Change springs from deep in the past

Photographer Araminta de Clermont captures the profound transformation of young men after initiation, writes Lauren Clifford-Holmes

The themes of change and the outward demonstration of personal journeys are key to Araminta de Clermont’s work. Her latest series, A New Beginning, resonates with these, as she captures the manner in which recently initiated Xhosa and Sotho men represent their new-found manhood.

The themes of change and life’s journies, as demonstrated outwardly, is key to Araminta de Cleremont’s work. Her latest series resonates with these themes, as she captures the fascinating ways in which recently initiated Xhosa and Sotho men represent their newfound manhood through their style of dress.

For three to six months after their gruelling initiation, the young Xhosa men don a suit whereas Sotho men wear a traditional blanket. These clothes represent a group identity and cultural pride as well as offering an opportunity to express their individuality. De Clermont takes us beyond the ceremony itself to capture the profoundly changed men that emerge.

Why did you choose male initiates as your subject?
I became aware of these men while shooting a previous work, Before Life. I spent a lot of time at the township schools and noticed that when the kids ran out of school, shouting and shoving and behaving as kids do, in among the uniforms these immaculate young men would carry themselves with such dignity, never raising their voices or misbehaving. They took my breath away. I wanted to capture the amazing sense of self they have after completing their initiation and celebrate their sense of a new beginning following the watershed transition period from childhood to manhood.

What is the importance of these smart clothes and traditional wear for the young men after their initiation?
For one thing it’s an outward demonstration of the deep inner change that has taken place. Everyone in their communities recognises these young men and what they’ve been through because of the clothes they wear. It’s a strong symbol of their new manhood and indicates that they can now be communicated with as men and treated as such. A lot of the young men said the clothes also reminded them to behave fittingly, as men and not as children.

Tell us about the settings you photographed these men in and why you chose those sites.
Most of the photos were shot at the young men’s schools in the Western Cape townships and some were shot on the streets in their local neighbourhoods. I wanted to celebrate the way in which they were allowed to take off their uniforms and wear their suits or traditional blanket during the three to six months following their initiation.

Secondly, I found these settings really emphasised the juxtaposition of these immaculate young men, who looked really strong, proud and dignified, and the landscape of the schools, characterised by broken windows, unfurnished classrooms. The contrast was uncomfortable. Some of the other images were shot on the street where I also captured the disparities and this hope for a new beginning versus the area that the township is mired in.

Your work focuses on times of change, turning points and individual and group identity. What intrigues you about this subject matter?
I’m really interested in times of change because it’s what being alive is all about — growing, transforming and working to keep those changes in oneself alive and not slipping back into old ways of being. I say this because I’ve been through some profound changes in my life when I moved from addiction to recovery and I struggled a lot with that change before and found myself slipping back into old ways. So it amazes me to see how much one can transform oneself and become stronger.

Your work concentrates on outward denotations of the life within. What power do things like clothes have to say something about a person’s true identity rather than how they wish to be seen?
When you focus in, and really look at what these young men have chosen as their style of suit, then it becomes absolutely about self-expression.

Did you get the sense that the changes the clothes denote are real?
It really seemed to me that the transformation had effected real change. I never saw these young men lounging about on the street or drinking in shebeens or doing anything they shouldn’t. They also offered to help carry my equipment everywhere we went, which is something people rarely do. It’s a small but important gesture. I heard a lot of stories that illustrated this, like one man had become a father just as he was about to join Ajax as a footballer. After his initiation process, he chose instead to get a steady job with a future he could rely on and really took on his family responsibilities instead of just following a dream.

Why do you stick to your specific style of portraiture?
I feel that the people I’m photographing have a really strong presence and I don’t want to interfere with that. I simply place them in their immediate environment, which I hope keeps the images real and helps tell the whole story.

What did you learn from these men?
They really cemented the feeling I have about the importance of belonging to something larger than oneself. Their ties with their ancestors really came to the fore and I discovered that, though many of the men didn’t know their fathers and grandfathers well, or perhaps at all, by going through the initiation process they came to feel very close to them. That resonated with me because, for most of us, our 21st-century experience is completely different to that of our ancestors and yet the initiates have this shared watershed experience. I was also struck by their pride in keeping their cultural traditions alive, despite living far away from their homes in the Eastern Cape and their rural villages.

Was there a common style or real individuality in what the young men chose to wear?
In the Sotho outfit, the blanket is the predominant piece, but they can choose things like their hats and beads and, in this sense, they are all different. But the Xhosa outfits allow for even more personality.

Though the components are prescribed, the final look is left up to the individual. There were men who chose tweed caps and jackets, outfits that reminded me of white farmers from the 1940s. I came to wonder if maybe the symbolism here was male power and financial success, because these white farmers would have been their predecessor’s employers.

Another type of look reminded me of Martin Luther King and the Black Power movement in the United States. They wore dark blues and blacks, and trilby hats and crocodile shoes. Others went for a really modern look, sporting brand names like Louis Vuitton and Paul Smith. I found it particularly poignant that some of the men carried an empty computer bag to complete the look. The looks were very varied, inspired by different eras and types of men that they believed defined manhood.

The work is exhibiting at João Ferreira Gallery in Cape Town until October 30.

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Lauren Clifford-Holmes
Lauren Clifford-Holmes is the multimedia editor and is in love with life behind the lens. Working in both video and stills, she seeks to tell the stories which matter most — from work relating to the environment, the rhino wars and social issues, to arts and entertainment. She's energetic, passionate and hardworking. She also happens to be a big fan of dress up parties and is mad about boxing training and horses.

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