Behind the Prizes: Staff Riding

“Staff Riding” is local slang for a dangerous sport: surfing the trains that wind through the city of Johannesburg, South Africa. Photojournalist Marco Casino took last year’s World Press Photo Award’s 1st Prize in Short Feature Multimedia with his film about the young men who ride the outsides of trains, and the toll it sometimes takes on them.

Shooting from the tops of trains and attempting to evade the police (staff riding is illegal), Casino shows the adrenaline-riddled highs and the tragic lows that staff riding brings to the townships in South Africa. Now, he hopes to turn the short into part of a long-term project about the metro train system in Johannesburg.

Columbia Visuals: How did you discover this topic?

Marco Casino: I discovered the story in a really random way. I saw a post on my Facebook wall about the ten most dangerous sports on earth and there was also a post on train surfing. I was shocked about it, so I started to research to understand if the phenomenon was still alive. I discovered a documentary called Surfing Soweto which was made by people from Johannesburg.

Discovering this is really connected to the Internet. I think of myself as lucky to be a professional during the Internet era. I dont know if I could be a good photojournalist without the Internet because it’s fundamental for me, for my taste, for my points of reference, for most of the things I do.

Train surfing in action. The phenomenon is widespread in Johannesburg. Photo by Marco Casino

Train surfing in action. The phenomenon is widespread in Johannesburg. Photo by Marco Casino

CV: How did you get access to your three main characters?

MC: For the first one or two weeks, I just walked on the street meeting people without taking pictures because [Katlehong, the township where I was shooting,] is one of the most dangerous townships in South Africa. So I connected with the people and I also got their trust. One of them, I lived with for weeks. If you stay with people for a long time, it’s something that you can feel, when someone is ready to open up to you about his experience.

I also worked with a Leica and it’s a really little camera. You don’t feel like a paparazzo. It really helped to make people more confident.

CV: How did you shoot the b-roll, especially the shots on top of the train?

MC: I was on the roof but I was lying on it – I wasn’t on my feet. It’s in that moment that you don’t really feel the danger. It’s much more connected to adrenaline and you feel alive. If you think it’s not dangerous you can consider it something youthful. The biggest problem was the police – we got arrested three times just in one day. Of course the security from the metro station didn’t want pictures. They didn’t want to let us share our videos. If you notice in the video, some shots are taken with a GoPro camera. I got a belt and I gave it to some guys. So when they’re surfing I got footage from that part. It made it safer for me.

CV: What do you think made your story particularly powerful?

MC: The three characters of the video are strongly connected because the guys who train surf together are friends. They used to be in the same school. And the girl is the mother of the first guy. I wanted to create a plot where all the characters were connected. At the beginning you feel shocked and amazed by the surfing. You see that it’s dangerous, but the feeling you have is a good feeling. I wanted a break at the end of the video with something strong about how dangerous it is.

Sibusiso Linda got injured in 2007 touching a high voltage cable. He suffered the amputations of both upper limbs and of one leg. (Marco Casino/Columbia Visuals)

Sibusiso Linda got injured in 2007 touching a high voltage cable. He suffered the amputations of both upper limbs and of one leg. (Marco Casino/Columbia Visuals)

CV: Did you work with anyone else?

MC: I edited with Andrea Bertolotti. I know how to edit a video but he’s much better than me. I used to work with him in commercial video. I also worked with a sound designer, Salvo Delle Femmine, which is a fundamental professional job for multimedia. I took audio material with a Tascam – a really high res recorder – and he mixed it.

CV: How did you fund your trip?

MC: The first time I went [I paid] on my own. The second trip, I won a mentoring scholarship grant from the Lucie Foundation in 2014 so they helped me to pay for the travel during the year. In 2014 I went three times.

CV: Why did you enter into the World Press Photo contest and how has it benefited you?

MC: The entry was for photography and multimedia. I decide to enter because World Press photo is the most known prize in the photographic award all over the world. I think it’s the prize that every photographer dreams to win once in their life.

Of course, much more people know me now, and know my work. It was also a great opportunity to bring this story all over the world. The video had something like 3 million views. It grabbed the most people possible. Some other people said the story arrived in Cape Town I hope that…your story in a little way can help people or help others understand their problems.

Train Surfing in Action

Photo by Marco Casino

CV: What projects do you hope to work on in the future?

MC: Now we call a video, “multimedia,” but it’s not really multimedia. So I’m trying to develop a platform that can be useful for smartphone and tablet, which is probably the most interesting target for multimedia, in my opinion.

I’m trying to make a web platform which will be a mix between a web doc and a social network. The web doc will be made for Western people – for someone who can see a website from a fast internet line. It will be a multimedia trip inside the Johannesburg metro station, and it’s connected with interactive maps. Each station will have its own narrative.

The second part will be something like a social network and it’s made for locals. So when I went there to travel I started to tell people where they can upload their images. I’m collecting pictures from different things. The people who are making pictures are kids – guys that are not older than 25 years old.

You can see Staff Riding and the other 2014 Multimedia Award winners at the World Press Photo Multimedia exhibition in the Brown Institute at Columbia Journalism School, from December 12th through February 6th, 2015. Check the event page here for more details on exhibition hours and open dates.

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