Zanele Muholi is jet-lagged, after having just flown in from New York, and is speaking by Skype from Paris. She’s a finalist in the Deutsche Börse Photography Prize 2015 for her Faces and Phases series, portraits of black lesbian women and transwo/men, for which she is tipped to win. Behind many of these portraits are horrifying stories of “corrective” rape. Like those of Lungile Cleo Dladla from Daveyton, or Kekeletso Khena from Jo’burg, both of whom were subjected to humiliation and rape – in Khena’s case, on several occasions. There are many of these chilling accounts.
In the Photographers’ Gallery in London, where the prize will be announced, Muholi has hung a white cloth from the ceiling like a shroud. The names of those who have been murdered because of their sexuality and gender expression are listed on the cloth. Included are testimonies – statements and quotations – from the families of victims and survivors of hate crimes.
“I thought about how victims like Gift Makau and Dudu Zozo die in their neighbourhood. Come from poor communities. Are in their 20s and hard workers, ambitious to become breadwinners in their families,” reads one.
The weight of history sits on Muholi’s shoulders as she discusses the prize. “What will it mean, if we get to win, because, when I first started producing my work, I didn’t really think I have to win.”
Participants and fellow activists
Muholi is aware that she is representing the “participants” in her series, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender/transsexual, intersex (LGBTI) people, and particularly those in the black community. The people she photographs are not subjects but participants and fellow activists. The gallery art is a useful vehicle for their messages, their accounts.
Muholi considers the work to be a responsibility, her duty. “I will change South African visual history in ways that I live my life and how many other individuals who happen to be human beings, who are in this series, live their lives.
“If we win, it means that a young person will have an opportunity to go to school … this prize is not about me.”
Muholi is referring to her mentoring programme. She shares some of the money she earns with the young people she works with, and sometimes pays for them to study photography, and trains some of them in filmmaking and writing through the Inkanyiso collective.
“So if we get it [the Deutsche Börse prize], a lot of people would get skills. And then some participants would get opportunity to further their studies. Others would continue with ongoing projects that I have been producing with fellow participants in the series.
“If you look at the history of Deutsche Börse and many other places, you hardly have queer content.”
It is therefore important “to have many people educated around these issues and those who have issues, to learn something new”.
Argument for black and white
She argues that, in the past, “people have been displaced, people have been left off such initiatives because of judgments or because of those who are in positions of power. And [they] see to it that maybe this content doesn’t count here, simply because of sexuality, or simply because of pure prejudice.”
Muholi uses black and white for her portraiture because it’s “straight cut to the point, not much colour. You have to focus or concentrate on what you’re looking at. I was taught photography in black and white. And I like the feel of black and white, because it speaks to so many issues.”
The prints are reminiscent of photographs from the past and, to Muholi, have a classical ambience. But for the clothing or other signs of modernity, these faces could be staring out of their frames from any period in time.
The past informs the future
Her book, Faces and Phases, is dated 2006-2014, but she says the project is ongoing.
Phases means “the experiences and stages that we go through as we grow up, as we mature as human beings. What happened to me yesterday is now a phase and it has passed. And the very same past informs the future.”
She says this represents a positive way of looking at the present injustices that many LGBTI people are suffering in South Africa, “a record of what they are living through now [is] a milestone so that, in the future, they can look back and say, ‘This is what we had to suffer’. It’s about progress and a new life.”
She says she tries to dig deeper and uncover something new, which hasn’t been asked before. “Nobody ever asked me, ‘What do I like?’ or ‘How are you feeling today?’
“I would like to live longer, to see progress in this project and also to see members of the LGBTI community gain [the] true independence and equality that we deserve in order for us to connect with our true feelings of selves, in which people want to find out how are we [rather] than the pain that we have gone through.”