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
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”
#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.