The spirit of Hillbrow, Samantha Richardson | GetIt! October 2012

Dodging the guy engrossed by his phone and speeding up when we lost sight of familiar faces, the impenetrable wall of people made it impossible to avoid rubbing shoulders with the faceless masses. Exhaust fumes permeated the air as taxis weaved in and out of the traffic with hooters blaring, vying for attention. The energy was exhilarating … welcome to our Hillbrow.

We'd joined Killarney's Bernard Viljoen – who describes himself as 'a taller than average white man, a self-taught photographer and a boereseun with an edge' – on one of his Monday afternoon jaunts.

Used to the area, he walked a little more confidently than we did ... we kept close to his 'crew', the 15 local boys aged from 12 to 22, who are on a mission to capture the spirit of Hillbrow.

The story began three years ago when Bernard was sentenced to community service after a regrettable drinking and driving offence. 'My attorney and I somehow managed to persuade a magistrate to allow me to initiate a community project with a group of boys from Twilight Children, a shelter for kids in Hillbrow. I wanted to provide photography and skills development training through my non-profit organisation, Studio Bernard Viljoen Foundation.

'Before I started working with the guys, for some bizarre reason I expected them to be these hardcore street children. The reality is they're just kids who have an incredible willingness and desire to build a better future for themselves and those around them. In the early stages of the project I battled to connect with them and asked Jane Pritchard (founder of Twilight Children) for some advice.

She told me that so many people come into the lives of these kids, then disappear, that they were protecting themselves. I realised that consistency and perseverance would be the key to success. I stuck with it and made sure I pitched every week for class. Somewhere along the line, we got used to the idea of being in each other's lives.'

Armed with disposable cameras, every Monday Bernard and his 'crew' hit the streets to document their immediate environment and express their voices, which they seldom have the opportunity to do. Hillbrow is an assault on the senses … the towering blocks of flats draw your eyes upwards and you're mesmerised by the rainbow coloured clothing hanging on practically every balcony, the rowdy sounds of street vendors bargaining and schoolchildren laughing and chatting.

There are contrasts ... the countless broken window panes glistening in the sun and the vivid colours of the fresh fruit sold by the vendors ... the boys see photo opportunities lurking on every corner. Over the years, they've produced really powerful images.

Their first exhibition, held at Arts on Main, was called Joburg on Monday Afternoons – Through the Eyes of 15 Street Kids. The raw, simple beauty and brave concepts of the photos captured the hearts of Jozi and was a tremendous success.

Bernard says his friend, Marguerite Pienaar, hits the nail on the head when she described the body of work for their first exhibition. He quotes, 'The photographers themselves often participate in the images of this exhibition, sometimes using a hand or a shadow to reach out to the subject matter. In this way, the viewer is literally made aware of their presence, rendering a layer of immediacy to the image. A thread of urban stories belongs to each of the photographs in this exhibition.

Images are layered with unintended juxtapositions and incidental metaphors. They are also the images of delight, bleakness, irony and reality that make up the corners of these kids' world,' she says. Bernard continues, 'The first exhibition was such a success that I decided to implement a second project for the guys to apply their newly developed skills and generate an income and so, I Was Shot in Joburg was born.

'In the last few years it has organically evolved into something we're all proud of. We have a stand at Market on Main at the Maboneng Precinct where you can buy our product range, which includes beaded photo frames, fridge magnets, key holders, notebooks, diaries and screen printed napkins. We also do corporate shoots and offer on-site printing for events.

We have big dreams for the brand and aim to be a self-sustaining entity in three years. Once this dream has been realised, we intend globalising the brand and concept.' Seeing the transformation of the boys and the growth of their selfworth has been the most fulfilling aspect for Bernard.

'They are part of society and are not operating on the periphery any more. They've managed to move from being pitied to being respected. Hopefully one day they'll not have to beg or ask for bread, they'll be able to buy their own cake ... and I'm sure they'll share.'

Details: info@ iwasshotinjoburg.co.za, www.iwasshot.co.za or like them on Facebook – iwasshot in Joburg.