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Bicycle Portraits: What Do Bikes Say About A Culture?

I have to admit I was a bit reluctant when I first saw this series of "Bicycle Portraits" because biking has, in some cases, become something of a cliche steeped in hipdom sprinkled with granola. Or mainly: For NPR to present a series of bicycle portraits just seemed too cute, too predictable.

But these photos weren't taken in Brooklyn or Portland; it's South Africa. And in fact, I was surprised to learn from Stan Engelbrecht, who made the portraits with his friend Nic Grobler, that biking is not common there; there's no conversation about the hipsterization of bike culture, because there's not much of a "bike culture" to begin with.

"Our initial interest was in maybe photographing a few commuters that ride beautiful hand-me-down racers as commuter bikes," Engelbrecht writes via email. "But we soon found that very, very few South Africans actually commute by bicycle. Slowly we became interested in why so few choose ... to ride in a country where it makes such absolute sense to do so."

On its international travel site, the U.S. Department of State advises euphemistically: "Often the safety standards on public transportation systems in South Africa are not on par with what travelers would expect." Engelbrecht puts it more bluntly:

"[We] have no proper public transport infrastructure, and that which does exist is expensive and unsafe," he writes on his website.

So why not bike? Engelbrecht doesn't offer any conclusive reasons. Perhaps because biking in traffic is unsafe; or because bicycles are often stolen; or because, for many, they are a luxury possession. Regardless of the reason, he's hoping to change it.

"Nic and I both love bicycles," he writes. "But we really believe that it's a simple and affordable tool that can really liberate and empower South Africans. By celebrating the few South Africans who do ride everyday, and telling the stories of their lives, we hope to inspire more people to try out commuting by bicycle."

He says they are currently redesigning the project's website and working on a book. But on the current site, you can click on any one of the portraits and read a biography: David Mamabolo is a 60-year-old gardener who rides to work; Vidette Ryan likes to avoid parking; Brandan Searle is a fitness manager; and Jors Moentsabato puts it simply: "There where I go, I ride my bike."

This is just one of many cultural studies Engelbrecht, who was born a few hours from Cape Town, has done.

Before this, "African Salad" explored the homes and favorite recipes of 60 South African families. And after this, he plans to continue working on what he calls "African Remedy": interviews with elderly South Africans to gather "traditional remedies ... life advice, farmer's home medicines etc.," as he puts it.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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