When you think of Cape Town, what do you imagine? Perhaps you picture Table Mountain, penguins on the sand, or the stunning beaches that surround this city.
Cape Town is often considered one of the most Instagrammable cities in the world. For the past seven years, it has been voted the top tourist city in the world by the Telegraph Travel Awards.
But beyond the picture-perfect version of the city, a different, more complex reality exists – set against the backdrop of the world’s most unequal country.
Here we meet two of the photographers working to revealing a deeper, grittier and less publicized side of the city through their images.
Ismaiel Isaacs, the portrait photographer of the Cape Flats
Ismaiel Isaacs, 31, grew up in Manenberg, in the Cape Flats – a flat, sandy urban sprawl on the outskirts of Cape Town’s city center. Beginning in the early 1950s, under South Africa’s apartheid government, people of color were forcibly relocated there earning it the reputation of “apartheid’s dumping ground.”
Today, it is home to over a million people, most of whom are of mixed heritage.
Even after 26 years of democracy, it remains a notorious part of Cape Town, socio-economically marginalized from the city center and surrounding suburbs.
As Isaacs tells CNN, living here is a struggle; on a daily basis, people face gang violence, poverty and the risk of death due to ongoing drug wars.
But it is also a place of great character, community and culture – and that is where Isaacs draws his inspiration.
“I try and convey a message of the beauty that’s in the struggle,” Issacs says. “[It’s] not only the struggles that we go through that make us stronger people, but people that live here – they are beautiful.”
His photographs focus mostly on portraits of people from these communities. He describes his aesthetic as raw, unfiltered and emotive.
“My story of Cape Town in my photography is the story of not just mountains and beaches, but there’s also an unpolished side of Cape Town that has been forgotten about,” he says. “And I feel that there’s a need for us to recognize it, because there’s a lot happening here. And actually, in the Cape Flats, we need support.”
Isaacs also says that he uplifts people through taking their photos.
“I’m trying to take the negatives and bring it into a positive, because as soon as I pick up my camera and ask someone, ‘Look, here, can I take a picture of you?’ What are they going to do? They’re going to smile,” he says.
“For that moment, I’m making them smile and that’s fulfilling enough for me.”
Barry Christianson, the documentary photographer
Barry Christianson, 38, grew up straddling two different worlds: during the week, he lived with his mom in the Cape Flats, while his weekends were spent with his dad in the middle-class suburbs of Cape Town.
“Cape Town is a fundamentally fractured city, as divided as it is beautiful,” Christianson says. “There are multiple cities existing side by side – some for the haves and others for the have-nots.”
For as long as he can remember, social and geographic disparity have impacted the way he has viewed the city he calls home. After spending 16 years as a computer programmer, he felt compelled to turn his photography hobby into a full-time job.
“From colonialism through apartheid to democracy, people of color have been dispossessed of land, livelihood and freedom of movement,” Christianson says.
“Having to navigate the two realities and all that came along with them made me acutely aware of spaces I inhabited,” he explains. “A lot of my photography deals with issues around space and how space is created, who’s in the space, who creates it and what happens to the space when different people occupy it.”
He brought CNN along for a tour of locations he’s captured that illustrate these themes – like Saunders’ Rocks, a former Whites-only beach. Today, Christianson believes it is one of the most racially integrated beaches in the city.
He took one of his favorite photos at this spot – a Muslim woman wearing a burkini, something he says you might not see in other parts of the city.
A lot of his work also focuses on people who have faced more recent eviction, especially in areas of inner-city gentrification.
“As developers buy and sell valuable properties in the city center, black and mixed-race South Africans who managed to stay in the inner city throughout the apartheid era are being evicted and forced into low-quality housing on the city’s outskirts”, Christianson says
“[Cape Town is a] city that keeps moving people around, a very specific group of people around, who are never really allowed to stay in one place permanently,” he added.
That legacy of forced removals remains a deeply sensitive and difficult issue in South Africa today, which has had the most profound effect on non-white communities.
He often pairs essays with his images and is one of a handful of documentarians committed to bringing these stories and the people behind them to light.
“Even though I photograph space,” he says, “I try to sort of bring out personal stories and personal histories, and how people relate to Cape Town.”
The story has been updated to correct the age and spelling of Ismaiel Isaacs.