"Although informal settlements are not acceptable, there is something particularly worthy of preservation," writes the UN Special Rapporteur on the right to a place to live, Leilani Farha, in the preface to Pieter de Vo's photo book Homelands. These are not Israeli settlements in Gaza, but the countless interim housing estates that are scattered throughout most of the world's major cities.
South African photographer Pieter de Vos has documented daily life in Woodlane Village, an informal settlement on the outskirts of Pretoria, South Africa, to understand "how people experience home and belonging in a community that is in the realm of inclusion and exclusion". It is a series of aesthetically stunning images with a sense of detail come out.
Belonging and strangeness
The main character in the narrative that unfolds in Homelands, is Donald Banda, who spent two decades under apartheid in prison and has since settled in Woodlane Village. Donald Banda and Pieter de Vos have their home country of South Africa in common, but otherwise not much else, besides a close friendship, emerged through the months they spent together during the latter's photo project.
Pieter de Vos himself – who is white African – migrated to Canada with his family because his parents couldn't stand the brutalization of society in the 1980s. They could choose to take away, unlike people like Donald Banda. For the photographer, the photography project in Woodlane Village also became a way of understanding her own migration history, her own frayed feelings of belonging and strangeness.
Homelands is also characterized by Pieter de Vos 'own look at everyday life in Woodlane Village, and not – as he promises in the preface – by the inhabitants' own stories. According to Pieter de Vos, the photographic depiction has been a collaborative process with the local residents, and the book's "heart" is constituted by Donald Banda's "interconnected and transversal narratives".
Banda's own words, however, are left with little room – he is first and foremost portrayed through the lens of the photographer, who is admittedly observant and observant, but to call it Banda's narratives is something of an indulgence.
The photo book is first and foremost Pieter de Vos' own study of an environment that is and will be foreign to his own life – no matter how much the photographer must be haunted by the desire to understand how the feeling of belonging and feeling ownership of a place that arises, breaks down and is maintained.
Very out of little
The story of this particular corner of a world – the non-formalized or (temporarily) tolerated settlement – that exists at once separated from and integrated into the formal urban universe is political and human. Like the effort to show it at once unworthy and worthy – or, as Leilani Farhi puts it: conservation worthy – in this parallel world is noble.
At the same time, the book provides an important insight into the unequal survival struggle that humans lead in the age of urbanization. Longer text passages describe the stubborn struggle for recognition that the residents of Woodlane Village lead with law and with their mere existence. And through the camera, the inhabitants and their daily efforts to get a lot out of it are portrayed.
A birdhouse made of cola boxes, tailoring in the dark with a headlamp, a neatly paved courtyard between boards and tarpaulins, which are carved together and for the resident constitutes the home's security, but for the neighboring neighboring association of formally recognized residents constitutes a rubbish pile, full of threatening, elements.
Listen with your eyes
Most of the book is photos, well composed and empathetic, and yet the amount of words is disturbing. There are too many and too few. Too few of Donald Banda and his neighbors' own words, and too many of the words of the photographer and his white colleagues.
Homelands are predictably true to an age-old scheme: a white one
man travels out, invites himself inside at «the strangers»
and manages to avoid learning to keep quiet.
Leilani Farha's foreword, for her part, is short and concise, unromantic, critical and grainy. On the other hand, it is incomprehensible why the photo series should definitely be framed by the winged academic poetics of Pieter de Vos himself, and partly of another white South African who, like de Vos, thinks of himself as a servant of change. Change for the better is understood.
In that sense Homelands predictably true to an age-old scheme: a white man travels out, invites himself in with the "strangers" and manages, strangely – through months as a guest with someone else – to avoid learning to remain silent. Of course, it should not prevent others from using the result as a reason to pat on and just listen, in this case with their eyes.