There are parts within our world where children are forced to act like adults and grow up fast to deal with the many difficulties surrounding them. Seeking some answers to these questions through his photography, Photographer Sander Troelstra charted the streets of Durban, South Africa to document the plight of children who tend to roam the streets at night. “I am always looking to answer the questions I ask about the people I capture at a certain moment. Because: who are these people? They are born somewhere in this world, but why are they there? Do they have control over their life? Are they free? And what is the exact definition of freedom? What is worth fighting for? Loving, believing, trusting people? When society goes to sleep, they stay awake. At night, the empty streets are their domain and they roll as they like. At night, they feel that they really exist, that they are somebody, that they matter. But with this life come the tough values and harsh rules of the streets. In order to stay safe, to stay alive, they have to join a gang and stay in groups at all times. Brutal violence, rape, knifings, drug abuse, AIDS and tuberculosis are their everyday reality. They are the children of the night.” Sander explains the story behind his engaging series he calls “Children of the Night”.
How did the idea for “Children of the Night” came about?
I made this series during the last year of my study at the Photo Academy of Amsterdam.At that time I was looking for subject of theme’s that suits my interest. My work is always about people, freedom, survival and transience. When I heard about the street kids of Durban by the Dutch NGO Be More there was a 100% match. The NGO could use the photos in change for accommodation. I booked my flight and jumped in the plane.
How did you select the locations where you documented these children?
Be More has a collaboration in South Africa with a local NGO, I got introduced to the local organization Umthombo, who is looking after the street kids of Durban. They have a so called safe space in the heart of Durban’s most dangerous streets where the kids and gangs rule. They gave me a room in their facility. The workers at Umthombo are former street kids and know their way in the streets and have respect of the gangs. At Umthombo they know all the places and hangouts of the kids and make their rounds to check on their health and injuries every day.
Share to us any realizations you had while doing the series?
I worked closely together with Siya,(28 years old in 2010). A former street kids who changed his live after being shot by the police. The bullet pierced his body without doing any fatal damage. He met in jail many other street kids being paralyzed because of the violence. He realized that he was very lucky he could still walk. Then he started to work for Umthombo and try to help the other kids to turn their backs to the street life.
Together with Siya I roamed the streets of Durban and got to know everything about the street kids and their ways of survival. During the day it was hard to find them because they hide and lay low but when society goes to sleep, they stay awake. At night, the empty streets becomes their domain and they roll as they like. Now you know how I came to the title of this work. ‘Children of the night’.
During my second stay I started to walk the streets with Siya on most nights. The photo of the boy doing a mime act will always stay with me. We found him at this crossroad working alone at night trying to make a little money. Instead of begging or stealing he did a mime act when the traffic lights turn red. He has a small whistle in his mouth that he blows synchronously with his movements of the act. You could hear this sound in the car and that’s how he got extra attention. We already met before and he was okay with me photographing him.
What are the initial reactions of the children when you first told them you will photograph them?
Very different. It took time to get to know them. I brought disposable cameras and gave them so they could make their own photographs. I developed those immediately and the next day they had their own pictures. They liked that. After that they started to know me and slowly they agreed on being photographed by me.
Tell to us the technique you used in shooting the series?
I worked with a Hasselblad 503CW and used film. 400 ISO tri X for the square portraits. The other work I made with then my just purchased Nikon D700. For light I used the Elinchrome Ranger quadra. Very nice 400 watt light that fits in my bag pack and has a remote trigger. When photographing, Siya assisted to point the light. This worked great and he really liked to help.
Lastly, what are your next photography projects?
I just finished a very big project where I made a photo-book and curated the exhibition ‘Cor Was Here’ in Huis Marseille, museum for photography in Amsterdam. This is a series about the local hero photographer Cor Jaring. I followed him 2,5 years in the last part of his life and after he passed away I showed his interesting life by making a book and exhibition ‘Cor Was Here’. We became very close and for me this was a very personal photo project. At the moment I am doing research and doing different photo projects. I just traveled two months in Indonesia and work with local tribes in Nusa Tenggara. Which was really interesting, I had the change to meet some medicine man and spiritual people. I also follow a gypsy circus in France who I visit every year. I also work together with the new Outsider Art Museum in Amsterdam. We are working on a great series of portraits about the Outsider artists.
To see more of Sander Troelstra’s work, please check out his official website.