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Cape Town's Iconic Long Street

Long Street is one of Cape Town’s most improbable and yet exciting streets, where prim Victorian architecture festooned with wrought-iron decorative ‘lace’ stands cheek-by-jowl with pumping nightclubs and some of the city’s oldest and most-revered places of worship. Starting near the harbour, it forms a rich backbone to the inner city and is truly the street that never sleeps: from office and court workers on weekdays to ultra-hip students and night owls who haunt the late-night restaurants on weekend, it has pep, zest and life in all its weird and wonderful incarnations.

Long Street is a jumble of seeming contradictions – Christian churches border reggae bars; at noon on Friday, the faithful gather in their hundreds at the Long Street Mosque, by midnight on Friday, the same area is awash with tipsy revellers looking for their next party. In a way, it’s a microcosm of South Africa’s thrilling multi-culturism: the smoky smell of boerewors rolls mingles with frying fish ‘n chips; incense wafts into burger joints; Malay curries and gatsbys (a combination sandwich filled with polony, salad and slap chips) fragrance the air.

David van der Want explores the streets of South Africa’s oldest and most cosmopolitan city – camera in hand – to record vignettes of strangers’ lives.

‘For street photographers, Long Street has no shortage of subjects for candid photography. It’s an incredibly varied place with heterogeneous groups of people – mothers, hipsters, hustlers, drifters, big shots, models – all thrown together in a visually-rich environment. The contrasts between people and places is very energising,’ he says.

Here are his shots from a typical day in Long Street. At almost 4km-long and spanning more than 20 city blocks that are punctuated with history – the 1804 Old Slave Church (40 Long Street), the 1811 Palm Tree Mosque (185 Long Street), the 1908 Long Street Baths (corner Long and Orange Streets) and the 1972 anti-apartheid Space Theatre (44 Long Street) – it’s a moveable feast for street photographers.

Cape Town's Iconic Long Street - lawyers

‘These two men were striding along, both looking very serious, on their way to court. In South Africa, attorneys still wear robes for court appearances, an old-fashioned touch that contrasts well with their modern suits.’

Keerom Street, parallel to Long, is home to the Cape High Court where high-profile cases are heard, while Victoria Street houses many legal firms and chambers. During the week, the triangle of Long, Leeuwen and Keerom Streets is a sometimes tense, sometimes euphoric, sometimes forlorn place as the accused, victims, counsel, relatives, journalists, and picketers gather in court.

Cape Town's Iconic Long Street - mother

‘This mother was engaged in earnest conversation with one of the street vendors – I’d seen her there before and was attracted by her simultaneously impassioned and restrained pleas.’

Many Muslim women, especially older women and Somali immigrants, wear the hijab in Cape Town. Islam’s history in the city dates back to 1658. Street vendors sell everything from loose cigarettes and Cokes to cellphone airtime and aspirin. 

Cape Town's Iconic Long Street - young man

‘When this guy saw me taking his photograph, he adopted a serious and flashy “hip-hop gangster” pose. I dropped the camera and this genuine and naturally happy smile was my reward.’

The Cape Town city centre has a small but strong community of skateboarders who whizz up and down Long Street at daredevil speeds, elegantly manoeuvring around other traffic and passersby. The city, in a bid to become more inclusive, has opened the Sea Point Promenade – a seaside ribbon that runs from Mouille Point to Bantry Bay – to skaters on Mondays;  a great place to photograph them in action.

Cape Town's Iconic Long Street - man outside shop

‘I actually crossed Long Street to take this man’s photo. I was drawn to the scooter and the background – it’s just such a typical Long Street scene.’

Scooters are very popular in Cape Town especially in summer when the long, hot days make them the best way to zip around town and down to the beach. If you’re a licensed rider, consider renting one for the day and taking the magnificent seaside drive from Cape Town to Noordhoek along the incredibly beautiful Chapman’s Peak Drive. 

Cape Town's Iconic Long Street - young drummer

‘This guy was drumming up a storm to advertise the African Dance Theatre then he stopped to take a call. “Beautiful,” I said as I walked away. “The old and the new,” he said, pointing at the drums and his cellphone. Smart guy.’

Music is a huge part of Long Street: the pavements are lined with buskers and every bistro, bar and boutique will have its own tunes bursting out its doors… bubble-gum pop, African choirs, hard-core house, chilled indie, rhythmic folk. The African Music Store (134 Long Street) is a great place to browse local music from across the continent.

Cape Town's Iconic Long Street - waiting girl

‘I shot this without using the viewfinder. Who is she waiting for?’

Long Street comes alive during weekday lunch hours as everyone leaves their laptops to bolster themselves for the afternoon grind. For a truly South African lunch, try a mutton roti (curried mutton in a wrap), or a chicken biryani (tender chicken chunks in a spicy rice pilaf). Washed down by a glass of South African vino or a crisp local craft beer, of course.

Cape Town's Iconic Long Street - running boy

‘The men in the background are from the market at Greenmarket Square – I like the contrast between them doing their daily toil of pushing their wares up the road and the freedom of the boy running.’

Laid out in 1696, Greenmarket Square – one block off Long Street – is Cape Town’s second-oldest public space and is the setting for a daily throng of traders, head-bobbing pigeons, loafers, browsers and coffee-sippers.

Cape Town's Iconic Long Street - watching man

‘This man was watching the comings and goings on Long Street intensely. Nice dreads too.’

Cape Town's Iconic Long Street - gogo

‘uGogo (grandmother) with a kind face. I took about 15 frames before she noticed me – this was the last one.’

Cape Town's Iconic Long Street - schoolboys

Thibault Square is home to two Cape Town landmarks: the city’s second-tallest building until 2014 (1 Thibault Square) and renowned South African artist Cecil Skotness’s remarkable work Mythological Landscape, a fantastical bronze-and-steel sculpture that features African beasts and otherworldly creatures.

Long Street is a 3.8km-long rollercoaster of South African life with all its highs and lows, heartbreak and happiness. For a street photographer, it’s treasure chest of striking subjects and emotive imagery. Do as David does: walk along, camera in hand, and shoot what moves, excites or pains you. It is the heartbeat of Cape Town.

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