#MyJoburg with Caroline Suzman, photographer

more than a year ago
In our #MyJoburg series, we speak to people that add something unique to Joburg's creative mix, and get the lowdown on what enthrals them about this city. 

Caroline Suzman is a photographic artist based in Johannesburg. Her work is largely informed by literary and historical references. In her projects she combines environmental portraits and allegorical elements to reflect on social themes. She studied photography at the Market Photo Workshop, and English Literature and Photography at Rhodes University. In 1997 Suzman began documenting the changing South African political and physical landscape, exploring the subtexts of identity and heritage. Her first book, Heartlands, is in production. The book is a culmination of 20 years of travel around South Africa exploring the often harrowing experience of land ownership in South Africa.

Her most recent exhibition is titled "I Declare I Am Here" (April-May 2023) at Wits Art Museum in Braamfontein. It showcases a series on portraits of people in the inner city, each against a vivid backdrop of street art murals. The images speak to the incredible energy, creativity and uniqueness of the people of Johannesburg – foregrounding individual style against a backdrop of both city decay and vitality. 
Photographer Caroline Suzman.

How did the series of photos for your latest exhibition start?
I wanted to do something to mark 25 years of democracy in South Africa.

You can often be found on the city streets of Joburg. What's it like to work in this place – the most challenging and rewarding aspects?
Photography for me is about getting out of your comfort zone, which is rewarding. Keeping safe with a camera is always a challenge – having to be on guard all the time while working is difficult.

How do people react to you when you are out taking photos? Does this change depending on where you are in Joburg?
People are warm and friendly wherever I go, the area makes no difference.

What is it about Johannesburg that makes it such a compelling place for photography?
The layered and eclectic architecture, the textures, the colourful and crazy things that you can come across at any given moment, the easy access to everything, and the cultural diversity.

"What do you love most about Joburg?
That in the middle of load shedding at one of the busiest intersections in Rosebank when the traffic lights are down, you can find a homeless person directing five lanes of traffic like an accomplished composer."

What is the most memorable interaction you’ve had while out photographing?
There are so many. There is so much magic on the streets of Johannesburg!
1). Coming across a mural by South African Artist Ralph Ziman of a skeleton coming out of the ground in Van Beek Street in Doornfontein on Good Friday. It was utterly bewildering, I literally could not believe my eyes.
2). While walking around Doornfontein looking at everything around me, I tripped on a pavement pothole and went hurtling to the ground with my camera. A stranger helped me up and the kindness in their eyes is something that I will never forget.
Overthrown by Caroline Suzamn
Overthrown by Caroline Suzman, from the series I Declare I Am Here (April 2023)

The architecture and background in your photos often speak to the people and their clothing, and create a relationship with the city. Is this planned?
The joy of this series comes from the spontaneity – I walk around, see an amazing piece of 'urban fabric' and wait for other elements. Maybe someone to come along who matches it in some way. The elements are thrown together in an electrifying moment. Sometime it works out, sometimes not. There is a lightness about the process. Personally I don't think that you replicate the natural vibrancy of Johannesburg streets – what you get is what you get.

You capture a sense of immense personal pride in your subjects. Tell us more about that.
I see photographers as a conduit, channeling energy from one place to another, and I try reach out to people with a sense of empathy. Visual culture writer Alexandra Dodd, author of David Goldblatt: The Last Interview (Steidl, 2019) describes my work, "Suzman’s meditative portraits and definitive South African aesthetic are born out of a passionate fidelity to the grittiness and immediacy of lived life. Whether it is the backstage disappointment of a beauty contestant never crowned or the frank gaze of a Xhosa initiate, human susceptibility is viewed with a compassion and frankness. An arresting tension between vulnerability and self-declaration in her subjects is a signature element of her work."

What are your tips for people wanting to take photos around Joburg?
If you carry a camera, go with a guard or large group, the city is different before and after Covid, things have changed and have become grittier and less safe.
Karate by Caroline Suzman
Karate by caroline Suzman, from the series I Declare I Am Here (April 2023)

Favourite area for photography in Joburg?
Anywhere, everywhere, all at once! But if I had to choose – Jerusalem in Boksburg, Doornfontein, Fordsburg, Brixton, and Turffontein Racecourse because it so retro.

As a portrait photographer, you are constantly engaging with people on the streets. Is there something about these interactions that is definably Joburg?
People are super friendly and most people like to be noticed. The stories people tell allow me to reflect on quintessential Joburg themes such as heritage, migration, xenophobia, crime, security, faith, aspiration and adaptation. The recording of the environment combined with stories allows for different narratives to develop, which in turn develop into different series. The layered narratives mirrors the layered history of the city.

What is the significance of the title of your exhibition ‘I Declare I am Here’?
Finding good titles is hard, and for this series I asked for help. Art writer and editor Alexandra Dodd gave me the title 'I Declare I Am Here' which reflects on how people have reimagined the city after apartheid, and how they navigate architecture of a bygone era with grit and grace, forging a life in a city that is at once inviting and inhospitable.
Xolisile Ngubane on her way to a performance, Maboneng ( Place of Light), Johannesburg, September 24, 2016 (Heritage Day).

Why have you pursued a career in photography? 
I have loved photography since I was a child, when I started reading National Geographic and came across photography books in my grandfather's vast library. My parents gave me a camera when I was six and I have been obsessed with the medium ever since. Photography brings me so much joy. I think photographers have a lot of power and I like reflecting on important social issues in an fresh and original way. I particularly like to reflect on social issues with a more conceptual approach, which allows for more nuanced work.

You have been taking photos across South Africa since 1995. What change has stuck out the most?
The most striking change for me has been the destruction of farmland stemming from corruption relating to land reform and a poorly managed land reform programme which has exacerbated existing socio-economic problems.

Home is...
North-facing with cats, space, sun and trees, attached to my studio. A place where I can be calm, happy and dream big.

Your favourite Joburg suburb, and why you choose it?
Parkview, because it is really like a village.

What three things should a visitor not leave Joburg without seeing or experiencing?
Lindfield House Victorian Museum in Auckland Park, Marigold Beads at Joni Brenner's showroom, and the view of the city when the Jacarandas are in bloom from the top of the Rosebank Firestation at Workshop 17.
Lindfield House
Lindfield House Victorian Museum

What’s the one thing no one would expect to hear about Joburg?
People are so full of soul, kind and helpful.

The most underrated Joburg sight or experience?
Walking through the Brenthurst Gardens in Parktown

Favourite restaurant or cafe, and why?
I generally find Joburg restaurants disappointing but I would like to try Embarc in Parkhurst – their aesthetics are appealing to me.

"What makes someone a Joburger?
Someone who can pull themselves out of a crater-sized pothole and quickly make a warning sign out of a cereal box to save other people from doing the same thing."

The most memorable meal you have eaten in Joburg?
A seafood lunch at The Grace Hotel (now 54 on Bath) with American war photographer James Nachtwey.

If you could buy one Joburg building which would it be?
There is a municipal building in town that has glittering blue windows and mysterious pictures of Darwin and Spinoza on it. That one!

Favourite way to spend a weekend in Joburg?
Walking and hiking, exploring new parts of the city in the early morning and looking at everything, taking heritage tours, taking my nine-year old son to art galleries, lunch or dinners with friends and working on new projects in my studio.

Favourite Joburg brand, and why?
Marigold Beads, Marianne Fassler Designs, and James Findlay Collectable Books & Antique Maps.

On a weekend in Joburg you’ll find me...
In no particular order: swimming in cold water, walking, mountain biking, reading, visiting art galleries,editing, writing, dancing, doing yoga, visiting friends, photographing, thinking about projects and planning new series.

What makes someone a Joburger?
Someone who has a great sense of humour, wild enthusiasm for small things. Someone who is brave, who likes challenges, has a certain amount of grit , who can pull themselves out of a crater-sized pothole and quickly make a warning sign out of a cereal box to save other people from doing the same thing.
Marigold Beads
The beautiful handloomed nexklaces made by Marigold Beads

What do you love most about Joburg?
1) That in the middle of load shedding at one of the busiest intersections in Rosebank when the traffic lights are down, you can find a homeless person directing five lanes of traffic like an accomplished composer (a skill honed by having watched Johannesburg Metro Police at work).
2) The weather is so amazing and it makes you feel good. Compared to other cities in the world the traffic is not bad. I love the kindness and friendliness of people. I love that people take exercising really seriously.

What do you least like about Joburg?
The air pollution and that there is seemingly no plan to cut down on carbon emissions; the fact that there is no protection for the street recyclers; the there is no close mountain to climb; the radical inequality; the fact that people are being mugged at the Gautrain stations; and that you have to be careful or on guard going to some parks and walking in the street.
Hairdresser Hendrik Luthuli passes a mural by artist Sonny on his way to park station, Braamfontein, Johannesburg, 28 January 2018.

Your tips for a first-time visitor to Joburg?
Visit the Hollard Gardens in Parktown. Make an effort to engage with people. Take a Heritage Foundation tour and learn about the layered architecture of the city. Take a trip to Sterkfontein caves. Don't look like a tourist when walking around and don't stand on the street corner looking at your phone waiting for an Uber!

What's happening in Joburg right now that you think everyone should know about?
The weather is changing and the sky is an incredible blue. Embrace autumn in the city, and have a picnic in a park. There are many great cycling tours of the city.
My exhibition 'I Declare I Am Here' at the Wits Art Museum!
William Kentridge's production The Head and the Load.

Three words that describe this city.
Friendly, gritty, innovative.


Connect via social media
google sign in button
Leave a comment using your email This e-mail address is not valid
Please enter your name*

Please share your location

Enter your message*
Put our app in your pocket
This site uses cookies. By continuing to browse the site, you are agreeing to our use of cookies. Find out more here. AGREE