Working the City

Abstract. Rationale: Urbanization is rapidly taking place in Africa: fifty percent of the continent‘s population is expected to be living in urban areas by 2030 (Kok and Collinson in Vearey 2010b).

Both internal and cross-border migrants are moving into South Africa’s urban centers at a faster rate than her neighboring countries; approximately 60 percent of the population is estimated to be urban (ibid). The worldwide increase in urbanization requires that research recognize the trajectories of people moving into these urban spaces, as well as the experiences that people encounter as they navigate urban centers (Kihato, 2010, Landau 2006a, 2006b, Vearey 2010a, 2010b, Venables, 2010).

Many migrants in inner-city Johannesburg engage in unconventional survival strategies, including sex work (e.g. Richter 2010). Although sex work is considered an informal livelihood strategy, it is currently illegal in South Africa (UNAIDS, 2009). Research on sex work in South Africa is limited; however, there is significant evidence that sex workers in inner-city Johannesburg experience unsafe, unhealthy-often times violent- working and living conditions (e.g. Nyangairi, 2010, Richeter, 2010). This research is primarily interested in exploring the ways in which “marginalized” urban migrant groups choose to represent themselves versus the incomplete (re) presentation that is often relegated to them. A focus on representation will provide an opportunity for policy makers, programmers and academics to gain insight and better comprehend the experiences of migrant urban populations. In this case, the researcher is looking specifically at migrant women who sell sex as an entry point into the larger issues of (re) presentation among individuals and communities who are often described as “vulnerable” and/or “marginal”. Aim: The aim of this research project is to explore how migrant women who sell sex in Hillbrow, Johannesburg (re) present themselves, and how (or not) urban space affects these self-(re) presentations.

Methods: The epistemological framework for the methodologies used in this study was Participatory Action Research (PAR), and the primary data collection methodology used consisted of an eleven-day participatory photo project where the research participants were given digital cameras and asked to photograph the “story” that they would like to share. Upon completion of the participatory photo workshop, five research participants were randomly selected to participate in 2-3 sessions of in- depth, semi-structured narrative interviews where the researcher explored the choice of photos taken, as well as the reasons why the photos were selected to (re) present themselves.

Conclusion: This study has shown that use of Participatory Action Research as an epistemological framework is both conducive and appropriate when researching ‘hard to reach’ groups of people residing in complex urban areas. Furthermore, this research signals the need for greater inclusion of participants in studies aimed at understanding individual/group experience, especially when working with marginalized communities.

This study also reveals a host of future research opportunities for those interested in exploring:

  1. identity in urban space/urban health
  2. livelihood experiences/strategies of people living in densely populated urban spaces
  3. issues of belonging and access to health care
  4. impacts of structural violence on the lives of migrant women sex workers
  5. ways that perceptions and representations are impacted in group settings
  6. the use of ‘innovative methodologies’ as a viable tool in social science research

Download paper

Leave a comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.


  • I believe that we face incredible obstacles in our attempts to see the world. Everything in our nature tries to deny the world around us; to refabricate it in our own image; to reinvent it for our own benefit. And so, it becomes something of a challenge, a task, to recover (or at least attempt to recover) the real world despite all the impediments to that end.

    Errol Morris


    For any picture, ask yourself what question or questions it might be answering. Since the picture could answer many, questions, we can decide what question we are interested in.

    Howard Becker

  • You try your hardest to give people their space, but at moments you know you’re capturing their image in ways they may or may not be okay with. It’s that rocking back and forth between respect and betrayal that I feel like is at the heart of the film.

    Kirsten Johnson


    Visual culture is now the study of how to understand change in a world too enormous to see but vital to imagine.

    Nicholas Mirzoeff

  • Before I became a film major, I was very heavily into social science, I had done a lot of sociology, anthropology, and I was playing in what I call social psychology, which is sort of an offshoot of anthropology/sociology – looking at a culture as a living organism, why it does what it does.

    George Lucas


    The task for sociology is to come to the help of the individual. We have to be in service of freedom. It is something we have lost sight of.

    Zygmunt Bauman


    Reality changes; in order to represent it, modes of representation must change.

    Bertolt Brecht


    Sometimes one picture is equal to 30 pages of discourse, just as there are things images are completely incapable of communicating.

    William S. Burroughs


    If it’s far away, it’s news, but if it’s close at home, it’s sociology.

    James Reston


    There are dignified stupidities, and there are heroic stupidities, and there is such a thing as stupid stupidities, and that would be a stupid stupidity not to have a camera on board.

    Werner Herzog

  • If you want to tell the untold stories, if you want to give voice to the voiceless, you’ve got to find a language. Which goes for film as well as prose, for documentary as well as autobiography. Use the wrong language, and you’re dumb and blind.

    Salman Rushdie


    The function of sociology, as of every science, is to reveal that which is hidden.

    Pierre Bourdieu


    Every photograph promises more than it delivers and delivers more than it intended.

    Steve Harp

  • So it is my firm belief, that if you want nowadays, to have a clear and distinct communication of your concepts, you have to use synthetic images, no longer words.

    Vilém Flusser


    One advantage of photography is that it’s visual and can transcend language.

    Lisa Kristine

  • Photographers learn to interpret photographs in that technical way because they want to understand and use that ‘language’ themselves (just as musicians learn a more technical musical language than the layman needs). Social scientists who want to work with visual materials will have to learn to approach them in this more studious and time-consuming way

    Howard Becker

  • We never really know what’s around the corner when we’re filming – what turn a story will take, what a character will do or say to surprise us, how the events in the world will impact our story.

    Barbara Kopple

  • Watching a documentary with people hacking their way through some polar wasteland is merely a visual. Actually trying to deal with cold that can literally kill you is quite a different thing.

    Henry Rollins

  • Give us adequate images. We lack adequate images. Our civilization does not have adequate images. And I think a civilization is doomed or is going to die out like dinosaurs if it doesn’t develop an adequate language for adequate images.

    Werner Herzog


Contact us

    Become a member