Seeing, rather than seen

Black women in South Africa are no strangers to photography. In years gone by, however, they have typically found themselves in front of the lens—often portrayed as “‘mother of the nation’, ‘black sex object’ or ‘poor, black victim without agency’,” in the words of gender activist Janine Moolman.

Now this situation is changing. Photographers such as Neo Ntsoma—the first woman to win the Mohamed Amin award—make up a growing list of black women who are finding success behind the camera.

Named after a Kenya-based photographer and cameraman who died in the 1996 hijacking of an Ethiopian airliner, this award is given during the Cable News Network’s (CNN) annual competition honouring the best of African journalism.

Ntsoma won the prize last year for a series of images entitled Their World in Flames, which documented the plight of families from a squatter settlement in the commercial centre of Johannesburg when their homes were destroyed by fire.

She was also one of just four photographers chosen to exhibit their work in Los Angeles and Washington DC earlier this year during the All Roads Photography Programme, an initiative supported by the National Geographic Society. The programme aims to give a platform to photographers who show how their communities are being transformed by change.

Photography was not Ntsoma’s first choice of profession. Dancing beckoned, but she decided against it on the advice of her secondary school principal, who viewed this as “a profession for losers”.

A career in television seemed the next best option, but finding the training opportunities in this field limited, Ntsoma went on to study photography.

At the time, South Africa was still in the throes of apartheid, and she was the only black person in her class. Perhaps a bigger challenge, however, came in the form of a letter from one of her lecturers, suggesting that she didn’t have what it took to become a photographer—and that she should quit the course.

“That was the biggest blow of my life and I’ll never forget it,” she says. “But it taught me the true meaning of perseverance and determination.”

Ironically, these qualities stood her in good stead after she won the CNN award.

“My CNN award raised eyebrows and was questioned by many who still think that it was my being a black female that enabled me to win,” she says.

Ntsoma, a senior photographer for a Johannesburg daily, has found inspiration in the life and work of American photographer Dorothea Lange, saying she had the ability to “capture the souls” of the people she photographed.

Lange is best remembered for her poignant depictions of poor migrant workers who, in search of a better life, travelled in large numbers to California during the Great Depression of the late 1920s and 1930s. Her 1936 shot of a woman with three children entitled Migrant Mother has become an iconic image in the United States, and beyond.

Ntsoma’s own photographs stand out for the odd angles from which they are taken, as well as the interplay between what is in focus—and what not. “I used to shoot to make [people] believe in me,” she says. “Now I shoot images to make people believe in the subject of my photographs.”

She has also become an enthusiastic mentor for young photojournalists.

Ruth Motau, one of the first black female photographers to make a mark in South Africa, now heads the photo section of a major daily newspaper.

But, not all are in photo journalism. Zanele Muholi, for instance, describes herself as an “activist photographer”—pushing the boundaries of social tolerance by tackling issues related to sexuality.

Her 2004 exhibition on lesbianism captured private moments unimaginable within the strictures of African culture. It included a photograph of a lesbian strapping her breasts, another of a woman positioning a dildo, and a shot of two women kissing.

Another photographer, Nontsikelelo “Lolo” Veleko, produces work that reflects a fascination with Eastern notions of beauty, and 1970s fashion trends. Now represented by a prestigious art venue in Johannesburg, the Goodman Gallery, her most recent exhibition included a portrait of a young woman whose distinctively African features were accentuated by dark mascara, and bright pink lipstick.

“I was questioning ideas of beauty and why make-up is used,” Veleko explains.

Melissa Mboweni, a curator at the Goodman Gallery, sees Veleko as forming part of a new wave of South African photographers who are drawn to portraying the changing identity of the youth, rather than poverty, HIV/Aids and political scandal.

Art critic Sean O’Toole cautions against viewing black female photographers as a homogenous whole: “While there is a lot that connects their work, I don’t think race and gender is the only way of categorising it.”

Of importance, however, is the representation of black women “by ourselves, as opposed to being the subject of research, discussion or imagery as interpreted by others”, says Moolman. - Sapa-IPS

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