Interview with Stan Engelbrecht

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It is an honor to present my interview with Stan Engelbrecht, co-curator of the wonderful project, Bicycle Portraits. Stan with his good friend Nic Grobler started bicycle portraits as an informative project to study bicycle commuting in South Africa. Stan was kind enough to share with me an in-depth look at his project and other interesting stuff. With no further ado here is what we talked about. Enjoy!

How did Bicycle Portraits come about ? 

Myself and a good friend, Nic Grobler, were talking about why so few South Africans were using bicycles as a mode of transport. This was about 3 years ago, and Nic and I were already almost exclusively using our bicycles to get around here in Cape Town. We had this idea to ride around and just see who is out there commuting and why, but after hours of cycling around we found only 3 people commuting! But we stayed interested and before too long we had 50 and then 100 interviews. To date we've interviewed well over 500 everyday cyclists. But still, it's shocking to us how few people even consider it an option to ride. There is a massive mental block against the bicycle here. Very surprising, given the poverty here, the atrocious public transport system, and the great distances people have to travel daily.

How was your earliest bicycle experience like and what was your first bicycle. 

My first bicycle I remember was a red Western Flyer 'Scorpion' BMX. I loved that bike. But, like most white South Africans, cycling became a sport I got into when I got a bit older, not a way of life. Through mountain biking, in the early days, I fell in love with bicycles, not so much the sport.

What was the initial expectation of the project compared to the outcome of the 2 years experience. 

We were very interested to find out why there is such a stigma against the bicycle when it made so much sense to use one, and after almost 3 years by now I still can't say I truly understand it. There is a complex range of reasons people respond to bicycles the way they do here in South Africa. There is cultural, political and  social stigma that goes taints common sense here on many levels.

Why did you choose a book format. 

The 3 Bicycle Portraits book volumes are only one aspect of the project. Every single person we photographed and interviewed is also on our website, available for free. It's always been very important to us to keep the project as open and accessible as possible. We chose to do a series of books alongside the other aspects of the project because we love books - the physical objects,and the physical sense of discovering something new when you turn a page. And of course it is very important to us to be able to give something back to all the wonderful people who gave their time to us to interview and photograph them, and since very few of them have access to the internet, a book is great. Being able to give them a book, with 53 other stories alongside theirs, gives them a new perspective on this sub-culture that they belong to...

How did you go about with the process of capturing cyclists, were there any specific subjects? 

Nic and I literally cycled until we came across someone else using a bicycle. We never had any specific subjects in mind. We never tried to hit a certain demographic or aimed to have a specific person included in the project. It was all very organic. A true portrayal of whoever out there is using a bicycle, as experienced by us, from our bicycles.

I am sure you had a lot of moments, can you mention the most remarkable and craziest moments you guys had. 

There are too many. But they were all crazy in the best, fun kind of way. Nothing bad ever happened to us while we were traveling, I'm glad to say. But for me, one of our best adventures were the time we went to Mozambique (a country bordering South Africa, on the east coast of Africa), with nothing but our packed pannier bars, cycling shoes and helmets, and built bicycles from whatever parts we could find. We had no idea what to expect, but we had an insane time, and made some great friends. And we actually managed to put together these two scrappy bikes, and ride them from Mozambique's capital, Maputo, all the way back to Johannesburg in South Africa. What an adventure.

What is one important experience or life lesson you guys learned from people during this project that is non bicycle related. 

Everyone has a story.

I re-watched the video documentary and whenever i see people from the book i recall their wonderful tales and stories. And it is a great feeling and connection. How do you guys feel having that connection with all that people you encountered for this project

For us it's probably the most important aspect of the project. So far the most rewarding thing for us has been going back to everyone who appears in the books (most often by bicycle), and giving them a copy of the book they appear in. People are very proud to see themselves in a book. It's funny and sad - most people we returned to are shocked to see us, they never believed that we would actually come back and see them and never mind bringing them a copy of the book. There's laughing and crying and disbelief.  

What was the major challenge for you guys working on this project. 

Being able to afford doing it. While we raised some of the funds for the actual printing of the books, we've spent way more time and money on this project than we could afford. But, we love it and we are very proud of the Bicycle Portraits project.

I was born and raised in Ghana and back in Ghana, i used to ride the bicycle for fun. Now living in the states, i appreciate my bicycle more because it is my primary mode of transport. How deep is your perspective on bicycle commuting now. 

Nic and I are both committed bicycle commuters. We don't use cars. And there is a sudden boom here in Cape Town of bicycle commuters. A lot of people are writing it off as a 'cool fad', with fixed gear culture exploding all around the world, but ultimately I think it's great that more people are giving it a try. Maybe it'll blow over for some, but others might truly fall in love with their bikes. The more people who ride - for whatever reason - the better.

With all the information acquired from this project, how do you guys think the commuting system should be improved in South Africa in terms of how it will benefit the lives of people especially those in rural areas that face difficulties commuting

A big problem we face is educating drivers (and cyclists) the rights cyclist have on the road. And a lot of that will come down to experience, which means we need commuters out on the roads to familiarise drivers with our presence, but of course there is still a lot of animosity from people who have never had to share the road before. It can be dangerous. Of course cycle lanes would be the ultimate answer, but there is not enough money or infrastructure here to make that a priority. We have to share the road. The other challenge is the stigma that if you ride a bicycle you are poor - there is still a great aspiration from the majority of poor South Africans to own a car.
What is the major satisfaction or accomplishment have you guys gained from this project. 

While Nic and I both love the travel and adventure very much, we are very happy to have introduced far-flung commuters to each other in some way. There are so few bicycle commuters in this country that people in a community who commute are often treated as outsiders or eccentrics for their choice. Crazy. Hopefully this project will inspire a few more to try it out.

What are your favorite spots in South Africa. 

I love many parts of this country, but above all I love my home in Cape Town. I travel enough to be able to really appreciate it.

In your opinion how will you define creativity. 

I don't care about 'creativity', I care about experience.

What do you guys like most about what you do. 

Not having to answer to anybody.