Reclaiming Waste

Reclaimers of Johannesburg

The French Institute of South Africa (IFAS) has given carte blanche to Mark Lewis to create a series of photos about the reclaimers of Johannesburg, accompanied by Luyanda Hlatshwayo, member of the African Reclaimers Organisation (ARO). The texts that come with each portrait are the direct testimonies of the photographed subjects, collected by IFAS team.

There are many survivalists in Johannesburg whose labour forms part of a complex informal economy. Of these, few toil harder than the reclaimers: men and women who pull trolleys across the city in search of recyclable material. Long before sunrise each day, they head to the suburbs and industrial sites to sort through waste awaiting collection on sidewalks. Then they haul their giant loads of paper, plastic and glass many miles to the city’s trash depots where they are paid by the kilogram.

According to Luyanda Hlatshwayo, “this series of photos we are doing portrays fathers, mothers, children; everyone is someone’s child”.



These portraits of waste reclaimers show the spaces where they live, often constructed and refashioned using objects and materials they collect through their work, that come to decorate and furnish their homes. In a city that seethes with inequality, these are lives that are lived simultaneously on the edge of and at the very centre of Johannesburg. In a similar way, this dual existence is echoed through that which has previously been discarded and abandoned now made familiar and personal once again to create intimate space.

In February 2022 the book Bekezela. Reclaimers of Johannesburg/Recycleurs de Johannesbourg, was conceived and published by the French Institute of South Africa. It is based on the portrait series “Reclaimers of Johannesburg” by Mark Lewis, in an edition enriched with several texts – for example a preface by sociologist Melanie Samson (University of Johannesburg) and a foreword by the photographer. The book is available in digital format here.

A warm thank you to Rangoato Hlasane and Matthieu Rey for helping with the translations and to Faith Xaba for proof-reading.
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