From the Series
Robin Bernstein’s two major bodies of work have been focussed on highlighting the eviction of two large communities in Cape Town’s city centre. The first is a block of flats named "Senator Park". The building was notorious for housing drug dealers, drug users, gangsters and prostitutes. The second project is an on-going body of work called "The Kraal". This is an informal settlement on the foot of Signal Hill mostly populated by a disjointed community of African refugees and local residents.
Bernstein picked up the camera after a trial and error process. He began as a student enrolled in engineering – “That didn’t go very well for me,” he says. After trying to become an engineer for one year, Bernstein realised he wanted to become a photographer so he studied the subject in Stellenbosch before getting his postgraduate degree from the University of Cape Town’s arts school, Michealis.
Over the course of those three years, I started to realise that my real interest in photography lay in the social documentary and story telling,” – Robin Bernstein.
Storytelling is the modern vogue of photography, but Bernstein has managed to distinguish himself from the rest for a number of reasons: his work is well considered, he meticulously combs through the finer details and the product is a body of work that captures the fibre of people’s lives.
The Senator Park project is one such example. The city council and the owners of the flats were unhappy about the drug dealers, users, gangsters and prostitutes squatting in the building, so after a long process the occupants were evicted. Bernstein had to enter the building and shoot after the final eviction by law enforcement.
“My workflow with Senator Park was to research every aspect of the buildings history, looking into newspaper articles, found little trinkets and objects,” he says.
The most obvious detail in the final photos is the absence of people. But even without them, Bernstein was still able to craft a narrative by photographing the place that people created. He has used the term, “textures of place”, in an attempt to succinctly relay what it is exactly that he documents.
“A lot of information and detail can be found and narrative can be drawn from a space or place, an area or a thing and not necessarily from a person or a picture of a person,” Bernstein says.
A lot of narrative can be drawn from a place,” – Robin Bernstein.
That’s not to say that he doesn’t shoot people. His work at the Kraal, a shantytown located in Cape Town’s city centre, is just as much about people as it is about their things and the space that they live in. African refugees, former child soldiers, reformed high-ranking gangsters and families and people from the neighbouring Bo-Kaap community live at the Kraal.
The Kraal is a hotbed of conflict between the city council and the residents. The council owns the land that the Kraal is built on and as the last space open for development in the city centre it is incredibly lucrative. The city council has justified the eviction by saying that criminals escaping police have used the Kraal as a hideout.
The area is symbolic to the photographer because it has been hotly contested since slavery was a common practice in the Cape. In contemporary times, the space has seen multiple evictions by law enforcement. Now, the centuries-long battle will end and the Kraal will become a parking lot or a hotel; the reports are unclear.
“The formal population of the Kraal – the people that have formally numbered shacks – are all being relocated to Pelican Park in the Cape Flats,” says Robin. The community of African foreign nations will not be moved to the Cape Flats, Bernstein thinks they’ll likely be forced to move further up the mountain or to live on the street.
This disappointing fate hasn’t stopped him from talking about the project at length – he talks about the people, the ethics of shooting them, the mistakes that he’s made and what he’s learnt.
One of the things that he’s learnt is that establishing intimate and consensual relationships with the community at the Kraal is the cornerstone of his practise. “I’ve built up relationships with people there, which is ultimately the best way to entrench yourself in a story, place and to get to the bottom of things with an accurate sense,” he says. “It’s not just to whip in there with that photojournalistic reportage approach – snap, snap, snap – and leave.”
Bernstein tries to avoid the “snap, snap, snap and leave” method by spending time at The Kraal; he believes that it grants him “more authentic access”.
While the Kraal is coming to an end, Bernstein believes that the project possesses longevity. In the meantime, he’s working on another project that’s taken a completely new direction – shot with an ordinary Nikon point-and-shoot, this new project is about party and youth culture in Cape Town.
Both "Senator Park" and "The Kraal" are deeply emblematic of another kind of culture in South Africa: urban segregation on the basis of race and class. In a country where land ownership is deeply skewed, Bernstein’s photographs are humanising the plight of marginalised people who have no place to turn to than urban slums such as Senator Park and informal settlements such as the Kraal.
“I’ve been presented with the opportunity to make a slight impact on the people that I’m photographing, I know that it sounds esoteric and shit but I can give back in that way,” he says.