of the center – such as Maboneng or Newtown – and then hop in an Uber to the next location. But just grabbing your camera and walking off into the unknown would be a very foolish move here.
Meanwhile, although landscape photography doesn’t generally involve the same degree of risk as roaming the streets looking for unusual people to photograph, many of the best and more easily accessible vantage points for shooting views of the Johannesburg skyline are too remote and isolated to be recommended. Local photography groups can visit spots such as Langeman’s Kop or Caledonia Hill for views of the Central Business District only because they go there en masse. But lone photographers, or even those working in small groups, can be (and frequently are) robbed at gunpoint at these and other similar Johannesburg photography locations.
Similarly, although Yeoville Hill offers fantastic views of the Central Business District, this neighborhood also seems to have deteriorated considerably in the last decade or so, garnering quite an unpleasant reputation. Consequently you would need to check with locals regarding the current security situation here too.
Instead, for shooting landscapes of downtown Jo’burg in safety, your best bet would be to see if any public events are scheduled for some of the taller tower buildings such as Ansteys, the Carlton Centre, the Franklin, the Parktonian, Ponte, Randlords, or Stuttafords. Many of these buildings feature viewing platforms on their upper floors and offer superb panoramas of the city.
There’s no denying that Johannesburg offers a great deal of interest for photographers. It’s a vital, gritty, and cosmopolitan city with a warm and friendly populace. But enormous social inequality and the inevitable legacy of the apartheid era has made far a fractured and turbulent society.
I wouldn’t go as far as to entirely discourage visitors from doing photography in Jo’burg, but just be aware that if things were to go wrong, they could go very wrong. At this point the price would be just too much to pay in my opinion.
Of course, things can go wrong anywhere. But in South Africa the likelihood of violent street crime is statistically much higher than most other places I’ve visited. Nothing happened to me. But the fact is that it does happen to some people, and unacceptably often. So while I came away unscathed – at least this time – it was by no means a foregone conclusion.
And even if not me, it could easily be you. So if you do choose to do photography in Johannesburg, get yourself well informed, stay alert, and don’t take unnecessary risks.
Not sure that you’re willing to take the risk yourself, but nonetheless looking for high quality photography of Joburg? Check out my image galleries for fully licensable high resolution photos of Johannesburg, South Africa.