Marco Casino: Documenting Staff riding in Katlehong, South Africa

In this interview, Marco Casino, a finalist in the Leica Talent Italy contest 2012 and close partner of Leica Italia, retraces the steps of “staff riding”, his latest work done in South Africa. It has just been awarded the first prize in the Short Feature category by the jury of the World Press Photo Multimedia Contest.

This is the first part of a story with many voices and part of the photographer’s long-term commitment in documenting the various aspects of South African society of the most disadvantaged neighborhoods, twenty years after the democratic transition. Here, Marco focuses on a popular phenomenon, staff riding (also called train surfing – “go surfing on the roof of a train”), which causes high mortality among young people in the townships. You can watch a video of his project here.

Q: Marco, how did you become a photographer?

A: It was an unusual process and, I must say, even somewhat late! I approached photography while continuing my degree studies in biomedical engineering. Later, thanks to the internet and the various communities then existing on Flickr, I started getting seriously interested in photography, until I realized that it could be what I wanted to do in my life.

Since then, I have been committed full-time to this medium by following a one-year master in Naples – as I was born in Caserta – and then moving to Milan. In my own small way, I wanted to make a contribution to the world of reportage. And without a doubt, I chose photography because of my wide curiosity about everything around me.

Q: So, did you abandon biomedical engineering?

A: I had almost finished. I thought of myself as an engineer at 50 and I said, “No! I’d rather die poor, but will try to pursue my dream!” I am still working on it, as it remains an uphill struggle.

Q: How did you choose to work in South Africa? More specifically, why did you choose the phenomenon of staff riding as an entry path to tell the story of South Africa two decades after the first local democratic elections?

A: I usually do a lot of research. I try and keep up-to-date with events and news as much as possible, pursuing an interpretation other than that from the newspaper’s information and providing insights on the different types of stories I tell.

That said, one day I happened to see a video on the internet about the ten most dangerous sports in the world, including the train surfing. I started some research on the subject. I noticed that this phenomenon had not yet been documented, except through amateur videos visible on the internet and a 1996 documentary filmed by BBC and produced in South Africa.

Q: Does staff riding also exist in other areas of the world or only in South Africa?

A: It actually exists elsewhere but, of course, it assumes different social meanings from country to country. For example, it seems to be quite widespread in certain rural areas of Brazil and India. Although in very different ways because there it is mostly related to travel needs and not seen as a challenge to the institutions, which in my opinion is the interpretation in South Africa.

Q: How did you work in South Africa?

A: First, I contacted the people who produced the documentary I mentioned above and who, over time, had started working as journalists for magazines in South Africa. Through them, I started organizing my trip and planning all the useful contacts to develop my work. I did then rely on a local fixer, through which I found board and lodging.

I spent my whole period of work – about a month between mid-October and mid-November 2013 – in the township of Katlehong. It is located in the southeastern suburbs of Johannesburg and is one of the poorest areas in the whole city, with a social segregation that still exists and is rather strong.

Despite a strong resistance to anything that comes from outside the township (including the same city of Johannesburg) and the fact that during the journey I experienced some unpleasant events, such as being arrested three times by the police who did not want me to document the phenomenon, I found in the everyday a great response from the people I interacted with.

From this positive impact, I developed my desire to continue to tell the township’s story today, using the train as the main theme and documenting it in all its social aspects.

The townships arise as dormitory towns on the outskirts of the city, where the miners have started to settle down and live with their families. Therefore, there has always been a very strong relationship between the population and the train, which is still the most widely used transport by the majority of the population without their own means.

So for me the work around the staff riding is just one of the parts of a much larger story to be told in the future. To start, I’ll follow the presidential elections that will take place in a few days in South Africa.

Also, and this is something that I discovered during my stay, the places where I lived and worked were the epicenter from which the fight against apartheid came. Indeed, most of the iconic images of that era originated in that area.

Q: You said that you perceived staff riding in Katlehong as a challenge to the institutions. Can you explain this further?

A: Before leaving, I imagined staff riding as a phenomenon linked to an almost sporty attitude. I realized actually that the majority of people who practice it are either very young students – boys between 10 and 15 – or unemployed guys. The unemployment rate is very high in Katlehong, so people who having nothing to do and having always done staff riding, keep practicing it.

The sporting element is therefore virtually nil, while there is a very strong challenge to those institutions that, in some way try and reduce the phenomenon, by the police, vigilantes at the stations, etc. Staff riding is also related to street culture. American hip hop culture, even in its gangsta version, is widespread and is taken as the reference point for all the new generations. I therefore interpret it as a search for social compensation that leads to nothing. Within the country or the city, there are young people who have become more famous than others in this field but, in fact, have gained nothing from it. On the contrary, it’s a cause of death for many young people. Just during the penultimate day of my stay, two boys died while I was working. On the roof of the train, you mainly die from electrical shocks because anything you hang on is electrified with high voltage.

The interpretation I get is of an attempt of social redemption, which, unfortunately, will never come to these people.

Q: Where do the archival materials used in this series of images come from?

A: They come from the direct contact of my fixer, people who had guarded videos from the era of the struggle against apartheid, maps of Katlehong, Johannesburg mappings but also train tickets, newspaper articles, photographs, medical reports. I picked up a set of elements that could be useful to strengthen the narration.

I always work trying to give space to everyday scenes. When I follow someone, I follow him/her for a long time allowing me to be able to ask something a little more advanced, a little more intimate.

Q: Can you detail some of these scenes of everyday life in Katlehong?

A: Under my photographs, I placed a calendar of Jehovah’s Witnesses. In fact, arriving on the spot, you immediately get a strong religious feeling. Since this has a major social impact, I would like to deepen this aspect during my next stay.

One photograph in the portfolio was taken during the “Penny Penny Day” which is sort of a local Halloween. All the young boys and girls dress up like their mothers, with fake breasts, wigs and are often made up. They go around the stations, which are often very busy places, asking for some money and singing. In the background, you can see the streets where many fights against the apartheid regime took place.

Under my images, I put a screenshot of a video from CNN where you can see the main street in Katlehong, which is a sort of a permanent market where they mostly sell fruits or other goods for basic needs. The idea was then to add glimpses to contextualize and at the same time broaden the perspective on staff riding.

I also wanted to give a glimpse of what goes on under the train roof — everyday scenes, people returning from work or praying, singing songs that are felt intensely, that then everybody begins to join in.

As for the image that closes the series, it’s also meant as a link to the next chapter. A touch of hope with this baby up to the sky — a scene that I happened to meet by chance in the street — and, immediately below, scanned, the list of persons entitled to vote. Talking to the people I met, I felt a certain widespread disillusionment with the institutions: the dream of a society, which is not only multicultural but also more equitable, now seems gone.

Q: Do you already have a clear idea of how this project will develop?

A: Yes, first I want to continue bringing together elements of a different nature, to create a more complex story. In addition to photography, I plan to use video and archival material, but also data journalism elements and audio recordings that I have already started collecting during my first trip. Later, I would like to create a web platform housing all the various chapters of the project and that, in the long term, could work as a base to finance the production of a book through crowdfunding.

I proceed that way for all my works, which thus tend toward multimedia, where there is always a part of sharing and in which the different aspects of the work (e.g. editing and the most curatorial part) are made by many hands.

I believe in the power of the internet. As a photojournalist, I was born in the digital age, so I try and take all the positive aspects and exploit them to tell a story as complete as possible.

Q: What kind of equipment did you use for this work?

A: For the video part, I worked with the Leica M and the X Vario. Having little post-production knowledge, these cameras added a huge value, thanks to the quality of their optics and their systems as a whole.

As for the photo shooting, having a camera so small and quiet, and at the same time so powerful, has been critical to get into people’s everyday life, without breaking their intimacy or ruining the moment by attracting attention.

Thank you for your time, Marco!

- Leica Internet Team

Reach the interview in its original Italian.

Learn more about Marco via his website, Facebook, blog, and Vimeo.