“Siyafana is a word that means ‘we are the same’ in Zulu, and encompasses both the similarities and the differences within our ‘black’ race,’” says South African-born photographer Zanele Muholi, describing the central theme of her project, Faces and Phases. Muholi began work on Faces in 2006 after photographing two close friends who died at a young age. Both died from HIV-related illnesses; one of them had been the victim, in multiple incidents, of hate crimes. With Faces and Phases, Muholi hopes to broaden and deepen the visual representation of black lesbians in present-day South Africa — a visual history of a community that, she feels, has been too-long ignored not only by the country’s media, but by the larger gay rights movement that first flourished in her country in the 1990s.
“The project,” she told TIME, “is basically about celebrating the lives of the people around me, and commemorating those who have since passed due to disease or hate crimes.”
Born in Umlazi, Durban, Muholi studied photography at the Market Photo Workshop in Newtown, Johannesburg (2001-2003) and in 2009 received her MFA in Documentary Media studies at Ryerson University, Toronto.
Balancing dual careers as an artist and community worker, it’s no surprise that her first photography series, Only Half the Picture (2006) and Being (2007), tread that slippery space between activism and art.
“I like to call myself a visual activist, rather than just a photographer, because all that I try to document is based on gender, identity and sexual politics,” Muholi says. “I embarked on a journey of visual activism to ensure that there is black lesbian visibility.”
From the time of her very earliest work, in 2003, Muholi has been exploring the dynamics of black lesbian identity through depictions of relationships and sexual intimacy. A member of the community herself, Muholi’s affinity for her subject matter has always been inseparable from the work; much of the power of her pictures derives from a sensitivity to the topic that, perhaps, only an insider can bring. Building on the trust she shares with those she photographs, she records vulnerable, private moments within those relationships.
In Faces & Phases, Muholi’s straightforward black-and-white photographs catalog myriad — and sometimes contradictory — elements of her participants’ identities. (She refuses to call those featured in her projects “subjects.”)
Unlike her previous work, which focused primarily on intimate moments, here she is presenting participants as they might appear in public to a friend or lover, while striving to illustrate the immense diversity of the community. In fact, the project has grown beyond the townships of South Africa, where it was conceived, to include an international cross-section of photos made during her travels.
“Individuals in this series hold different positions and play many different roles within the black lesbian community. The only requirement is that they are all ‘out’.”
Throughout it all, Muholi is careful not to portray the women in her pictures as victims.
“I wanted to shift the focus from the kind of [shock-value and exploitative] imagery so often seen in the mainstream media,” she says. She gets close to those who sit for her, befriending them, and says it’s important for her to keep in touch with them after she has made their portraits.
“I don’t work with people I don’t know,” she told TIME, noting that the lives of black lesbians “are always sensationalized and rarely understood.”
Her lens, meanwhile, frequently manages to record an exchange or moment of gentle mutual awareness between artist and sitter. In the process, her subjects share their stories — and continue their own narratives online.
“Many of them feel violated,” she acknowledges, “and I did not want the camera to be a further violation. Instead, I wanted to establish relationships with them based on our mutual understanding of what it means to be female, lesbian and black in South Africa.”
“This is a lifetime project,” Muholi declares, suggesting that her visual statement on an often-maligned community — for which she acts as both witness and advocate — will only continue to grow in both scope and intent in the years to come.