Bicycle Portraits is a photographic study of South Africans who rely on their bicycles every day, revealing who rides, why they ride, and of course why so few South Africans choose the bicycle as a primary mode of transport. With more than 500 portraits compiled over three years and 10,000 cycled kilometers, the project culminates in three published volumes as a portrait of a nation through it’s commuter subculture – uncovering all manner of societal, historical and cultural nuances never imagined. Bicycle Portraits celebrates the noblest machines ever dreamt up, and those who ride them…
When Stan Engelbrecht and Nic Grobler initiated this project, they aimed for it to be a study of South African bicycle commuter culture. They wanted to find out who rides bicycles, why they ride them, if and why they love them, and of course why so few South Africans choose the bicycle as an alternative means of transport.
Stan’s fascination with the mechanics of the bicycle and his background in photography, and Nic’s interest in the role the bicycle plays in a community, brought them together to collaborate on a bicycle-related project. They imagined finding classic ’70s Italian-built racers that had become hand-me-down commuter bikes, and photographing their weathered riders.
What started as a short ride around the area where they both live became a 10,000km journey over three years, taking them clear across the country. They traversed the Maluti mountains, sweated through Durban’s humid climes, braved the blustery West Coast winds, got sunburnt outside Addo, and built up trashed bicycles in Maputo and cycled them to Johannesburg. They cycled everywhere to meet the bold individuals photographed for this project – people who choose to ride a bicycle in the face of cultural and social stigma, crime and dangerous roads.
When it came to funding their adventure and the publication of the Bicycle Portraits books, they turned to the social crown-funding platform Kickstarter. Over three successful campaigns they raised well over $35,000.00, all the while traveling and compiling new material for the project.
They did not photograph people who ride purely for exercise or recreation, but instead searched for those who use bicycles as an integral tool in their day-to-day existence. They learnt that in South Africa, especially in the cities, very few people use bicycles to get around. It became clear that as major centres develop, there is still a trend to structure cities for cars, not people. The effect on individuals seems dramatic in a country with a growing divide between those who can afford motorised transport and those who battle to.
South Africa is a world within one country, home to various cultures, with a tragic history of segregation, racism and unequal wealth distribution, still locked in a struggle with its past. Stan and Nic believe in the bicycle as a great liberator and leveller – owning one can mean the difference between earning a living and starving. It affords you independence. It frees you from costly, unsafe and unreliable public transport. It sets you apart, whether you know it or not, as someone who has made a conscious choice to break away from convention. Everyone should own a bicycle – little makes more sense.
Bicycle Portraits gives people a glimpse into each other’s lives through a well-known object of movement, practicality and joy – and also perhaps brings strangers together in their love of a simple thing…
Since the publication of the three Bicycle Portraits volumes, Stan and Nic have been returning to each and every cyclist who feature in the books to give them a copy of the volume they appear in. For them, enabling these ordinary South Africans to see themselves as part of a growing culture in the pages of a book, has been the most rewarding part of the project.