Photographer Interviews

Photographer Zanele Muholi on Fighting Homophobic Violence With Portraiture

September 17, 2015

By David Walker

Zanele Muholi.

South African gays and lesbians continue to be subject to violent persecution, despite the country’s official policy of acceptance. Homophobes have beaten a number of gays and lesbians to death, and raped lesbians in order to “cure” them. Since 2006, Zanele Muholi has chosen to confront the violence by making more than 250 portraits of queer black “participants” that humanize and empower them. The series, “Faces and Places,” has earned her international acclaim not only for her photography, but for her courageous advocacy and activism on behalf of homosexuals and transgender people in South Africa.

“We are at a period where there’s a high level of homophobia in [parts of Africa]. A lot of people have been killed, a lot of people have been displaced, simply because of who they are,” Muholi explained during a conversation about her work with Aperture executive director Chris Boot at the LOOK3 photo festival in June. “So what I’m bring to do here is to bring about a kind of tool in which we speak about these atrocities…I just want to change visual history in ways that have never been done in Africa.”

Muholi, who was born in 1972, is propelled by her rage, but also by her optimistic belief in the power of her community to gain acceptance by telling their own stories. In 2002, she co-founded Forum for Empowerment of Women. In 2009, she started a media collective called Inkanyiso as a platform for queer “born frees” (the term for South Africans born after the end of apartheid) to document their own history through writing, photography and video. Muholi provides cameras to some of the contributors. “One cannot do these projects alone which is why I invited people to come on board and work with me. And it means it’s not lonely anymore,” she says.

Most of the Inkanyiso team are black lesbians. Muholi says the project was inspired in part by a particularly brutal murder of a lesbian in Kwa Thema, a township near Johannesburg that has a significant gay population—but also a lot of hate crimes, despite South Africa’s official acceptance of gays. Posts on the Inkanyiso site include photos and stories about art, activism, queer politics, and personal essays. “People get to read about sex, people get to read about anything you will never see in the mainstream media,” she says.

An important mission of Inkanyiso is to document evidence of so-called “corrective” rape and other hate crimes against lesbians and gays. As she explained in a five-minute documentary film about her work screened before her talk at LOOK3, “Hate crimes have become a binding factor for the LGBTI communities. We come together to give support, or to confirm that somebody has been killed…Do we always go and attend [a] funeral and [then] go home and wait for another funeral? You have to document! You are forced to document!”

Besides documenting crimes against lesbians, though, Inkanyiso’s many contributors also portray themselves and their day-to-day lives in positive ways. Muholi observes in the film, “Projecting positivity can sometimes lead to change. Projecting violations and brutality could lead to further violence. So I think we need to find a balance in which to project these realities.”

Part and parcel of her activism is her ongoing “Faces and Phases” series. It has contributed significantly to her consciousness-raising efforts by drawing international attention. Steidl published Faces and Phases 2006–2014 last March. The book earned her a nomination for the 2015 Deutsche Börse Photography Prize. The project also features prominently in her first major solo exhibition in the U.S., called “Isibonelo/Evidence,” which is on display at the Brooklyn Museum through November.

“Faces and Phases” is one of several projects undertaken by Muholi to challenge the portrayal of gays in South Africa since she took up photography more than a decade ago. She completed her studies in advanced photography at the Market Photo Workshop in Johannesburg in 2003. In 2009, three years after starting the “Faces and Phases” project, she earned her MFA in Documentary Media at Ryerson University in Toronto. In 2013, she won a slew of international prizes and honors, including Carnegie International’s Fine Prize for an emerging artist, the Prince Claus Award (sponsored by the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs), and the Index on Censorship’s Freedom of Expression award.

The power of Muholi’s portraits lies in the intimacy of the individual images, as well as the collective force of the series. She photographs only people she knows personally, and presents none of them as icons or types, much less victims. Instead she emphasizes their individuality.

Muholi refers to them as “participants” rather than “subjects” as a way of acknowledging their agency and their role in her success, she says. “The minute you say ‘subjects,’ you are not allowed to connect with the person you photograph. I make sure I connect and try to relate to the people I photograph in my work,” she said at LOOK3.

She shoots in black and white for its sense of timelessness, and seeks out simple backgrounds and good natural light in the nooks and crannies of the neighborhoods where she photographs. Her participants come as they are, and look directly into her camera, showing everything from shy reserve to defiance.

Muholi takes her time. “I listen, which is what we need to do as photographers, is to listen to the people we photographer, and not rush to take images,” she says. “In an hour’s time, I take maybe ten shots, looking for one that speaks to me, [and I] give the rest to the participant.” She gives the participants the opportunity to write their own story to accompany the portraits, “so when you look at each and every face, you should think of that person’s story.”  The stories of several of the participants are included in the book Faces and Phases 2006–2014.

Muholi’s plan is to continue the project for life, photographing her participants at intervals to show their evolution as people—hence, the “phases” in the title of the project. But her work—and growing public profile—are not without risks. She is a target of homophobia not only for being a lesbian, but for her unflinching activism. In 2012, thieves stole five years’ worth of work—and nothing else—from her Cape Town apartment. Muholi is undeterred. She presses on urgently, and speaks fearlessly of using her work to “disrupt the perpetrator” and of “disorganizing the mindset of the homophobe.”

And she’s optimistic that she and her fellow activists will prevail. “I’m positive about the future. I was born in South Africa at the height of apartheid. But all the challenges does not mean we can slow down. We cannot delay in any way. But I have hope that hate crime will end, just the way apartheid ended.”


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