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The Old City

by Andy Davis / 17.08.2009

Marc Shoul is a mensch with a camera. What is a mensch you might rightly ask. It comes from the Yiddish for person but really it means a real person, someone of integrity and honour. Marc’s mensch-ness informs his art. He does not simply point his camera at subjects, click and move on to sell their images and make his money. Hell, he wouldn’t even call them subjects, they’re more like friends. Marc, or Shoula, as he’s known, prefers to keep things informal. He has a large personality and a sharp tongue that he lashes at whoever he’s shooting, telling jokes and stories while striking up friendships. But there’s  a subterfuge at play, once behind the lens he has a knack for disappearing into the scene he’s shooting, giving his photographs an honest yet voyeuristic touch. The results show.

For some years now Johannesburg’s inner city has undergone a steady mutation. In the 80s Hillbrow bore the proud moniker “The New York of Africa”, even if it was only for whites. With the new dispensation it has steadily devolved into a kind of urban squatter camp, sprawling vertically as opposed to laterally. So much so that the BBC now send people like Louis Theroux to examine the levels of chaos, disorder and crime present on the mean streets of the inner city.

Flat lands

But long before Louis Theroux, Marc Shoul would lump his camera gear against the flow, and over the wall of white paranoia, into the inner city to take pictures – and by implication of Shoul’s methods, connect with the people and capture some of their moments.

The dude sleeping amoungst the stuff.” Says Marc delivering some background on the photograph at the top of this article. “A group of Malawian men live and work in this small space making shwe shwe dresses. They lay their beds out in the evening between the sewing machines. The guy photographed is a visitor who came round and took a nap amongst their possessions, some of which are presents for their families in Malawi. My contact was an acquaintance lived there, he works in Newtown at a blanket shop.”


For Marc, part of the attraction of Johannesburg is the simple joie de vivre and can do attitude of her residents. “The kids swimming… I love the way they seem to own the fountain, adapted it, making the most of things, much the same as everything else that is going on around the Flatlands of the innercity. They are free, without a care in the world loving the fountain at the South African World of Beers in Newtown.”


“Siggy is a very interesting guy, a white man dressed in traditional Zulu garb, praying and giving praise for the people who work in the Gauteng House of Legislature. His luxury sedan was blaring the national anthem, a happy positive man who just wants to give praise and ask G-d to help the Legislature make the correct decisions.”


“I call this location The Mexican Sports Bar. It’s not the real name of the hotel, a place where you can get anything you want, sex, strippers and booze. I didn’t see any drugs but they can’t be far way.  I was introduced to the crowd at the beggining of the evening, Oupa, MC and manager of the hotel/bar/strip club/house of ill repute, told the crowd that I could shoot what ever I wanted to and if I misrepresented it in anyway, he then moved his index finger across his throat to signify how he’d kill me.

“A strange thing happened a few months later, I was driving though Houghton and needed a light for a cigarette, so I asked a security guard that stood outside one of the mansions with an equally huge wall around it. He gave me a light and then asked me for his pictures. I didn’t recognize him at first but he works security at the hotel too, the owner of the hotel lives in that house.”

You can catch Marc Shoul’s exhibition Flatlands at the AVA, 35 Church Street in Cape Town. To see more of his images log onto his website here.

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