Bicycle Portraits: Everyday South Africans and their bicycles – A quick review


I picked up a surprise package today and it truly feels like Christmas has come early. Inside the brown paper packaging was not just one, but two beautiful books – two editions of the Bicycle Portraits books by Stan Engelbrecht & Nic Grobler. I mentioned their project briefly on this blog back in 2010. However, what I didn’t say at the time is that I also donated to their Kickstarter* campaign, as I was really inspired by their project. I had been thinking about photographic and cycling adventures myself at the time and as they had already collected some lovely colourful images – I found it surprisingly easy to pledge to give money to these unknown guys via the click of a computer key. Two years later and I’m pretty happy at getting these books as a physical return.

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Tanki Mohapelo

I must admit that after following their progress for a good few months online – I lost track a little. However, after some recent emails, when I got one of those nice little red notes from Royal Mail to say they didn’t deliver my package and instead they would like me to cycle out of town to the dark industrial estate where their depot is based to pick it up… it was ok, as I could vaguely deduct that there was a high possibility that these books were what was waiting for me. I literally tore off the brown paper wrapping as soon as I got home to get a peak at them.

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Thabang Ditlhareng

In total, the Bicycle Portraits are published over three books that include the best 162 portraits and stories, from the vast total of over 500 portraits of cyclists they photographed during their 2 year journey. Their journey spanned 6000 kilometres around South Africa and their initial aims were to find out who rode bicycles, why they ride them, if and why they love them and why so few South Africans cycle for transport.

Stan and Nic don’t obviously narrate within the books, but their carefully curated selection of stories and pictures speak strongly for themselves and are nicely balanced out  with a few short essays by local South African and major international cycling figures, including pieces by Noble prize-winning author JM Coetzee. In their own words they state:

“Bicycle Portraits gives people a glimpse into each other’s lives through a well-known object of movement, practicallity and joy – and also perhaps brings strangers together in their love of a simple thing…”

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Johannes Diko

I have just spent the last few hours slowly flicking through each page… helped a little by some energy hot chocolate. The books create a fascinating portrait of a nation, whilst simultaneously demonstrating that the magical power of the bicycle.  The photographs are matched with hand painted maps of where they were spotted, plus a quick insight into the riders attachment to their bicycle or daily cycling routine. Every story they have captured adds a few more pieces to the puzzle that makes up this diverse society and indeed the value that owning and riding a bike can bring to your life.

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Alfred Lodewyk

One of the things I liked most about some of the pictures is the visible amount of customisation. The way people edit things they own in order to fit them, to add more personality and personal value has been a fascination of mine for a long time. So the images I decided to feature in this post were picked due to the way these people had customised their bikes.

I think my favourite was the work of 65 year old Alfred Lodewyk, who has customised his bike with a brilliant mix of items including a steering wheel, roof, seat back, horns, number plates and more. Alfred said : “I think we’ll be together for a long, long time.”  I really hope they are. His bike has really taken on a life of its own and turned into a brilliant hybrid machine.

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Gabriel Moloi

I will do a quick round-up of what I like about the the others that I picked out in the post here:

  • Gabriel’s bike is colourful and filled with gadgets that include music, lights, indicators, radio and more by the looks of it.
  • Tanki’s clever transformation of a shopping trolley into a utility bike has subsequently created a business for him and states that: “Anything that a car carries, I can carry with this.”
  • I like the way Thabang has used tape to give his bike identity, in particular I like the alternate coloured triangles he has created by wrapping tape around the spokes.
  • It was Johannes description of how he used his vuvuzela and flags that I liked. With the vuvuzela used as a warning for traffic at points where he could be unseen such as junctions.

So yes these books are definitely worth a read, so you can find out more about them here Bicycle Portraits and you can also watch a series of videos. Ok, I’ve been at this for a wee while now – so I think I’m going to head to bed now. .

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