Photograph by Marco Casino
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A train surfer in action. The phenomenon is widespread in Johannesburg.
Photograph by Marco Casino

Marco Casino, From Train Surfing to Townships

Italian photographer Marco Casino is a Leica Ambassador, the co-founder of Made in Milan studio, one of IdeasTap and Magnum’s 30 under 30, and most recently, the first place winner of Best Short Feature in the 2014 World Press Photo Multimedia contest.

When storytellers set out to explore an idea, the unknowns usually outweigh the certainties. The only thing they know for sure is that their initial idea will grow in unexpected directions and deepen in ways that will sustain future work. There is an element of belief that’s necessary–in giving legs to your inklings, you have to have faith in the process.

For Marco Casino, the idea began when he came across an amateur video about the world’s 10 most dangerous sports. Train surfing, which is literally surfing on top of trains, was the first sport featured. He was curious. The only other video of staff riding (another term for train surfing) that he could find was made in 1996, and that was enough for him to buy a plane ticket. Equipped with a fixer and a place to stay, all of which he arranged online, Casino set off to Katlehong, a South African township about 20 miles southeast of Johannesburg.

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A young man smokes marijuana before train surfing.

Once there, Casino spent time endearing himself to people that lived in the community. He didn’t take any photos for the first week. He was sensitive to the implications of wielding a camera, knowing that it often makes people uncomfortable, especially in the hands of an outsider. “I met a really young boy who started to cry when he saw me because he’d never seen a white person in his life,” he said.

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Youth play near turnstiles on Penny Penny Day at the Kwesine railway station. The holiday is celebrated by young people dressing up as older men or women and carrying around a soda can asking for a penny.

Katlehong, one of the largest and poorest townships in South Africa, was heavily invested in the fight against apartheid, but it remains under-resourced and its residents underemployed. Casino explains that when speaking to people there, he sometimes felt like “they had lost the magic . . . that they are disillusioned about the society and about the integration of blacks into the society.”

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Exhausted workers rest on the train ride back to the township.

Ultimately, Casino connected with the bold, nimble athletes he set out to document. But he also discovered that staff riding was a manifestation of more complex social circumstances. “I started to understand why they did it, what the social reasons are,” he explains. He features 22 year-old Chabedi Thulo, who explains that staff riding is, “the way of expression, you know. Like you want to take off the anger, instead of beating someone and robbing them. So you’re just expressing the anger.”

In Casino’s piece, the screen is often split into two, trains whizzing by in one half, and interviews taking place in the other. He uses multiple views to remind us that this story is made up of many stories, many angles. For example, we see and hear Sibusiso Linda, a young train surfer, talk about his dreams in the top half of the screen: “In the future I see myself in advertising,” he says. And in the lower half of the screen we see another young train surfer holding on to the handles of two train cars, hanging down like a “Y,” scissor-kicking his legs in what would be a surely fatal position for most. It is a jarring comparison.

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Chabedi Thulo and his friend flip on a wall in Kwesine.

Though most passengers’ train experience is less extreme, the cars serve as a kind of microcosm of the township–religion, economics, it all appears on the train.

“The connection to the train is really strong for the whole population, from kids to old men. It’s fundamental for social relationships, and it’s strictly connected to the township’s history, as they started as dormitory towns for the Johannesburg’s factory workers . . . In Katlehong there are hundreds of different cults. If you use the train over there, it is easy to find spontaneous groups of people praying and singing together during their trip.”

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Men walk down a street in Katlehong.

Casino believed in his initial idea enough to go out the roof of a train (which he did to gather some footage, in addition to giving a few of the train surfers Go Pros). Now that seed of an idea has taken root and he is letting it grow. He shared some images with us that were not included in his Staff Riding edit. Images that begin to take us off the train and into the town. Images that help us to connect these staff riders to the real worlds that they inhabit. “I am trying to connect this phenomenon [of staff riding] to a really bigger phenomenon, which is the basis for long-term projects,” he says. He views the staff riding story as the first chapter in a long term project about contemporary life in the townships. He already has plans to return to South Africa for the presidential election this May.

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Two people sit in a Kota shop in Lindela. Kota is a South African fast food that consists of a hollowed-out loaf of bread filled with curry. The dish originated in the Durban Indian community.
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Nightlife on a street in Kwesine.
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The Soweto derby is one of the most most fiercely contested matches in African soccer.

He’s also thinking about how he wants to present future versions of this project. “I want to connect this kind of content with social networks, pictures made by township citizens, sound, design, music, archival materials, and data journalism.”

“I feel really, really lucky to be one of the first generations that can work with the full power of the Internet . . . Fifteen years ago, this kind of story? I never would have been able to do it without going there for a couple of years and starting to meet people. It would be a totally different approach that was really slow.”

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A township landscape in Kwesine.

“I think the best part of the project is still yet to come,” he says. As a young storyteller myself, I was energized by Casino’s views on new technology. I think we all have something to learn from his embrace of unexpected directions in storytelling. I know I’m looking forward to seeing where Casino takes this story and the tools he uses to tell it.

See more of Marco Casino’s work on his website and his tumblr.