Overcome Heights

When I visited South Africa last month I was planning on going on a township tour in one of the larger shanty towns in Cape Town. I didn’t want to go and take photos of poor people, I wanted to meet them and understand their situation. When I told the attendees of my workshop this, Werner, one of them, asked me if I wanted the real deal or just a tour. I told him that I wanted to meet some real people, talk to them and hopefully get them to invite me in.

Werner told me he works as a volunteer in one of the poorest makeshift settlements on the Cape Peninsula. There’s shanty towns and then there’s the slums to the shanty towns.

This particular one is called Overcome Heights.

The organisation he volunteers for is called True North and they’re doing some amazing work. If you feel you want to help or support them financially in their cause, I know it would be appreciated.

When I arrived, I really didn’t know what to expect. I had been told Overcome Heights was a very dangerous place ruled by gangs. Over 70% of the people in the settlement are substance abusers. Many have HIV. And yet I noticed very little of that. I met people making the most of their situation. I saw pride. Love. And human spirit.

Life always finds a way.

Werner started off by taking me to a kindergarten. As soon as I walked in I was jumped by 30 kids who wanted to hug and kiss me. All my concerns disappeared there and then. The overwhelming love I felt from the people in Overcome Heights, people shaking my hand, telling me their stories, others wanting me to take their photos, will always stay with me.

I didn’t see poor people.

I saw people.


All images shot on film with a Pentax 67ii.

music credit: Homeless – Ladysmith Black Mambazo (iTunes)

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  1. I happened upon these pictures by just googling “Overcome Heights”. I worked in this township this past summer through an AIDS and HIV organization. I know many of these kids. They are precious and there are so so many more like them all over cape town!

  2. Wow, it’s amazing. I was there last January to mid Feb. People in Overcome Heights are so welcoming all they need is a listening hear. And the kids are so cute! They are real people indeed.

  3. Being a South African – this makes me so proud and so happy that you saw the beauty that this country holds in every corner of it. Thank you for your beautiful images from the rainbow nation

  4. This post made me cry. Thank you for these beautiful and inspiring images and WORDS. I was just having almost the same exact conversation with my brother last week, who went on his first trip out of the USA to visit Europe. In Western Europe he said he found lots of attitudes regarding “Otherness” and warnings about what seediness he could expect in Eastern Europe. But when he made it East, everyone was warm. Kind. Real. He loved it. And that’s what it really comes down to — treating people like others, like spectacles, like victims… Or treating them like human beings.

  5. Good honest work as usual. Your outlook is always inspiring. Photographing people and not subjects makes all the difference.

  6. what moving images. you really captured the warmth of these folks. i’m curious about the hand signs. what does it mean?

  7. Can’t get any more real and beautiful than this. Well done. You are such an inspiration !

  8. Jonas, a big thank you from me and all at True North. I will print and deliver every shot personally. The kindness you have shown the people living in this vulnerable community has spoken far louder than words. Actually blessing them with a printed portrait will be an experience I wish you could share.

  9. As a photographer we have an incredible power to portray people and tell their stories the way we see them. You could have gone here and taken photos that make the people look desperate and something to pitty. You portrayed these people with respect, humble appreciation and the dignity all people deserve.

  10. I absolutely love this. Such an important post and I’m glad to hear about the amazing experience you had. I feel that even without the words above, your images speak the same message of hope loud and clear. Beautifully captured my friend.

  11. Jonas, amazing body of work! It always amazes me when I travel that the people who seem to have the least, have smiles that can brighten their entire face! Especially the children, their authentic joy for life, when it seems they would have none. You captured this beautifully! Well done!

  12. Can I just say that I love your perspective?

    “I didn’t see poor people.

    I saw people.”

    I love that. I think the immediate association with shooting somewhere like Overcome Heights is “oh these people need help” and often the dignity and individuality of the people there gets lost in that. I love that you showed personality and made great portraits of these people, without referencing their poverty or challenges and stuff like that. Not that helping others isn’t important, but that you focused on what makes them valuable as people without going to the “let’s help them” thing. I think that’s significant and shows them to be more than just people in need. Poverty is one part of the human experience, it’s not all of it. It sounds weird to say “kudos for not mentioning the poverty” since we’re so driven to always mention it in situations like this, but kudos for not mentioning the poverty. I love these photos.

  13. Lovely. “I didn’t see poor people, I saw people”. I love the beauty of the human spirit. On a technical note, it never ceases to amaze me how film handles full sun situations 100x better than digital!

  14. I am not the most eloquent person in the world, so I will keep this short. This is beautiful. Beautiful in practice, and beautiful in spirit.

  15. Reminds me of my time in South Africa and visiting some shanty towns, but without a camera. Beautiful images Jonas. Thanks for sharing.

  16. you are very brave. I never got a chance to walk through the shanty towns. But, you know what, I guess I could have if I really wanted to. A lesson learnt through yours.

  17. When I saw the title I thought it was something in line of the Needle and your fear of hights, which you’ve shared with us on your former blog. This was so different and so beautiful.

    Never forget how you influence people – through words or pictures, when you speak, you capture your crowd. Thank you for sharing.

  18. This makes my heart so happy. Reminds me of my own experiences with “poor people” and how they are some of the best people I have met in the world : )

    Thank you for sharing your story and photographs. The b&w suits perfectly. So beautiful. Also, love the last image.

  19. Beautiful work Jonas, you’ve captured the character in the faces beautifully. Am interested, was it just coincidental that you there weren’t as many pictures of women, or was it because of local custom not necessarily being comfortable with women being photographed?

  20. I went to Cape Town on a mission trip back in 2003, and our no was to help build some of those homes in the slums or we were told called squatter camps. Those camps/slums really sprung up after the Apartheid and are mostly built on old trash dumps. It is the mostly humbling experience I’ve ever been apart of. I wish I was passionate about photography back then as I am now… Well done Jonas!

  21. those are great photos of u i really like ’em and i wish i would be in there one day :P

  22. “I didn’t see poor people… I saw people.” \\ this is precisely how I felt photographing a girl’s home in Thailand, an school in Kenya, and villages in Fiji. They’re just people. We’re all just people. We all need the same things. Some just know it better than others.

    Thanks for sharing.

  23. Hi Jonas! Amazing trip, surely. My wife Sasha has been to SA and is lobbying hard to get my butt there some day (not that I’m putting up a fight).

    Love the exposures. However you’re metering and the decisions you’re making looks really, really good to me. This is your Pentax?

  24. Fabulous story and images Jonas. Having worked with displaced and disadvantaged children it’s always sad to see this but you’re right about them, they have so little but give so much. Inspiring isn’t it……

  25. Love Love Love and love the Ladysmith Black Mambazo track as well – was totally drawn in to the portrait of the fellow with then ANC t-shirt on – amazing!

  26. I love seeing these portraits full of warmth and character in a place typically defined by its poverty (though of course this is an important issue).

    Jonas, what is the diamond-shaped sign that so many of them are making with their fingers?
    I especially like the picture of the two men + one woman crossing arms to make the shape together.

  27. I spent some time in the poorest villages in Cambodia last year and yet the people I met were kind, generous and friendly. In Western culture we have everything, but are so greedy and selfish. These beautiful people have so little yet they’d give you the shirt off their back. Poverty has bought out these people’s true love and spirits, while so often excess brings out our’s.

  28. the same reason i go back there every year…these people have so much love in their hearts. beautiful jonas! such a humbling experience too, more westerners should experience.

  29. I love you in this situation, showing us these amazing people….some of your best work along the heartlines….

  30. I love this, Jonas.
    in Africa, I spent my early childhood in a place so similar to this.
    well done making images that matter.


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