From above: Johannesburg during lockdown

Ideas

From above: Johannesburg during lockdown

Journalists have been covering Covid-19 mostly from the ground, but these drone images give a new perspective

James Oatway
An aerial view of the makeshift roofs of homes in the Booysens shack settlement, a densely populated area in the south of the city.
BOY OH BOY An aerial view of the makeshift roofs of homes in the Booysens shack settlement, a densely populated area in the south of the city.
Image: James Oatway/New Frame

During the past year, my duty as a photojournalist has been to document the Covid-19 pandemic and its effects on the people of SA. I often try to approach stories a bit differently and so I decided to supplement my usual photographic coverage with drone footage. I thought that, from up there, the device’s camera might provide some interesting and unusual perspectives.

In response to the outbreak of Covid-19, the government imposed a strict lockdown, which was eased only gradually. Initially, people were ordered not to leave their homes unless it was to buy basics or medical supplies. The army and the police enforced the lockdown, often with violent consequences. 

The parking lot of the usually bustling Oriental Plaza in Fordsburg stands completely empty.
NO WAY The parking lot of the usually bustling Oriental Plaza in Fordsburg stands completely empty.
Image: James Oatway/New Frame
A man catches a bit of autumn sun on the rooftop of a building in Hillbrow.
WINTER SIGNAL A man catches a bit of autumn sun on the rooftop of a building in Hillbrow.
Image: James Oatway/New Frame

This was a difficult time for many impoverished South Africans and migrants living in the overcrowded and dilapidated buildings of Johannesburg’s inner city, shack settlements and other densely populated areas. Without land or gardens — and with all public spaces closed — many felt trapped. For them the only place to go was up ... to the rooftops.

On these I could see many things. Children played football or catch. Men busied themselves with card games or sometimes bawo, the traditional East African game played on carved wooden boards with small rocks, beads or seeds.

Grass and vegetation grows over a play park in Sophiatown as public spaces were closed and people could not use them for exercise or outdoor activities.
FORCE OF NATURE Grass and vegetation grows over a play park in Sophiatown as public spaces were closed and people could not use them for exercise or outdoor activities.
Image: James Oatway/New Frame
A funeral takes place in a new section of Vlakfontein cemetery in Nigel on the East Rand.
GRAVE SADNESS A funeral takes place in a new section of Vlakfontein cemetery in Nigel on the East Rand.
Image: James Oatway/New Frame
Buses in a parking lot in central Johannesburg during the initial stage of the Covid-19 lockdown, when public transport was not operating.
BUS STOP Buses in a parking lot in central Johannesburg during the initial stage of the Covid-19 lockdown, when public transport was not operating.
Image: James Oatway/New Frame

Some people did their washing, their colourful blankets winking up at me from where they had been laid out to dry. Many people just sat, looking bored and listless. Others chatted and laughed in the last warm rays of the sinking sun before going back inside those dark buildings.

Elsewhere I saw deserted parking lots, overgrown cricket pitches and play parks. One windy morning I flew the drone over a landfill site and noticed a large light blue patch that stood out among the mess of the dump. I paused. Even from the air I could make out the shapes of the protective medical gowns that had been dumped there illegally. During another flight, the notorious Red Ants, who were demolishing shacks near Lawley, resembled real ants as they marched off in a line with the corrugated iron sheets they had confiscated.

Lines of washing on the roof of a block of flats in Hillbrow.
SYMMETRY IN CHAOS Lines of washing on the roof of a block of flats in Hillbrow.
Image: James Oatway/New Frame
The Ellis Park public swimming pool complex in Johannesburg reveals the effects of lack of maintenance.
NOT SWIMMINGLY The Ellis Park public swimming pool complex in Johannesburg reveals the effects of lack of maintenance.
Image: James Oatway/New Frame

I still have no idea who was responsible for the heart shape mowed into the lawn at the Zoo Lake sports club. It wasn’t me, I promise. Whoever did it, whatever their reason, made me smile that day.

This series of images is not a commentary on anything. Some of the images provide useful information. Others might be considered aesthetically interesting. To me the photographs are nothing more than curious observations made from the air as I looked down on a complex city during a difficult time. 

This article was first published by New Frame

The Red Ants demolish shacks at Lakeview informal settlement near Lawley, south of Johannesburg.
ANT HILL The Red Ants demolish shacks at Lakeview informal settlement near Lawley, south of Johannesburg.
Image: James Oatway/New Frame
Used protective gowns lie dumped at the Goudkoppies landfill site in the Soweto while waste pickers work nearby.
THE BLUES Used protective gowns lie dumped at the Goudkoppies landfill site in the Soweto while waste pickers work nearby.
Image: James Oatway/New Frame
A heart in the grounds of the Zoo Lake sports club in Parkview, Johannesburg.
ALL HEART A heart in the grounds of the Zoo Lake sports club in Parkview, Johannesburg.
Image: James Oatway/New Frame
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