little house BIG HOUSE is a project I have been working on for a few months now. Here's what it's about:
Johannesburg is a city with high levels of crime. People live in fear and often have tales to back up the terrible and deplorable statistics, the accuracy of which are probably rounded down to censor public opinion. One of the remnants of the Apartheid regime is the massive discrepancy in wealth, education and housing. Johannesburg, just like many big cities in the world, has lush, leafy and exclusive suburbs a short drive away from squalor and decaying shantytowns. This is not unique: many big cities show the inequalities of a country in this crude and shocking way. But, because of South Africa’s past and complex history, it is a unique example of this phenomenon.
The rich live in mansions. The poor live in shacks. The middle class live somewhere in the middle, somewhere far closer to the rich.
Johannesburg’s suburbs, all of them walled, have a strange phenomenon: there are little houses outside the big houses where the poor guard the rich.
Set up as a deterrent to petty crime (and probably in principle but not actually to major crime) they are an effective and laudable effort. They provide jobs in a country with a pathetically high unemployment rate. They give residents a sense of security. But they are also a strange part, both literally and figuratively, of the landscape. They stick out but somehow also blend in.
Often equipped like tiny houses, they stand in stark contrast to the lavish homes they stand in front of. They have little stoves and little heaters for the cold winter and long nights. They have radios for entertainment and plastic chairs for comfort. Some of them even have windows.
But you will not really see the guards spending their time in these houses, or more correctly tiny wooden boxes. They are expected and paid to be guards and to be vigilant. They must patrol the street. Some companies have a system where the guards have to click a time-keeping box on either end of the street to ensure they are walking up and down that street, more chore than vigilance.
But these men, and very occasionally women, are a part of the modern psyche of the South African city. They have become ubiquitous and invisible.
But these are people. People who leave their difficult and unstable homes and communities each day to guard the homes of those more wealthy than themselves. They should not be faceless and nameless. This project is a very small effort to rectify that situation: for me (as a resident of the city), for those featured in this project (as the subjects) and for the viewers (as the audience and other residents of Johannesburg).