We are the poster chil­dren of Gen Z

Pho­tog­ra­pher Jodi Bieber ques­tioned young peo­ple on life and them­selves. Then pre­sented the in­trigu­ing re­sults as posters

Sunday Times - - Insight | Youth - By GIL­LIAN AN­STEY #i is at the for­mer women’s prison (west wing) on Con­sti­tu­tion Hill, Jo­han­nes­burg, from June 28 to July 8

Ask a group of young peo­ple questions about them­selves and their coun­try and you’d think you could guess the an­swers, es­pe­cially in a place as po­larised and pre­dictable as South Africa. But there is lit­tle that is clichéd or even ex­pected about the re­sponses of the 45 young peo­ple, aged be­tween 15 and 24 and from widely dif­fer­ent places in the greater Jo­han­nes­burg area, who were in­ter­viewed by pho­tog­ra­pher Jodi Bieber for her project ti­tled #i.

Not long ago, the rights of black school­girls to wear their hair as they choose be­came a po­lit­i­cal is­sue that hit the head­lines, but with Bieber’s in­ter­vie­wees it is a 15-year-old white boy who is up­set about his school forc­ing him to cut his hair.

“Our hair plays a large role in our own iden­ti­ties,” says Ravi Boaz Mas­ter from Or­chards. “It may sound child­ish, but I wake up in the morn­ing and I am proud of my hair and I think that is some­thing that should be re­spected and tol­er­ated by the school.”

Many be­lieve con­cern about the en­vi­ron­ment is the lux­ury of the priv­i­leged, but Jordy Nsala, 15, from Berea, wants to see trees planted and rub­bish re­cy­cled. “If we can trans­form the in­ner cities into beau­ti­ful sub­urbs, ev­ery­body will be happy,” says Jordy.

Bieber is a South African pho­tog­ra­pher whose por­trait of a mu­ti­lated 18-year-old Afghan woman, Bibi Aisha, was fea­tured on the cover of Time mag­a­zine in Au­gust 2010 and won the World Press Photo of the Year award.

She presents work­shops around the world and it was her in­ter­ac­tions with young South Africans when teach­ing pho­tog­ra­phy in Thokoza, Ekurhu­leni, and the Mar­ket Photo Work­shop in New­town (where she also stud­ied) that led to this re­search.

“When you’re around young peo­ple, their nar­ra­tive is not the same as us old fud­dies,” says Bieber. “We’re stuck in apartheid and that whole con­ver­sa­tion, and they want to cre­ate a new story for them­selves.”

She in­ter­viewed the young­sters, asked them to share images from their phones and pho­tographed them her­self, then pre­sented all this to cu­ra­tor Bren­ton Maart, who de­signed posters of each per­son.

The re­sult­ing ex­hi­bi­tion, #i, is daz­zling, dom­i­nated by com­pelling por­traits in­te­grated with text and de­sign in in­trigu­ing ways. In the spirit of pub­lic art, when it opens this week the first 500 view­ers will each be able to take home a copy of one poster.

Not un­crit­i­cal voices

Those in­ter­viewed are not un­crit­i­cal of their world. They voice con­cerns about politi­cians, unem­ploy­ment, home­less­ness, par­ents who don’t com­mu­ni­cate with their chil­dren, teenage preg­nancy and sugar dad­dies. Yet the over­rid­ing im­pres­sion is one of pos­i­tiv­ity.

Each per­son was asked to com­plete the sen­tence “#I am” with one word. Their re­sponses show how re­flec­tive and ex­u­ber­ant they are: med­i­ta­tive, hum­bled, in­tri­cate, in­tu­itive, charis­matic, adorable, black, fab­u­lous, a leader, en­thu­si­as­tic, dif­fer­ent, deter­mined, brave, happy, imag­i­na­tive, beau­ti­ful and per­fect.

There are only two du­pli­ca­tions: “#I am a thinker” and “#I am words”.

The young peo­ple worry about di­vi­sions among South Africans. Jerry Chisala, 21, from Hillbrow, says South Africa needs love and unity.

“We are all Africans, we are all hu­man be­ings. It doesn’t mat­ter if you drive a mil­lion-rand car. To God we are all the same,” he says.

Amy Har­ri­son, 21, from Parkhurst, la­bels her­self a thinker. “I feel strongly about in­te­gra­tion of races and cul­tures,” she says.

“We have so much to learn from each other. When I was 14, I started go­ing out with a black guy. My cousins found out and haven’t spo­ken to me since. That sit­u­a­tion still haunts me to­day.”

Lucky Ntan­tiso, 21, from Free­dom Park, says he wants to “break down the walls of di­vi­sion so we can all come to­gether and ap­pre­ci­ate one another”.

Ka­tia Sar­ris, 20, from Dow­er­glen, says: “We are all the same on the in­side and we should be will­ing to work to­gether and come to­gether in or­der to bet­ter our coun­try that we all love so much.”

As for politics, Tracey Adams, 17, from Malvern, thinks politi­cians are “kind of child­ish” be­cause “they won’t say they will do this for the coun­try, they will say that the other party is do­ing it wrong”.

Ratang Mashilo, 19, from Houghton, says: “Our coun­try is mo­ti­vated by one party try­ing to beat the other party.” She feels we have “lost the fo­cus of em­pow­er­ing com­mu­ni­ties and bet­ter­ing the so­ci­ety”.

Mpuseth­seng Moloi, 21, from Buhle Park, Ekurhu­leni, says: “Politi­cians, you should stop what you are do­ing in par­lia­ment as the in­vestors are go­ing to run away from our coun­try.”

Matheko Kgo­motso Palesa Ramolefo, 19, from Soweto, says she would like a new po­lit­i­cal party that fo­cuses more on young peo­ple: “On em­pow­er­ing us not with hand­outs but with skills.”

Amira Shar­iff, 17, from Green­side, thinks it is vi­tal for us to be proud of our coun­try and to fo­cus on “what it has to of­fer in­stead of what it doesn’t have to of­fer, be­cause I think that a lot of South African tal­ent tends to go else­where”.

Ler­ato Ndlovu, 16, from Soweto, sees “the he­roes of yes­ter­day with a bot­tle of beer in their hands and no keys be­cause they were just given po­lit­i­cal and not emo­tional free­dom. With­out emo­tional free­dom you can­not pos­sess eco­nomic free­dom.”

Vi­su­al­is­ing good things

If the much-touted be­lief that vi­su­al­is­ing good things man­i­fests in these goals be­ing re­alised, these young­sters look set for great fu­tures.

Big­boy Ndlovu, 18, from Hillbrow, says he read that if you want to hide some­thing from a black per­son, put it in a book.

“Af­ter see­ing that quote I told my­self: ‘I won’t be part of those peo­ple.’ So I will make a book my friend.”

Siyabonga Nkosi, 15, from Klip­poortjie Park, Ekurhu­leni, says: “I see my­self liv­ing the dream, hav­ing a fam­ily, liv­ing in a big house, be­ing suc­cess­ful, pur­su­ing my pur­pose. I would teach adults: your child can be any­thing they want to be. It is not about the money, but the pas­sion.”

Grace Nsala, 16, from Berea, tells other young peo­ple: “Lis­ten to the voice in­side you. Don’t let fame and money be your only driv­ing force.”

Nqo­bile Mthembu, 15, from Soweto, feels strongly about her iden­tity. “I am Zulu and a young girl from the hood. I see my­self driv­ing the big­gest car, ed­u­cated, sup­ported and loved.”

Zinhle Sithole, 16, also from Soweto, is­sues a chal­lenge. “Our gen­er­a­tion has po­ten­tial to bring change, the power to de­ter­mine how things will be by re­mov­ing our own lim­i­ta­tions. The sky is not the limit. We can reach higher and do things we never thought of do­ing.”

Big­boy Ndlovu, 18, from Hillbrow, says he read that if you want to hide some­thing from a black per­son, put it in a book. “Af­ter see­ing that quote I told my­self: ‘I won’t be part of those peo­ple.’ So I will make a book my friend”

Pic­tures: Jodi Bieber. Poster de­signs: Bren­ton Maart

#I AM CHILLED Jor­dan Smail, 17, from Glen­vista, Jo­han­nes­burg, wants good gov­er­nance for South Africa.

#I AM DETER­MINED Big­boy Ndlovu from Hillbrow has faith in lit­er­acy.

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