Township herstory

A photography workshop allowed eight women to showcase their personal experience of being lesbian in South Africa, writes Jean Brundrit

From March to April last year photographer Zanele Muholi and I got together with eight women in Johannesburg to participate in a workshop that would gather images of lesbian experience in South Africa. Each participant presented aspects of her identity by taking photographs of everyday life.

The workshop took place over five days, spread over two months.
Participants worked with digital cameras, and pinhole photography sessions were conducted in which images were printed on black and white photographic paper in the dark rooms at Wits University.

We met mostly at the offices of the Forum for the Empowerment of Women (Few) at Constitution Hill outside Hillbrow. Here, and in Rosebank, we discussed the value of our work and our personal values given our role in broader society. The project is called The Making Herstory Workshops and through the hundreds of photographs taken we have been able to address the lack of photographic images of lesbians in South Africa.

Presented here are the works of three participants, all of them lesbian activists: Mmapaseka Letsike of Atteridgeville, Phumla Rose Masuku of Jabulani and Keba Sebetoane of Kagiso on the West Rand.

Letsike’s pictures recreate her life story in a unique way. What she did was to cast her young township neighbour as herself. She dressed the girl in her brother’s clothes and got her to act out situations she had really experienced. Most tragically she tells the story of her own rape. In her photographs she also portrays her experience of motherhood and her own material and emotional development.

Masuku produced self-portraits. She works for Few at Constitution Hill and is an accomplished sportswoman. In unpacking her identity, she portrays herself with her own sports medals and as the schoolgirl she once was. A self-portrait, Outgoing Lesbian, shows a certain amount of self-acceptance and confidence and is probably an important image for her.

Finally, the pictures by Sebetoane show little more than her social life. Yet they portray normality and stability in an environment that we understand to be fraught with difficulty.

While the media often focuses on the harassment of lesbians in townships, the heartwarming aspect of these pictures is the human element. Indeed, one of the things I had not considered before embarking on the project was how many lesbians had children. Not just because of rape, but also because many had had relationships in the past with men.

At some stage in their lives there must have been societal pressure to have kids. And often, as children or young women, they themselves would have to take responsibility for the children of the community or family.

While the pressures placed on young lesbians are the same as those put on young women in general, there is an added dimension that invariably complicates their lives.

Because the women who participated in these photo workshops are activists, it became clear how big a role organisations can play in assisting with coming out to families and lobbying for support, even politically. Ultimately it was their sense of security that allowed them to participate in this project.

The photographs are displayed at the Out in Africa Gay and Lesbian Film Festival that runs at Nu Metro in the Killarney Mall until September 14 and at the V&A Waterfront in Cape Town until September 21. Visit

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