Back and Forth: A Photography Exhibit of Informal Cross Border Traders in Southern Africa

Teeming with shoppers, traders, truck drivers, and local residents, the main road that runs through Musina, a town situated 10km south of the South Africa-Zimbabwe land border, is a bustling centre of activity. One Saturday, in 42-degrees Celsius heat, there was a particular buzz around the large local supermarket, Spar, and the smaller shops across the street. The reason: over 40 photographs pinned up on the flag poles of the parking area in front of the supermarket and at the shopping arcade across the street.

Families coming to do their weekly shopping and traders seeking respite from the heat under the shade of the arcade were welcomed by photographs documenting the lives of informal cross border traders - photographs of female traders carrying bags of goods on their heads, the money changer with wads of Zimbabwean notes, hundreds of people and mountains of goods at the bus terminal in downtown Johannesburg, and the weary face of a young girl waiting for the bus to take her and her mother back home from Johannesburg, where they regularly go to buy supplies for their shop in Harare.

These images are the outcome of Back and Forth, a photo documentary project of IOM’s Partnership on HIV and Mobility in Southern Africa (PHAMSA) programme, in collaboration with the Market Photo Workshop (MPW)’s Photojournalism and Documentary Photography Programme (PDP). The exhibit was launched in Musina on 4 November 2006.

Through the medium of photography, the project aims to depict the socio-economic living and working conditions of informal cross border traders in Southern Africa, to highlight their plight in terms of their human rights and HIV vulnerability.

"We wanted to exhibit the photographs where everybody, local residents as well as the traders who pass through the town, can see them," states Wilson Johwa, the Project Coordinator of MPW’s Photojournalism and Documentary Photography Programme.

Johwa explains, "We wanted to capture and raise public awareness of the socio-economic living and working environment of informal cross border traders, particularly the factors of vulnerability, such as gender inequality, poor living and working conditions, separation from families, exploitation and discrimination, lack of access to health services, and so on."

Click here to view exhibit photos

Click here to view exhibit photos

Nesbert Johwa, the Zimbabwean manager of the border bridge, Beit Bridge, felt that he learned something new at the exhibit about the traders he sees everyday. "The photographs highlight the plight of the traders - it's not an easy life, it's very difficult - the problems of accommodation, transport...."

The photographs are the work of advanced photojournalism students of the MPW, as well as commissioned professional photographers from Botswana, Mozambique, Namibia, and Zimbabwe.

Reiko Matsuyama, Project Officer of IOM, points out, “Another key objective of the project was to build capacity and increase awareness of the participating MPW advanced photography students and other external photojournalists on issues related to HIV, AIDS and migration. The photographers first received preparatory sensitisation training by IOM on the issues. Then they went out and travelled with informal cross border traders, informally interviewing them, and getting to know what their lives are really like. We wanted the project to be a learning experience for the photographers, and not just about taking pictures.”

"The project taught us a lot," says Lerato Maduna, one of the MPW students selected to work on this project. "I now have great respect for these people - they work hard, bring economic benefits to the region, and they are very proud of what they do. This was really a learning process for all of us students, and it’s very personal for us now. There are many misperceptions about informal traders, so I hope this project will at least get people talking."


The photographs were exhibited on the streets of Musina for ten days. On 22 November, a more comprehensive exhibit, including photographs from other countries in the region such as Botswana, Mozambique, and Namibia will be launched at the MPW Newtown exhibit hall in Johannesburg. 


For more information, please contact:

Reiko Matsuyama
Project Officer, PHAMSA, IOM MRF Pretoria
E-mail: rmatsuyama@iom.int

Wilson Johwa
PDP Project Coordinator, MPW
E-mail: wilsonj@marketphotoworkshop.co.za