I remember the first time I saw a dog walker in Joburg. It was a few years ago, and occurred somewhere between the last bastions of old, white wealth: namely Westcliff and Saxonwold. I was in a car, and was only able to catch a glimpse of a black man in blue overalls, with two Jack Russells tugging at the lead. The experience left me somewhat confused: did the dogs belong to the man? To me, it seemed incongruent if he was the owner. But I couldn’t pinpoint why.
Since then, I’ve spotted numerous dog walkers in the city’s suburbs. I hadn’t given this strange social phenomenon much thought – until I came across a series of photographs.
Enter Marc Shoul: a Johannesburg-based photographer whose latest body of work, called ‘Dog Walkers’, depicts this very phenomenon. Shoul is most well-known for his ‘Brakpan’ photographic series, where he spent years documenting the rough inhabitants of this far-flung, poor white part of the East Rand. His approach to ‘Brakpan’ was considered: he got to know his subjects intimately over a long period of time, slowly gained their trust, and painstakingly rendered beautiful, thought-provoking shots via his clunky Hasselblad camera.
In ‘Dog Walkers’ Shoul has taken a major departure from previous work: instead of analogue, he’s working in digital; instead of black and white, he’s trying out colour.
“I needed something different. These are portraits, ‘urban landscapes’. I wanted to experiment with colour – I sometimes think that people expect me to shoot in a square, black and white format forever. It’s free and quick.”
Herein lies part of the problem. His latest body of work is far less considered compared to previous projects, and even verges on the irresponsible. In ‘Brakpan’, his images, which ultimately interrogate whiteness and privilege, are raw and arresting; in ‘Dog Walkers’, the photos are one-dimensional and smack of the ‘happy native’.
Shoul contends that these images are neutral and are not intended to make any kind of political statement – that they are merely documenting an inescapable facet of life in Joburg. “I’m not going to tell you what to see. If you see it as a racial thing, then that’s what you see. Most likely the owners are white, but who’s to say? There are no givens in Johannesburg. They could be the Gupta’s dogs for all I care… It’s a mystery. You can see it as you like.”
Despite Shoul’s apolitical stance, the concept statement for ‘Dog Walkers’ on his website reads otherwise, rather confusingly.
“[…] it’s loaded,” he adds. “Living in South Africa is loaded. It sometimes feels like an accomplishment just living here, that we’re all lucky to be alive.”
Shoul’s ‘Dog Walkers’ images are themselves, loaded. These photos elicited anger in me (Shoul told me that when he showed the images to his cousin in Israel, he said they made him ‘sick to his stomach’). Some of the images also challenged my own preconceptions: in an image entitled ‘Bronan and Rufus’, the dog walker, Bronan, is dressed in typically middle class attire, namely chinos and a collared shirt. Bronan is holding a newspaper and smiling at the camera, while Rufus clearly wants to get on with the walk. Is Bronan owner or dog walker?
In ‘Benjamin with Marley’ we are presented with an image of a black man in overalls (presumably Benjamin, or is it Marley? It’s hard to say because in all the photo titles the subjects’ surnames are omitted). The man, who appears to be a gardener, is holding onto a leash, which has a beautiful Staffie on the end of it. In the background is Johannesburg’s suburbia, with a high wall and an electric fence. The image – along with all the others that appear in the body of work – brings up many questions. Can we presume that the owner of the dog is not the man in overalls? Can we presume that the owner is white? Can we presume that the owner earns a hell of a lot more than the walker?
On his website he states that middle class South Africans are a “strange bunch”; that they’re “entitled [and] feel guilty about a past that is hard to rehabilitate.” That they’re “complacent, in a word lazy.”
Unlike ‘Brakpan’ and his other acclaimed bodies of work, his approach to ‘Dog Walkers’ has, in a sense, also been lazy. Instead of a deeper questioning of this social anomaly, he presents stereotype-laden snippets which are rather Humans of New York-esque.
When I first viewed these images, I inserted my own post-Apartheid narrative to construct meaning, and it went a little something like this: For me, the dog walkers have become synonymous with privilege: it’s no coincidence that the dogs being walked are often pedigrees – like an Aston Martin that’s the ‘weekend car’, a Hyde Park mansion, or a Crawford education, Rover is essentially an extension of materialistic boasting. It’s also pertinent that this job is undertaken by ‘the help’; Joburg’s middle class is far too busy making money to walk the dog.
Turns out, this narrative isn’t entirely accurate: Shoul says that he had been contacted by a few dog owners, who usually walk their dogs, who told him that the only reason they employed the walkers was due to illness or injury. According to Shoul, the dog walkers, who are mostly from other African countries – like Zimbabwe and Malawi – are potentially making more money walking the dogs than their full-time domestic, gardening and security positions pay them, and are able to send money back home.
My initial reading of these images completely neglected to take this self-empowered, entrepreneurial aspect into consideration. Instead, I viewed these images very much through a race/class lens, which is somewhat skewed. The lack of a race/class lens is inherent in Shoul’s approach: he maintains that ‘Dog Walkers’ is not intended to be a serious body of work. “[It’s] quirky compositions and straightforward. I didn’t spend huge amounts of time with people; it was a quickie […] I would see people walking dogs, stop my car, tell them about my intention for taking the photograph, and ask permission to take their photo. Then I’d get their details so that I could send them a print of the image,” he explains.
It’s a huge pity that Shoul hasn’t given the viewer more information to work with: only first names of the dog walkers are used and no captions are provided – only the area in which the photos were taken. The viewer is left to jump to all sorts of conclusions which are mostly tied up to race and/or class. Which is not Shoul’s intention; but due to the lack of information and narrative, he has inadvertently framed these images through a political lens. Not only that, but unlike in his ‘Brakpan’ images, where we are presented with intimate portraits of people at home and in environments that tell us more about them, in ‘Dog Walkers’, the subjects are far removed from any context that says anything about them except that they are ‘the help’.
An interesting aspect to this exhibition was that it was entirely open air; as in, it was displayed on street poles, and not in a gallery. “I wanted to experiment with presentation and I wanted them [the dog walkers] to see it; I didn’t want the exhibition to be in an exclusive gallery. It’s a nice way of exhibiting – it’s not the white cube and it’s accessible. People can like it or not like it; they can take the pictures down and deface them if they want to,” he adds.
Shoul contends that his images capture “beautiful moments and sweet relationships”. “Some dog walkers have known the dogs they walk for over ten years […] dogs are like children for many people. There are, obviously, similarities to the relationship between domestic workers and the white children who they had to look after.”
However, Shoul fails to see another parallel: that the close bonds formed between domestic worker and white child were always bittersweet; like the Labrador or Dachshund, the child was never hers, the bond was merely part of the job description.
“I’m a white guy shooting black people – fuck it,” he adds. “This is what I see; this is what exists right here. Instead of the dog walkers being on the peripheries, I’ve put a focus on them. Humans are fascinating […] I’m not here to get their whole life story.”
I maintain that this is the fundamental problem that lies behind the execution of this body of work: by not telling their stories, we, the viewers, are left to formulate our own, which leaves us with an inaccurate narrative that’s missing a key component: the stories behind who these people are and what they do; by simply giving us drive-by snapshots of the dog walkers, their stories go untold, rendering them more invisible than before they posed for his camera.
Dog Walkers was commissioned by the Joburg Photo Umbrella 2014 and formed part of the SA-UK Seasons 2014/2015, which is a partnership between the South African Department of Arts and Culture and the British Council.