All photos by Ryan Cookson

Inside South Africa's Backstreet BMW Doughie Scene

We spoke to photographer Ryan Cookson about how "spinning" evolved from a gangster tradition to an actual motorsport.

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20 February 2019, 5:32am

All photos by Ryan Cookson

If you go to YouTube and type in the words “street spinning in South Africa,” you’ll find a bunch of videos featuring late-80s BMWs steaming through the suburbs of Johannesburg with crowds of kids begging the drivers to “spin the car!”

“Spinning” came to prominence in the late 80s as the rise of a gangster culture coincided with the release of the BMW’s 325i, or the "Gusheshe." In its earliest phases, spinning was affiliated with heavy duty criminality—with most of those involved likely to have either kidnapped a person, or the car. But today, spinning has morphed into a sport with rules, traditions, and even paychecks, just like any other sport. In 2014, spinning was even recognised as an official motorsport by South Africa’s motorsport association, allowing it to become a spectacle in stadiums around the country. But while this was seen as a huge win for suburban spinning communities to get spinning taken seriously, a lack of formal structure and corporate sponsorship leaves drivers with an income so fickle that it rarely covers expenses.

In his latest book, Tell Them About Me, Melbourne-based photographer Ryan Cookson offers a snapshot of what spinning looks like today, as both a sport and subculture. Shot over two years, the book explores the sport’s tropes and evolution, tactfully avoiding the sensationalist efforts of those who’ve come before him. Looking to reach farther than spinning as a just a sport, Ryan’s series gives vision to the communities which have dedicated decades to its proliferation.

We sat down with Ryan to hear what he learned while gathering photos for the book.

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VICE: Hey Ryan, can you tell me how this all came about?
Ryan Cookson: I discovered spinning on YouTube several years ago but I might never have gone there if I hadn’t have been given the opportunity by my friends Andy and Jason who run Hillvale—an independent photo lab based in Melbourne. They said, “Hey we want to back you to do a photographic project, and we remember you telling us about your obsession with spinning in South Africa. How would you feel about going there to document it?” Of course, I jumped at the opportunity.

So I went there in August of 2016 for the first time, and it was nerve-racking. Just because I really had no connections there whatsoever. Eventually, I got into contact with a guy named Pule, who said he could connect me to people in the spinning community. So then in 2017, I went back again to photograph more and create an accompanying short film.

How did you first connect with Pule?
I got in touch with him through email initially, and then we had a couple of skype calls. When I first arrived, he had the classic box shape BMW which is synonymous with spinning. Honestly, that [first drive] in itself was an amazing experience. Because when that car—the BMW 325i, or any of those box-shaped beamers—drive through, people just chase them down the street, whistling, screaming, “Spin the car! Spin the car!” It was an incredible experience. I’ve never seen anything like it in my entire life; a car which can have that kind of an impact on people.

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Where did you spend the majority of your time?
I stayed in an area called Pimville, in the south-western townships of Johannesburg, as I had heard there were a lot of spinners throughout Soweto but I ended up meeting up with people all around Johannesburg and the surrounding areas. Anywhere there was an opportunity to meet people, I was there.

Can you tell me about your subjects and the people you met?
There were three or four crews who I spent the most time with. They were “Seku Rite”, “Rich Gang”, “DK Spinners” and “Ruffy’s Westside Crew”. A crew is a driver, co-driver and often times someone who will perform stunts and work up the crowd while the car is spinning. Occasionally, the driver will also perform stunts while the car spins. The crews I met were all so well synchronised with each other, it was like a well rehearsed dance, which I didn’t truly get a sense of until I saw it out there. Each of the crews have their own style, and are from specific neighbourhoods throughout Johannesburg, which also plays into their style.

Pule was really generous in going out of his way to connect me to these crews. From there, I would just meet other people and other crews. Pule is very much at the centre of that community and he was trying to push spinning to become an official motorsport and has started working on building a driving school, as well as an arena where it all can take place, so more drivers can make a living from it.

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Johannesburg has a high rate of violent crime. How did you feel about your safety while you were there?
A part of me did initially feel a bit uneasy. Documentaries I’d seen and things I had heard did play on my mind a bit. But in the end, because I was with Pule and other local people, I felt safe and comfortable in their presence wherever I went. I took cues from them and listened to everyone I met there and it was a warm, friendly and incredible experience. Looking back now, I really love that spinning became this gateway into meeting so many people throughout Johannesburg and that they were open and warm enough to let me hang out with them.

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How many of the drivers you met make/are making a living off spinning?
A lot of people throughout South Africa are so used to seeing spinning that it takes a lot of talent to really stand out from other spinners and make a living off it. The crowds watching spinners will quickly let someone know if they’re not good. Lucas from the crew “Seku Rite,” who I documented, makes a living off spinning. The other crews I was with also get paid to spin at events, but they also have other jobs on the side.

Is there a female spinning community there too?
There’s definitely a lot of female spinners. Stacey-Lee May is probably the most well known and one of the best spinners in South Africa. I met her briefly in 2016, we hung out briefly and I took some portraits and got to watch her spin at a big event which was great to see. Unfortunately I didn’t get to meet any female spinners that were doing it on the street at that time, and my series really was focused on capturing that. As interesting as spinning in arenas is, I felt there was already a lot of stuff out there which covers what happens in the arenas very well, with Top Gear etc.

I did meet an amazing spinner, Rio, who would spin with his daughters in the car in their neighbourhood; Florida. I have this one photograph of one of his daughters hanging out of the car while it’s spinning. The photograph doesn’t feature in the book—I wanted to save some unseen images for my upcoming exhibition in late-May.

Where does the title come from?
Lucas, who I mentioned earlier, has a sticker on the side of his car which reads ‘Tell Them About Me’, which you can see in some of the photographs. You have to look real closely, though.

Where do you think the future of spinning is headed?
I really feel there's a big difference in seeing spinning happen spontaneously on the street with people rushing out of their houses to watch compared to within the confines of an arena. I wouldn't say it's a shame but just there's a difference between the two experiences. I appreciate that it can also be very dangerous for spectators without the safety measures put in place in the arenas. From what I was told, people have been seriously injured and even killed, and the risk for drivers getting arrested is now also far greater. In the past police would stop and watch when it was happening on the street, but now there's zero tolerance for it outside the arenas.

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Tell Them About Me was launched at the New York Art Book Fair last year through Knowledge Editions and Hillvale , and will be exhibited at Hillvale Gallery in Melbourne alongside a short film in late-May.