Images of the brave and the vulnerable

Internationally acclaimed photographer Zanele Muholi
Zanele Muholi - Zodwa, Paris, 2014.jpg

With the South African constitution protecting people from discrimination based on their sexual orientation, the sad reality for many remains a life filled with fear, rejection and abuse resulting from the ignorance and stigma surrounding the topic.

But few are more at risk than black gay women, especially those in rural environments. Seldom are their stories heard, while disappearances and hate crimes often remain unreported. Similarly, the portrayal and celebration of homosexuality in South Africa remains largely, one could say, untransformed.

For this reason photographer Zanele Muholi expresses her passion through what she calls visual activism. Her recently released piece of visual literature entitled Faces and Phases takes you on a journey and showcases the lives of black lesbian and transgender men she has met on her journey. It was also recently featured in London alongside the likes of top international photographers Mikhael Subotzky and Patrick Waterhouse.

Commenting on the work, Muholi says, “In the face of all the challenges our community encounters daily, I embarked on a journey of visual activism to ensure that there is black queer visibility. Faces and Phases is about our histories and the struggles that we face. Faces express the person, and phases signify the transition from one stage of sexuality or gender expression and experience to another. Faces is also about the face-to-face confrontation between myself as the photographer/activist and the many lesbians, women and transmen I have interacted with from different places. Photographs in this series traverse spaces from Gauteng, Cape Town, Mafikeng and Botswana to Sweden.”

In an exclusive with BBQ, Muholi expands on her road travelled whilst being a visual activist and shares some of the highs and lows in her career. Born in Umlazi near Durban, she says growing up with a camera was not part of her life. “I did not have any visual support or photographic background. When I was young there was a family relative who photographed people in the area like weddings and parties, but at that time it never occurred to me that one day I would become a photographer.

“When I moved to Johannesburg, I realised the importance of documenting. I had a girlfriend who gave me a point-and-shoot camera. In 1999 South Africa hosted the International Lesbian and Gay Association (ILGA) conference in Johannesburg. Prior to that I have seen quite a number of people excited about Pride, where they demanded their rights and how those events were documented. I noticed that not many black faces made it to the covers of Pride. I think in that way it made me realise the need and the importance of documenting our community,” she says.

For Zanele the work she does is “deeply political”. In her opinion, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) people, especially from black communities have a duty to write, change and challenge the literature and visual history. The work she has been doing goes beyond international attention and focusses on using photography as a tool to achieve this end goal. “We want to create materials that will change the mind-sets of homophobes, and change the mind-sets of educators who might still be homophobic,” she says.

As Muholi explains, LGBTI individuals know what it means to be undermined, displaced, rebuked and abused physically and verbally and she says these issues of concern deserve attention from various spaces. “It could be an employer at the workplace who need to come up with a policy that says no-one should be discriminated against, whether the person is a gay man, or a lesbian - we need to create spaces that are queer friendly and free for people to express themselves as long as production goes on. That is why I call my practice visual activism. We cannot just produce images for art’s sake, we need to go beyond that and start questioning and we have to say, ‘Let people be respected and recognized for what they are capable of doing, regardless of their gender expression, regardless of their sexuality,” Muholi says.

The collective healing process for these men and women will take time according to her. The work that she produces through projects like Faces and Phases contributes to the process by helping us to rethink the past as we look to the future and speak to different generations. One story in particular that she highlights is an inspiring woman by the name of Lungile Dladla. According to Muholi she has met quite a few inspiring and courageous women and Dladla’s story in particular highlights the immense bravery shown in facing hate crimes and its resulting effects.

“I won’t know how it is like to be Lungile Dladla who suffered hate crimes and who is now HIV positive. She is brave to speak about it and she is indeed a victor. This is a brave young South African who deserves to be heard and who deserves to be supported in many ways. She is one of the few cases of people that in a way changed my way of thinking,” she says. Muholi however does not want to distinguish between the suffering of male and female homosexuals on the basis that, “Suffering is suffering, rape is rape, regardless whether it is a gay man or a lesbian.”

Reflecting on some of the saddest moments in her career, Muholi refers back to 2012 following the passing of her mother when she was a victim of a burglary in Cape Town. This specific incident claimed numerous unpublished visual material and till today strikes her as being a deliberate sabotage and attempt at silencing her and the work she does. Another incident she mentions was during a display of her work at a Women’s Day celebration on Constitution Hill in 2009 when a former minister passed an unflattering remark which she experienced as a rebuking.

For Muholi, struggles of this kind are further exacerbated by the fact that tradition and culture is often used against black gay women to undermine and erase their existence. Those who are most vulnerable are often found in rural areas and as Muholi explains, are also usually areas which are under-resourced and underdeveloped – forcing many to move to urban areas to be able to express themselves more freely. She further points out that often, when black lesbians are killed in rural areas it might not even be referred to as hate crimes because service providers are not sensitised enough to understand what happened.

“I don’t know how a person who maybe never had access to education will be able to eloquently project or express her gender in a space that is deeply traditional, where there are chiefs or community leaders who might perceive queerness as a curse. Again, it means that we need literature at schools where a person from those deep rural areas could speak on what it is like to be there and also what it means to be perceived otherwise,” she says .

So what is on the horizon for this fierce South African visual activist? After recently attending and speaking at the Look3 photography festival in Charlottesville, Virginia, and following the responses that she received, Muholi is convinced that people are indeed listening and paying attention to the stories and issues she is bringing to light. By the year 2020, she wishes to have five to six volumes similar to Faces and Phases.

“I have been planning three upcoming shows. In September I will be at the Open Eye Gallery in Liverpool in the UK, followed by a solo show in New York at the Richardson Gallery. During the same month l will have a solo exhibit in Joburg. So I am working hard. The more we go to all of these spaces, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex people get to shine in ways they have never shined before,” she concludes.

Michael Meiring


Zanele Muholi - Yaya Mavundla, Parktown, Johannesburg, 2014.jpg Zanele Muholi - Thembeka I, New York Upstate, 2015.jpg Zanele Muholi - Somnyama Ngonyama II, Oslo, 2015.jpg Zanele Muholi - Sfiso Candice Nkosi, Tsakane, Johannesburg, 2013.jpg Zanele Muholi - Phindile I, Paris, 2014.jpg Zanele Muholi - Ndivile II, Malmo, 2015.jpg Zanele Muholi - Nathi Dlamini, Kingsway, Daveyton, 2014.jpg Zanele Muholi - MaID I, Syracuse, 2015 (Diptych).jpg Zanele Muholi - Bester V, Mayotte, 2015.jpg Zanele Muholi - Bester II, Paris, 2014.jpg Zanele Muholi - Babhekile II, Oslo, 2015.jpg Zanele  Muholi - Yaya Mavundla, Parktown, Johannesburg, 2014.jpg Zanele  Muholi - Somnyama III, Paris, 2014.jpg Zanele  Muholi - MaID, Brooklyn, New York, 2015.jpg Zanele  Muholi - MaID in Harlem_African Market_116st_2015.jpg Zanele  Muholi - Inkanyiso I, Paris, 2014.jpg
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