Arts-Based Participatory Research Projects since…. Working the City


Since 2006, the African Centre for Migration & Society (ACMS) has explored the use of creative methodologies with more traditional qualitative research methods in social science research. These projects, including Working the City, engage in the co-production of knowledge through the development of partnerships with migrant groups; a central focus is the involvement of under-represented migrant groups that face multiple vulnerabilities to collectively develop methods that ensure that their voices are heard and seen.

MoVE focuses on the development of visual and other involved methodologies to research the lived experiences of migrants in southern Africa. Our approach aims to integrate social action with research, and involves collaboration with migrant participants, existing social movements, qualified facilitators and trainers, and research students engaged in participatory research methods. This work includes the study and use of visual methods – including photography, narrative writing, participatory theatre, collage – and other arts-based approaches in the process of producing, analysing, and disseminating research data. These approaches to research facilitate story-telling and self-study, incorporating various auto ethnographic approaches. Central areas of investigation relate to issues of social justice in relation to migration, with a specific focus on sexuality, gender, health, and policy.

To date, projects have been conducted with migrant men, women and transgender persons engaged in the sex industry, informal settlement residents, inner-city migrants and hostel residents. These projects have culminated in a range of research and advocacy outputs, including community-based exhibitions, public exhibitions, engagement with officials and outreach into multi-media forums.Please check out the MoVe weblog to learn more about our work:

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Due to domestic violence and unfaithfulness of my husband I decided to run away from my marital home of 16 years in Tembisa to look for freedom and some peace of mind.  I was traumatized time and time again and although he said he would kill me and even though I reported him to the police, he was never arrested.

On Sunday 4 April I left my place in Tembisa with two kids and moved to Hillbrow to my close friend’s place at a hotel.  My friend explained how she earned a living at the hotel.  I agreed to the idea to sell sex since there was no other alternative for me to earn a living at that moment and time.

Being a once married woman, it was tough at first to work as a sex worker but after two weeks I made up my mind not to blame myself for what I was doing because surely I had to pay the bills and buy something to eat.  I had to support myself.

The cardinal problem at the hotel is that the security guards and the management really abuse me and force me to have sex with them without paying like other clients.  This really bothers me because if I don’t agree they will chase me away at night and this means that my room will be given to another person.  The police as well- they are a major threat since the continuously raid the hotel and upon arrest I have to pay a fine of R300.  The police scare away clients and put my life at risk.

Simon sleeping after having too much at a hotel bar in Hillbrow.

These are some of the beautiful places where parents go with their kids in Hillbrow. This actually reminds me of good moments with my kids.

My boyfriend. He actually helps me to go through difficult times and because of that l really cherish his effort. In this image he takes a rest at my place.

A dirty building where people sell their produce along Abel street in order to earn a living. This image reflects the unavailability of adequate selling spaces for vendors in Hillbrow.

Zanele is a bar lady at a hotel and she treats her clients with respect. She is also good to me especially when I go for a drink or two.


Self Portrait

My first time in Johannesburg was a beautiful experience.  During my first stop in Hillbrow, I noticed a coke bottle on top of a shop on the corner of Klein and Pretoria Streets.  During a visit to one of my friend’s places, at the High Point Building, the same friend tried to kill me by throwing me out of the open window.  We had been drinking and having fun as our usual form of entertainment.  He was high on drugs.

One of my dreams is to be my own boss and to have my own salon in Hillbrow.  At the moment, I am a beauty therapist operating on Pretoria Street.

I do not like Hillbrow because there are some unhealthy and dirty spaces.  I also do not like it because it is bad for business.  I think street vendors need clean spaces to work.  Life in Hillbrow is good.  I go to church every Sunday after which I go out for a drink at the bar.  I also go to the shops to do some shopping.  I think if most flats were repaired and maintained more people will have a proper place to live.  I hate the fact that the place that I am staying in is dirty and it needs to be fixed.

Johannesburg is a good place and I have learned a lot of things and made some friends.  I have participated in educations projects, like peer education where I educate my friends about taking care of themselves and what they can do to live a healthy life.

The first time I came to Johannesburg I was dropped off by the taxi rank at the Coca Cola building. Every time I see this building it reminds me of my first time in the 'City of Gold'.

'Sex workers demand rights not rescue'
I took this photo as I feel that most sex workers are being discriminated against and some people want to feel ashamed as if sex work is out of this world.

Some of the places in Hillbrow are dirty as there is rubbish all over the streets and it's unhealthy for children and everyone who lives there.

The street vendor had her goods confiscated by Metro Police. The woman sells on the street to feed her family and as a result of the police action, her children face hunger.

Confidence's Shelter

The Hugh Solomon building is where sex workers get help in the form of skills training. They are encouraged to leave sex work and find other professions.

High Point building reminds me of a client who wanted to kill me because he was high on drugs.


l decided to portray myself the way l did in my self portrait because my relatives and friends do not know that l stay in Hillbrow.

I came to Hillbrow in June 1998 with my friend Nonhlanhla.  I experienced a tough time because of the language barrier as I could not speak Zulu.

I met a guy in a town and he asked me to choose what type of drink I wanted.  I chose Sprite and Zimba chips and then after I finished eating he asked me to go with him to his place.  I refused.  The guy started beating me up and calling me names.  He told me that I was supposed to go with him because I had spent his money, “You bitch! I just bought you a drink and chips so we have to go!”  he said.

I did not understand that he meant Zimba chips and I thought that he meant fresh potato chips so I started arguing with him.  He beat me up again until I had bruises on my face.  He then took me to his place where he raped me without protection.  I became HIV positive as a result of this incident.

After the incident, I got a place to stay at a hotel.  One day, the guy who beat me and raped me came to drink at the hotel.  I told the security guards about what he had done.  They beat him up until he was bruised like he had done to me.

I never saw my friend Nonhlanhla again and she does not know what has happened to me.  I now see Johannesburg as a beautiful place with lots of job and education opportunities.

I chose to recreate this scene of when I was beaten up and raped in 1998 as a way of trying to highlight the abuses that sex workers go through.

From the time l came to Hillbrow in 1998, there has been efforts to make it a safer place to be. People are not allowed to enter certain places with guns and this helps in curtailing criminal activities.

Twilight is a shelter that was built specifically for street kids. It is one of the meaningful developments that I have noticed in Hillbrow.

These are ARVs that l take to improve my CD4 count as well as lowering the viral load that weaken the immune system. l've been taking ARV's for six months now and there has been great improvement in my health.

Hillbrow Community Health Centre provides services such as HIV tests and counseling and at the same time provides ARV's. It also provides testing and treatment for TB.

This is inside the Ambassador hotel and people are seen going about their everyday business.

This is an old building along Banket street and it reminds me of my two friends that where intoxicated by Nigerian guys in 1999 before they raped them. However sex workers' conditions have improved as we can now practice like any other professional and we can now book in hotels with our clients and this is much safer.


Self Portrait

I came to the land of opportunities (Johannesburg, South Africa) in 2006.  I faced difficulties crossing the border illegally from Zimbabwe.

Life was hard in the city.  I was alone with no job or source of income but I was fortunate to share a cottage with Zimbabweans.

It was hard to get a job because I did not have a work permit neither did I have SA citizenship.  I had no choice but to create work for myself.  As the saying goes, “A girl has got to do what a girl has go to do”.

Jo’burg was not as easy as I had anticipated.  Hillbrow was shady and evil.  I was pushed around to hunt for myself and to be streetwise and to survive the city.

This picture reminds me of when I first came to Hillbrow. Life was hard and I was alone.

I was afraid. I battled to get myself a job since I did not have legal documentation.

My first home in Hillbrow was a shared cottage with Zimbabwean friends on Saratoga and Nugget Street.

There are good people in Hillbrow. Nokuzola devotes her spare time preaching to the community.

Johannesburg is the land of opportunities for most people in Africa. Although most of them face difficulties, like I did, when coming to South Africa.

Siyabonga on guard at the Twilight Children's Shelter in Hillbrow, Jo'burg. This image reminds me of how hard it was for me to feel safe and to trust again in the City.

I am in charge and in control of my life. My hands and mind are the main elements of my dreams and aspirations.



My first time in Hillbrow was bad because I was robbed at gunpoint and they took all of my belongings.  I was having a Blackberry phone, a laptop, my academic and professional certificates, clothes, R500 and my passport.  My life was ruined as I was left with no form of identification and as a result could not get a job.

I went to Soweto where I stayed with a friend whom I had met in Hillbrow.  She welcomed me on a temporary basis.  I spent almost two weeks indoors as a result of the traumatic experience.  It was like imprisonment because I could not move around without my passport until I got my asylum papers.

As for now I am working hard so that I get a bursary and further my studies.

Johannesburg is a good place to live but its being ruined by criminal activities especially drug dealing and sex business.  There is a high risk to teenagers who may get involved in early sexual activities which could ruin their lives.  Basic foodstuffs are affordable, which attracts foreigners because of the country’s currency stability compared to others in the Southern Africa region.

My aim is to help young girls from neighboring countries not to fall into the same trap as most of us did.  My passion is to get involved in Women Support Community Based Work.

An old lady selling her wares along Banket street in Hillbrow. On her background there is stickers on the wall for people searching for accommodation. There is a housing shortage in Hillbrow.

This picture portrays that prostitution is rampant in Hillbrow. It is not healthy to have condoms on the street because kids might pick them up and use them like balloons. On the other hand it shows that people are using condoms as a way of protection on sexual diseases.

Jane Gumbo is a beauty therapist in Hillbrow. She owns a saloon and also she is a Zimbabwean.

A young lady enjoys her cigarette on the front of her work place. Smoking is hazardous to health, not to her's alone but to the customers that use this entrance- they have to inhale the smoke.

I wanted to show that even though it's a homeless place the city authority needs to do their job because they (homeless) can get waterborne diseases. In this backyard there are lots of people, especially foreigners living. The mattresses shows that there are lots of people living there.

A street vendor chats with friends. There are allegations that some people pose as street vendors whilst selling drugs in Hillbrow.

I wanted to highlight that city authorities are not doing their work thereby causing health hazard's to residents, especially kids. There are nice buildings reflected but the street is dirty.

Monica Mombassa

Self Portrait

I obtained a diploma in Nursing while I was living in Zimbabwe.  In March 2010, I came to South Africa to look for a job in what I am qualified and trained to do.  I have been disappointed because it has been five months since I came but have not found a job in my profession.  I could have gone anywhere but I decided to come to Johannesburg because I know that the money here is good.  A friend of mine who was already staying here invited me to stay in Hillbrow.  I discovered that the place was densely populated and some areas were filthy which was completely unexpected.

My pictures talk about how people survive in Hillbrow.

Hillbrow is not a good environment for growing families with young children because many things happen here, such as drug abuse, premarital sex and alcoholism.  I think about my own children back home.  I have two daughters and two sons and I realize that it is better for them to stay in Zimbabwe where they can get a good education and be safe.

Not all people who live in Hillbrow are bad as there are some who attend church.  There are places where people can relax and enjoy themselves such as parks, pubs and restaurants.  In my spare time, I enjoy shopping, eating out, going to the cinema or attending church.  Although there are some aspects I like about Hillbrow, I would like to back to Zimbabwe and look for a job.

I think in the past, Johannesburg was a good place and this is why it is so famous.  However, illegal immigrants have denigrated it as they please.  Today Johannesburg is a health hazard.  It is congested, unhygienic and people do not take care of their health.

This building has become like a historical sight in Hillbrow because everybody knows the story about the fire. One of the tenants left the stove burning and the building caught fire, on the national news they reported that people had to jump out of the building through the windows, some died some were injured and those who survived had to run away. I always wonder when the owner will renovate it again.

There are too many pubs in Hillbrow. I think that people drink a lot not only to socialize but also to escape from their problems. Teenagers who drink want to experiment not knowing the dangers of alcohol. When people are drunk, they fight, women are usually raped and taken advantage of. I choose not to go to pubs because I am afraid of them. I prefer to go to church and socialize with my friends when we go to the movies or hang out at home.

In Hillbrow, people are constantly moving in or moving out. People always have lots of luggage and it reminds me of when I have to send goods to my family back in Zimbabwe.

It's 7 o'clock in the morning and already this man is drunk! He is stumbling along with a bottle of beer in his hand. He is mentally disturbed and says that he was once a criminal who used to kill people. When I took this picture he was running away from me! He is now staying at the Roman Catholic Church where he gets assistance with shelter, food and clothing.

Everyday I encounter school children. Some are busy with their school work, whilst others are getting into silly business. I was impressed by these children who were sitting on the side of the road studying. It shows that they are willing to learn and take care of themselves.

Not all people's flats are dirty. This is my friend Charity's home. It is well decorated and clean. She has been living in Hillbrow for over three years. She is originally from Limpopo and now works in Hillbrow as a nurse.

This corridor shows that some areas of Hillbrow are dirty. This is a health hazard to people who stay close to these buildings because they are exposed to water born diseases such as cholera and typhoid. This place is smelly which attracts flies which are also carriers of diseases like dysentery. Mosquito's also breed in damp places and this can cause malaria.