Zanele Muholi was born in Durban, South Africa in 1972 during the peak of apartheid (Stevenson, 2017). The award-winning photographer describes her works as a form of visual activism (Bim Adewunmi, 2013). In 2009, she won The Casa Africa Award for the Best Female Photographer (Stevenson, 2017). In 2013, she has won several prestige awards such as The Index on Censorship’s Freedom of Expression Art award, Carnegie International’s The Fine Prize award for upcoming artist, Prince Claus Award and Feather of the Year from Feather Award (Stevenson, 2017). In 2016, she was awarded International Center for Photography Infinity Award for Documentary and Photojournalism Outstanding International Alumni Award from Ryerson University, Toronto (Stevenson, 2017).
Back in the year 2009, Zanele Muholi founded Inkanyiso a non-government organisation for queer activism (Brian Browdie, 2015). The organization was formed as a reaction to the lack of queer-related materials in the mainstream arena by providing training for the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Queers (LGBTQs) community in creating visual content that reflect their community issues and histories while educating the public about the queer histories that is often left forgotten by the society (Bim Adewunmi, 2013).
Zanele Muholi uses photography to channel her political view on the issue of gender, class, sexuality and race. She documents the lives of black lesbians in South Africa and the LGBTQs community during the post-apartheid back in 1994 in her photographs as a trace of history for the community that is often frowned upon by society despite the legalisation of same-sex marriage back in 2006 (Brian Browdie, 2015).
Through photography, she uses her camera lens as a tool to advocate the LGBTQs communities that have been the victim of discrimination and violence due to the traditional belief of heterosexualism in South Africa (Jenna Wortham, 2015). She believes that through photography, we could create a safe place for the LGBTQs communities. According to Zanele Muholi, photography is the perfect medium to normalise queerness in our community. She also uses photography as a tool to combat the stereotypical portrayal of black people in London and European countries as a way to break the stigma and prejudice towards black people by showcasing a more positive image of black people in her works (Bim Adewunmi, 2013).
In 2006, Zanele Muholi started her infamous Faces and Phases project that showcased the portraitures of South African lesbian (Deborah Willis, 2015). The portraitures are captured against plain or patterned backgrounds (Deborah Willis, 2015). This project was dedicated to a good friend of hers who was a survivor of corrective rape that passed away in 2007 at the age of 27 due to HIV complication (Deborah Willis, 2015). The project was launched to create awareness on the issue of corrective rape that has been growing rampantly among the South African’s lesbian community (Deborah Willis, 2015). It acts as a reaction to the hate crimes and murders committed to the LGBTQs community in South Africa. By showcasing the portraitures, the project helps in putting forward the existence of LGBTQs community of South Africa into the mainstream arena (Deborah Willis, 2015).
Her works that often focuses on the everyday lives of marginalised groups help in creating a common ground between her subjects and her audiences (Bim Adewunmi, 2013). Her photographs that include the first person’s testimonies of her subjects has able her to create a strong message to the audience (Bim Adewunmi, 2013). In her opinion, the narration that comes together with her photos acts as a catalyst that sparks interest and debate on the issue that she put forward in her photographs (Bim Adewunmi, 2013).
What makes Zanele Muholi different from a normal photographer is the rapport she built with her subjects. Her relationships with her subjects stretched beyond the professional level (Bim Adewunmi, 2013). She has emotional connection and attachment with them (Bim Adewunmi, 2013). She believes that their stories are worth telling to the world and the connection that they shared is what drives her to pursue her works as a visual activist.
But the connections that she shared with her subjects are also what have shattered her spirits. In 20th April 2012, someone broke in her Cape Town house and stolen 20 external drives that contain year’s worth of documentation and materials she collected throughout her career as a visual activist (Matt McCann, 2012). But ironically, her expensive cameras and belongings are left untouched. This proof how controversial and influential her works are to the world. (Matt McCann, 2012). Being a passionate woman of her cause, she tried her best to retrieve her missing documents (Matt McCann, 2012). She put up flyers and offered a huge amount of reward to those who help return the missing devices to her (Matt McCann, 2012). But her efforts were fruitless.
Devastated, the incident left her in an emotional and mental distress (Matt McCann, 2012). She broke up with her current partner and her spirit was shattered (Matt McCann, 2012). To Zanele Muholi, it is not just about missing photographs. It is about the years of relationship she has formed with her subjects. The stories and common ground shared has motivated her to document it to the world. But when the thing she has documented has gone missing, she felt as though she has failed in her part of advocating them (Matt McCann, 2012).
Yes, the hiccups stalled her works but never once did she let it affect her campaign. Knowing the value of stories that lies behind her photography, she continues her fight till today.
Adewunmi, B. (2013). Zanele Muholi: “I cannot give up myself and my soul simply because I need some exposure.”. Retrieved 24 April 2017 from http://www.newstatesman.com/bim-adewunmi/2013/03/zanele-muholi-i-cannot-give-myself-and-my-soul-simply-because-i-need-some-expos
Browdie, B. (2015). Photos: Zanele Muholi documents love, loss and identity in South Africa’s LGBT community. Retrieved 29 April 2017 from https://qz.com/415562/photos-zanele-muholi-documents-love-loss-and-identity-in-south-africas-lgbt-community/
McCann, M. (2012). Theft stalls, but does not stop, a project. Retrieved 24 April 2017 from https://lens.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/05/23/theft-stalls-but-does-not-stop-a-project/
Stevenson. (2017). Zanele Muholi: Biography. Retrieved 24 April 2017 from http://www.stevenson.info/artist/zanele-muholi/biography
Willis, D. (2015). Zanele Muholi’s Faces & Phases. Retrieved 24 April 2017 from http://aperture.org/blog/magazine-zanele-muholis-faces-%C2%9D-phases/
Wortham, J. (2013). Zanele Muholi’s transformations. Retrieved 29 April 2017 from https://www.nytimes.com/2015/10/11/magazine/zanele-muholis-transformations.html