South Africa paved the way for same-sex marriage as early as 2006, the fifth country in the world to do so. Ten years earlier, the state had been the first worldwide to pass a law prohibiting discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation. Although this might seem to be a major step towards the acceptance of homosexuality, reality for the LGBTQ community (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer) in South Africa is different, even today. People who are openly homosexual or transgender are stigmatized, ostracized and endure hostility on a daily basis. Femme and female-identified individuals within communities become victims of countless brutal attacks every year.
Zanele Muholi grew up in this environment as part of the LGBTQ community in South Africa. Through working as a visual activist and photographer, she aims to make a statement against the discrimination frequently experienced personally as well as by friends and acquaintances. Muholi's work is not only a protest against prejudicial acts, but also against the media coverage of homophobic hate crimes, which tends to further sensationalize the violence and its victims. Beyond these media reports, however, those affected remain to a large extent invisible as a group in South African society.
In the series "Faces and Phases", which launched in 2006 and still continues, Muholi, who trained as a photographer, spotlights lesbian, transgender and non-binary women through black-and-white portraits. The series has grown to encompass more than 250 images of individuals of different ages and occupations at different stages in their lives. Muholi started off taking self-portraits and photos of close acquaintances. As participants in the photographic work, they become part of the active protest. The fact that several of the women portrayed have been the victims to hate-crimes in the fight for an open-minded approach to sexuality shows the injustice at hand. The people portrayed in "Faces and Phases" gaze directly at the observer without any social contextualization. In this way, Zanele Muholi gives each person a tremendous presence and makes them visible, both as part of the community and as individuals. Even though the traces of what they have experienced are etched in many of the faces, all appear strong yet vulnerable with a refusal to be trapped in a narrative of victimhood. What makes these calm, concentrated portraits so special is their dignified intensity.
With her frank, poignant images, Muholi has ultimately created a documentary archive of all those who are ostracized and made to feel invisible every day, although all they really want is to be seen and accepted.
born in Durban, South Africa
Master of Fine Arts in Documentary Media at Ryerson University, South Africa
International Center for Photography Infinity Award for Documentary and Photojournalism
lives in Johannesburg, South Africa