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  • October 27, 2015

Life on Hold: A Photographer Explores What It Means to Wait

One day, while photographer Jason Larkin was driving around Johannesburg, South Africa, he noticed a sight that made him pause. On the side of the road was a man waiting at a bus stop, shading himself behind the narrow shadow of the sign. Larkin stopped, chatted with the man a bit, took his photograph and went on his way.

Picture of man waiting
20 minutes

It wasn’t until later, when he developed the film, that a larger narrative began to take shape from the image. For him, the waiting man was a symbol of the way South Africa’s history has shaped modern life in Johannesburg.

He says that “it was very much an idea around the movement of people—and thinking about the legacy of Johannesburg and the apartheid. I wanted to explore the idea of people having to wait for an inefficient transport system that is in place because of past geographical zoning.”

Picture of man waiting
Rodney, 50 minutes

Larkin felt like he had found a visual concept that he wanted to keep pursuing. But not unlike the man waiting at the bus stop, he had a number of limitations and hurdles in his way. He wanted to keep looking for people hiding in shadows, with their faces partially obscured. The first year Larkin worked on the project “Waiting,” he was only able to make a small handful of portraits.

Picture of woman waiting
Lydia, 30 minutes.
“Summer in Johannesburg isn’t that extreme, so it’s rarely super hot. These portraits only seem to happen during the very harshest moments of the summer. That really is only a month—around January, February time.” So during that time, Larkin would drive around for hours, looking for people waiting and shielding themselves from the sun. He would talk to them about their journey and ask them how long their wait would be.

“What I realized was that there were people waiting for all sorts of reasons. Waiting for money, waiting for customers, waiting for food, waiting for a friend … even something as minor as that,” Larkin says.

Picture of man waiting
Sbusiso, 7 hours 30 minutes

Not only did Larkin have a limited time of year to make these portraits, he also had a very short window during the day when the light created the right effect. “At midday, the sun is at a right angle to the ground so you get a very shallow shadow. To have the slightest of shadows was a more visually interesting picture to me. Normally when you look at a portrait you’ll see the eyes and feel this kind of connection through the eyes, but you don’t have that because this shadow gets in the way and breaks this connection.”

Picture of woman waiting
Evellen, 15 minutes

Over time, the project became less about the story of post-apartheid Johannesburg and more about the idea of waiting, and the disparity of wait times for people in different parts of the world and different social classes.

Picture of man waiting
Alvin, 25 minutes

“It was this interesting play of what we see and don’t see … having these people who have put themselves in the shadows is a larger metaphor for people being left in the shadows and being left behind. You know, Johannesburg has an amazing story, South Africa has an amazing story, but there are lots of people that are being left behind.”

Picture of man waiting
Solomon, 6 hours and 45 minutes

Larkin says that when he has shown the work to people, “everybody has a different tale of seeing someone wait, and how that situation made them realize how little they wait, or how frustrated they get when they wait, and feeling empathy towards those who do wait. In the West we don’t think about waiting because we fill our time with other things. Our lives are streamlined and efficient so we tend to feel like we shouldn’t have to wait for anything.”


Jason Larkin is represented by INSTITUTE.  View more of his work on their website and follow him on Twitter and Instagram.

There are 15 Comments. Add Yours.

  1. aamena desai
    November 23, 2015

    these responses are so typically priviledged south african- yes people wait for buses everywhere in the world – but do you see any white people waiting in south africa? – how can you ignore that reality and wish away the consequences of spatial segregation. black people in south africa still live on the outskirts of cities, where they were relegated to maintain white entitlement. they must travel 24 km (from Soweto) or 36 km (from Mitchells plein) to work in the sprawling suburbs looking after white kids and gardens-
    poor people in south africa travel average of 5km by foot in urban areas daily – the european comfort level walk to public transport stops is maximum 500m.- publci transport for poor south africans (mostly black ) is not just inefficient but undignified, so please stop denying truths that perhaps make you uncomfortable in confronting your own priviledge.

  2. Barb
    November 16, 2015

    This is about waiting for a bus, not apartheid really. As a student at 6 am every school day for several years, I took the bus and two trains to get from the north suburbs of Chicago to the university south of downtown, a 1.5 hour trip. Then I would reverse the trip in the evening, sometimes as late as 8 pm, in the dark. I did this all seasons which in Chicago can be 95 degrees in the summer and -10 degrees in the winter, as well as facing no seats at times, groping hands and thugs that wanted my pocket change. After I started working, my hospital bus stop was near the train to downtown. In snowy weather, people take the train instead of drive downtown. After my shift I would wait in the snow and cold for the bus, only to have the driver pass me by because the bus was filled – sometimes I had to wait as 2-3 buses passed me by. The CTA drivers were black, I am white – is this reverse discrimination? Be careful about conclusions made – not everything is because of race, apartheid and poverty.

  3. Marina
    November 16, 2015

    Perhaps a more productive depiction of waiting in relation to apartheid’s legacy would’ve been images of the scores of people waiting and queuing at public healthcare facilities from 4:00 am without any form of shelter come rain or shine.
    http://groundup.org.za/features/clinicqueues/clinicqueues_0016.html

  4. Sher
    November 16, 2015

    We have a saying in South Africa. The definition of the Previous Disadvantaged is the one waiting for the bus he burned down the day before….. Why is it that some have risen out of their dire situation in spite of apartheid and achieved so much. Other have simply kept on blaming apartheid and does not take responsibility for their own failures.

  5. Faan
    November 15, 2015

    These responses are being provoked as a result of inaccurate journalism Angel -not “powerful portraits”

  6. Ashley
    November 15, 2015

    I believe Stephen that you must be from a major city where waiting is expected. You must also be from an upper class family. I want you to think about the history of this country. This country has tried to pull itself from the Civil War and the servitude of the slaves and equal rights and opportunities for everyone for over 150 years. I watch in wonder as the United States of of America, supposedly known for its freedom, develops such great differences in its economics that it’s no wonder that African-Americans, Asian-Americans, and Hispanic-Americans still live in similar environments of their ancestors who came to this country looking for the American dream only to find out that it did not include them.The introspective development of this piece is very deep. These people have lived during some of the darkest days of South Africa or have heard the history of those days that it dwells in their hearts and minds and affects their way of living. They are not able to get out of their current living environments due to the apartheid. It’s like being stuck in the mud. These people have learned to be shadows in their own hometown. It’s a sad circumstance and one that is easily seen here in small town USA if you look carefully.

    • Stephen
      November 16, 2015

      Well said Faan.
      Inaccurate journalism is what the problem is and what my message was about.
      Angel and Ashley (in particular) – you haven’t a clue as to what you are talking about. You’re obviously American ?
      I live here. I’m not upper class. I’m a person upset that people still blame apartheid 21 years on. Germany recovered from a World War in a fraction of that time. If anything our current government is more oppressive than the apartheid government. With 50 plus murders a DAY in SA it’s amazing that the people who protested to remove apartheid aren’t protesting against our horribly corrupt present government. I’m a South African trying to make things better against all the odds since the ANC (who you all supported) are a highly destructive force and destroying this beautiful country.
      That seems to be an American thing though – interfere when you know nothing of the true situation, then walk away and leave the people to pick up the pieces – which in 90% of cases they can’t. Maybe they’re waiting because of American interference ? Maybe it’s a legacy of your involvement and reluctance to stay involved or even speak out against the ANC ?
      But all that aside – the story is about waiting.
      The two people waiting for over 6 hours are a beggar and a person with no inclination to do anything other than sit on a tyre. They are all over the world.
      It’s not a legacy of apartheid. It’s just down and out people doing nothing. They aren’t waiting. They’re just doing nothing.

  7. Angel
    November 15, 2015

    It is very interesting to read the previous comments, these portraits must be powerful to provoke such defensive responses.

  8. Barbara Radle
    November 15, 2015

    Insightful I live in Austin TX and when I was without a car I did the same thing wait, wait, wait looking for shade I was so grateful to find shade in the 100 degree Summer’s here that one day while waiting I wrote a poem O thank you little shade tree For sharing your shade with me To protect me from The intense heat of the noonday sun

  9. Chris
    November 15, 2015

    its sad that people like Jason cant move on from the ‘legacy of apartheid’. It is 21 years on now! People all over the world wait at bus stops.

  10. Stephen
    November 15, 2015

    This is not a legacy of apartheid.
    There is plenty of transport in Johannesburg – many, many taxis. So many in fact that you can’t get away from them. And they are cheap (and dangerous mind you).
    Solomon is sitting on a tyre – he isn’t going anywhere.
    Sbusiso is a street beggar – he even has his begging cup in his hand – he’s not waiting for anything except a handout.
    If he was waiting 7 and a half hours for something then really he should have walked – he could get right across JHB in that time !!
    You’ve made a story out of nothing.
    I like the waiting idea – just don’t make it a story of the legacy of apartheid. Or the lives of these people. Waiting for 30 minutes or an hour – that’s reasonable – anything more than that and the person isn’t waiting – they’re doing something – in this case begging or simply doing nothing.
    If anything the lack of a decent transport system is the fault of the current corrupt government.

  11. Kai
    October 31, 2015

    You surely couldn´t take those pictures in Germany. Waiting people means people checking their phones 😉

  12. Andrew V
    October 29, 2015

    What were Sbusiso and Solomon waiting so long for? A bus?

  13. Silas S
    October 29, 2015

    Jason Larkins perspective differs because of his introspective approach. It is obvious that his explorative mind delves into servitude of the past and ‘having to’ wait of the present. I hope Jana agrees with me…

  14. michael
    October 28, 2015

    people wait for buses worldwide whats the story?

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