“I’m not afraid to die. I’m just afraid of how I am going to die.”

Train surfing and its casualties are the subject of a WPP Multimedia Contest winner. Tom Seymour reports

BJP — 25 March 2014

Staff Riding by Marco Casino

“I could say it’s a suicide admission,” says Chabedi Thulo, a 22-year-old black South African, when asked to describe why he train surfs – an exponentially increasing phenomenon known in South African lingo as “staff riding”.

“Everybody is afraid to die,” Thulo later says. “But I’ve tried it, and I’m not afraid to die. I’m just afraid of how I am going to die.”

Thulo is talking to the 27-year-old Italian photographer Marco Casino, whose film Staff Riding, which captures young men like Thulo practicing what they term a “sport” – running, dancing and quite literally surfing the roof of high-speed trains – won First Prize in the Short Feature section of World Press Photo’s Multimedia Contest.

“Casino’s project stood out because, from the start, you feel that something is about to happen,” says Jassim Ahmad, head of multimedia innovation at Thomson Reuters and chair of this year’s judging panel. “The film has a nervous energy, and there’s a lot of tension from the first frame.”

Talking exclusively to British Journal of Photography, Casino says: “I realised that these guys were not staff riding for sport, but were doing it as an expression of social redemption.

“The phenomenon seemed to be something to do with trains, which are still the most used public service in South Africa, and township culture. So the project was not just about the aesthetics of train surfing, but a description of its significance – the connection between the two things.”

Casino shot his film in Katlehong, an impoverished township about 35km east of Johannesburg. He talks to men with stumps for arms, the result of grabbing electric pylons to steady themselves. He focuses on the faces of mourning mothers whose sons fell from the trains to their deaths.

Casino, who is based in northern Italy, describes himself primarily as a fashion photographer. Go to his personal website and you mostly see documentary-type pictures of raves, club nights and music festivals, but at Made In Milan, the agency he co-founded, the work is more slickly commercial. Fittingly, the work that has suddenly provided him with such global exposure came from a lowly Facebook link. He first learned of train surfing via a short video titled World’s Most Dangerous Sports and became fascinated, he says: “I just found one 1996 video called Surfing Soweto; apart from that, there was nothing online about it.”

He spent last October and November in the country, and put himself in harm’s way to capture the most remarkably intimate footage of train surfers. “I would lie down on the train with the camera in my hands,” Casino says, “and hold on tight. And then I would give the riders some Go-Pro cameras so they could give me their own, first-person footage.”

Using split screens and info-graphics, and combining tightly edited video with still photography and a highly ambient sound design, the film is, in the words of Ahmad, “absolutely perfect for the web”.

“I wanted the split screen to create a contrast between portrait and social reportage and the first-person point of view,” Casino says.

“It’s not an easy story to capture,” says Ahmad. “The person who made it has to get on top of a train. It’s a very carefully made, and fantastically well-executed, film.”

Liza Faktor, one of the World Press Photo judges and co-founder of Screen, says of Staff Riding: “We really gave a great deal of thought to what it means to create the visual storytelling piece for the web these days. For me, the best work out there – and I’m hunting for it on a daily basis – is the one that doesn’t repeat what already exists in the well-defined and well-established film and broadcasting contexts. The work that comes from a strong journalistic background and really speaks to the audience in an engaging, visual way.

Staff Riding is one such piece – truly created for the web and pushing the format to a really exciting place.”