William Sheepskin on the rising popularity of Bo-Kaap on Instagram, and the impact on its residents

Noticing the jarring relationship between tourists and residents in his Cape Town neighbourhood, William began a series on an area in constant contrast.

12 March 2020


Search for #bokaap on Instagram and over 100,000 images of the Cape Town neighbourhood will pop up. It’s a fact that struck photographer and resident of Bo-Kaap, William Sheepskin. It’s not that William can’t comprehend why tourists are flocking to the area – its brightly coloured houses are definitely a sight to behold – but it was the relationship between its residents and the visiting tourists which didn’t sit quite right with him, especially when you consider the area’s historical context.

As William describes, Bo-Kaap’s history reaches back to the late 1700s when its houses were originally built to be leased to slaves: “From what I know, when slavery was abolished and the residents gained control of their own properties, they started to paint their houses in bright colours as an expression of freedom, since the houses they had previously leased were always painted white.” Ever since, the area has grown in popularity among tourists, even more so with the rise of social media. “The colours of the Bo-Kaap lend themselves exquisitely to selfies and photographs taken of oneself with an interesting background by a friend or stranger,” explains William.

Watching this process happen on a daily basis, over time, William began to notice the impact of the area’s popularity and the effects this was having on his neighbours. “There is of course somewhat of a symbiotic relationship between locals and tourists, as the is the case with all areas that benefit from tourism,” the photographer tells It’s Nice That. “I think the reason I have come to see it as jarring is simply that, as I spent more and more time around the area I live in, it seemed to me that locals have been forced to forgo some of the intimacies most people would associate with homeownership in order to remain residents in an increasingly gentrified area.”

What William eludes to here is an ongoing change within the area which is “fast outpricing the people that have lived here for generations,” he explains. As well as its aesthetically pleasing facade, Bo-Kaap is conveniently placed in terms of location, “bordering the city bowl and the businesses that function within,” says William. “Its proximity is ideal for people that wish to avoid the dreaded commute from the outer suburbs into town.” In turn, Bo-Kaap’s cost of living is “continually increasing” including “frequent ploys from corporations to ‘make better use’ of such convenient land.” Most recently this includes the approval of a “monster building” in the area, which would take over an entire city block and likely increase the cost of living even further, as well as “further detracting from the heritage of the area.”


William Sheepskin: Bo Kaap

It was directly because of this realisation that William decided to pick up his camera and document his neighbourhood, walking around the area “with a very large intrusive camera – one not easily missed in hand,” he tells us. With this camera as a sort of signifying prop of the project, the photographer was met with two reactions, and in turn, has created two dissimilar types of photographs within the resulting series’. For example, “residents of the area, my neighbours, would frequently enquire about it or ask for a picture,” tourists on the other hand “would assume, given that I was carrying a camera, that I was among their ranks, and give little regard to their presence wandering into my frame.”

Allowing the communities making up the area to guide the project, William’s photographs often feature an arm just in shot, the figure of someone walking away, or a group of people seemingly chatting about who is getting their photograph taken first. “Photographs of my fellow residents through are more intimate,” he points out, “with portraits displaying direct gaze towards myself and the viewer, as well as shop shots of their comfortable interaction with the environment they call home.” In making such contrasting images within one series, William’s work is a direct and apt representation of the situation itself, adding that he feels “the juxtaposition of the presence that subjects hold in the photographs speaks to the irony I am attempting to portray.”

The photographer describes creating this body of work an “insightful experience,” despite being centred around an area he already knew so well. It was exactly this process – of looking deeper into the familiar – which has made the work so worthwhile due to “offering a further understanding of that which I’m surrounded by, and the manner in which my presence can impact the area I find myself in,” he says.

When it comes to moving forward, he suggests that those visiting Bo-Kaap “make an effort to ensure that their presence is of a positive influence to the local economy and simply to be aware of the residential nature of the environment,” he points out. “With regards to change, I would hope that people who are interested enough in the area to visit and take pictures might support the efforts opposing gentrification and encroaching on heritage,” he says. Overall, it’s up to each of us in tourist destinations to consciously become more aware “of the subtle intricacies of simply being in a place and how one conducts themselves can influence the impact of their presence.”

GalleryWilliam Sheepskin: Bo Kaap

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About the Author

Lucy Bourton

Lucy (she/her) is the senior editor at Insights, a research-driven department with It's Nice That. Get in contact with her for potential Insights collaborations or to discuss Insights' fortnightly column, POV. Lucy has been a part of the team at It's Nice That since 2016, first joining as a staff writer after graduating from Chelsea College of Art with a degree in Graphic Design Communication.


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