The Portfolio: Madoda Mkhobeni

I’ve been working on a series about Johannesburg trolley pullers for a decade now. One day, it just so happened that I was coming from Fordsburg into town and I bumped into this guy pulling a heavily laden trolley. I followed him from President Street up until the city library, photographing him from the back.

The project is also about where the recyclers live — on the city’s fringes. It goes all the way back to the days of Newtown when there used to be an old building where homeless people lived. They later moved to the Nelson Mandela Bridge, before the park was built.

I used to visit them there, take photos as usual. Eventually I started to notice that these people were a mix of Zimbabweans, Mozambicans, people from Lesotho and South Africans.

It was then that I discovered their double lives: most of them have dwellings in the township, so that when their loved ones visit, these guys don’t have to reveal their day-to-day living conditions.

Sometimes they’d ask me to take photos of them when they were dressed as “normal people”, so that they appeared that way to their families.


Their lives are just like those of people with regular nine-to-five jobs. They cook, they worry about their safety, they watch football at the nearest bars, they have radios, they keep up to date with what is happening in the country, they read the papers. They just live in poor shelter.

From my focus on that group, I broadened the project to include anybody involved in recycling.

When I began following this particular guy, I was interested in the mannequin he had collected. It was not tied to anything; the way he was pulling it showed me that he had experience in pulling it in a way that stopped it from falling. I took the last photograph as the mannequin was falling.

At that moment, he turned back and noticed that he was being photographed. He was surprised. We laughed and greeted each other.

Sometimes when you shoot in town you can anticipate people’s movements, stay ahead of them and get a particular shot. These are things that come with the experience of shooting in town where there can be many variables. I try to make sure that wherever I am, my camera settings are right for that location and my film is fully loaded. This allows me to make sure that when the time is right, I am clear and not shaky. I prefer to use a 50mm lens because it is more of a what-you-see-is-what-you-get situation. There is less distortion than with the 35mm.

There are other things that come into play in town, like establishing eye contact as a way of announcing your presence and using your instincts.

Shooting film in town is safer now because the guys keeping an eye out for cameras know they won’t fetch much from their dealer if they show up with a film camera and not a digital one.

From the Johannesburg Trolley Pullers series

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Madoda Mkhobeni
Madoda Mkhobeni 1
Madoda Mkhobeni is a street photographer from Soweto.

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