On an early grey wet and gloomy Friday morning I walk through Cape Town’s Thibault Square in search of Riviera Salon. With the weather hanging heavy and dark over the city and over myself, I feel a bitter weariness pulling at me and I know the story I’m most likely about to hear is certainly not going to be much lighter either.
Through the dark empty square with only a few blue-collar workers hastily on their way to work, I easily spot the salon illuminating the brick-paved curb in front of the building with the radiance of the empty fluorescent-lit barber shop seeping out. I pause and look at the sign above the door to make sure I’m at the right place and lower my tired eyes to peek inside through the see-through glass doors. Inside, Lorenzo Bonavita sits lonesome and still with spectacles hanging low on weary eyes, staring at the pages of the morning paper.
Lorenzo, who turned 77 in December 2020 month, came from Sicily, Italy to South Africa as a young man of 21 and a professional barber in the late 60’s. For the past 56 years, he’s been cutting hair and trimming beards at Riviera Salon. “Coming from Italy, you take pride in what you do. As a barber, you start young, it takes a long time to perfect the craft and you learn slow, but good. It’s all about precision. I started as a young schoolboy with my uncle, he was a barber as well.”
“So you learned from your uncle? He was the one who trained you?” I ask. Lorenzo starts laughing, “Oh no, I didn’t learn much from him.”
The conversation quickly takes a somber turn as the quiet desolation of the perfectly 60s style clean and neat – without a hair on the floor — salon brings up the question of the ever dreadful Covid-19 pandemic. Lorenzo, like so many others, a victim not of the virus, but of the lockdown and the government’s reaction to the virus.
“The problem is, the system was made 100 years ago and it’s not working anymore. It must change, it will change, and this virus will change it. So it’s not all bad. I believe this is something that was meant to happen, despite our pain and hardship now,” Lorenzo says, breaking the brooding silence and voicing his concerning thoughts.
“The ones on the top, they don’t care about me and you and the guys outside on the street, they only care about themselves and now everybody is starting to see that. It’s white-collar crime, where is the justice? But this virus will change everything. It will change our thinking, and the world must change. The big guys who are controlling the world are on the losing path and people are not stupid anymore,” he continues with wet serious eyes.
When questioning him about why he decided to become a professional barber he looks down for a moment, takes off his glasses, folds them neatly, tucks them away in his chest pocket and looks up to me and say, “We are all here to serve somebody, we are not here just for ourselves. I want to be of service for people, even if it is something as simple as cutting hair.”
The topic naturally changes over to religion and spirituality, Lorenzo explains he is spiritual, but does not believe in the church anymore. “I still believe in people, because I believe in love. There is love in everybody. Nobody is without love. I’ve seen very bad people in my life, gangsters, Mafia people, they all had families they loved, which means they have love in them. Everything exists inside of God and God is love, so everything exists in love.”
Behind him against the wall, is a beautiful oil painting of horses running in a field. The painting has a lot of dark tones and colours to it with prominent light and shadows, leaning towards a baroque style. Lorenzo suddenly turns around, stares at the painting for a few seconds and then asks me if I like the painting.
“Yes, it was the first thing I noticed when I walked in. I think it’s beautiful,” I respond. He walks closer to the painting and uses his index finger to create a small triangular box in the bottom corner. He turns to me and says, “This is what we see, this is our perspective and we forget this little bit we see is not the full picture. All the dark parts and all the light parts are needed to make one big beautiful painting. We need both the dark and the light to create a beautiful picture, so the dark bad things we are seeing and experiencing now, means there is a beautiful painting in the making. In suffering, people are molded to become stronger, but the problem is we lose perspective and stare into the dark patch of the small corner.”
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Due to the pandemic and the nationwide lockdown of the past few months enforced by the government, Lorenzo has no choice but — after more than 56 years — to permanently close the doors of Riviera Salon and end his legacy in Thibault Square.
30 November 2020 marked the end of one of Cape Town’s oldest and most iconic barbershops. Lorenzon is not the only one in his family who lost his shop and business, both his kids also got retrenched as well.
“At least we’re all still healthy. And besides, I’m 77, it was a good run,” he says with a smile of optimism.
What I can tell you about the day and the shoot is, it’s one of those that were less than ideal and nothing went the way I planned/envisioned it, yet the story was there and real and touched me in a way I never could have imagined. And I think this is exactly how these kinds of “real life stories” most of the time go. You can’t really ever plan it and set it up. It’s life itself unfolding In front of you and the best you can do is be open to it and accept it as it comes your way.
Be ready to compromise and wait a while before even taking out the camera. And this is exactly what I did. I just introduced myself to Lorenzo and we just talked at first, before I even touched a camera. After his whole story, I took out the camera for the first time and ask him if I could take his portraits, which was very difficult as well seeing that he is quite camera shy and didn’t really want to pose. I gave him some direction and tried to capture the candid moments of the real Lorenzo without trying to make it too posed or set-up.
When I first saw the place, I envisioned this beautiful early morning pearl light falling through the big glass windows for the ideal portraits, but as mentioned in the story – after arranging a date with Lorenzo to come in – I woke up to an overcast rainy morning and just had to roll with the punches. I had no other cameras with me except for the Mamiya medium format as I knew more cameras would only be a distraction and could either scare off the person in front of the lens or be an obstruction to the true and real story I was after, which in the end is the core reason for why I wanted to visit Lorenzo in the first place.
This of course also comes with a lot of risk (especially with the medium format being more difficult to set up and frame, bulkier, and of course, fewer shots), risk that almost cost me a lot, as my trusty Mamiya 645 SLR malfunctioned on the day and I lost the first 5 frames of the roll of Kodak Portra 400 (those shots you’ll always tell yourself afterward were the best shots of the day).
I was so heartbroken by this that it almost cost me the whole story and made me want to abandon the whole project, yet the story haunted me and there was something about that morning that would stick with me forever. This, was once again, a reminder that with photography the human story and empathy always comes first – the pictures are by-products of the real-life experienced in that moment in time.
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