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Zanele Muholi: Social Activism and Photography

In: Social Issues

Submitted By Sainttraci
Words 3780
Pages 16
Traci Vander Hoeven
3 December 2014

Zanele Muholi: Take note, Shelby Adams, this is Activist Photography

Photographs are one of the most powerful means of advocating for environmental and social change. One’s images can influence one, or influence many; all with the click of a button. As a photographer, Zanele Muholi, provides the viewer her own personal take on her queer community; specifically, the black lesbian community, and their oppressed status in her home country of South Africa. A country struggling to move forward from their colonial past and embrace their post-apartheid vision of collectiveness and unity. Her passion as an activist photographer serves to record a history of a community and its undermined existence and to provide a heightened awareness of the violent acts surrounding that community. Her black and white, portrait style images are a mainstream medium that present her subjects in a neutral manner. Activist photography, a subcategory of documentary photography, often pushes the lines of presenting a point of view or cause and ‘othering’. I first became interested in activist photography when we studied Shelby Adams. I believe his activist intents are clouded, maybe even completely discounted, by his personal motivations as an artist and the cultural stereo-types documented in his subject matter of the Appalachian people he claims to be a member of. Adams stated in his book, Appalachian Legacy, that his “Photographs do not constitute a documentary overview…but represent a personal, subjective view of the spirit of the people” (Adams 18). Adams also relays how his father, a doctor, would visit the members of the isolated communities in the region and “Although my father had prejudiced views, I came to know those people” (Cummins 3). Again, Adams demonstrates his own disconnect from ‘his community’ by asserting class: he refers to the Appalachian inhabitants as ‘those’ people and not ‘my’ people. In my opinion, this admittance of his own personal exclusion from the Appalachian community solidifies his act of othering in his works. This left me with a discontented feeling and I set out to find someone I felt truly was an exemplary model of an activist photographer. Zanele Muholi is a visual activist, photographer and former journalist who has worked extensively as a human rights activist for the queer community. She strives to bring to public attention the issues of hate crimes, ‘curative rape’, assault, HIV and brutal murders of black lesbian women in post-colonial South Africa. Muholi acknowledges “not only is she ‘outing’ her subjects as lesbians publicly, she is also navigating the precarious boundary between empowering and exploiting her subjects” (Breukel 16). It should also be noted that Muholi owns her black lesbian identity and features her self-portraits for display in her photography, publications and exhibitions (Breukel 16). Unlike Shelby Adams, I feel Zanele Muholi embodies the characteristics that define a great activist: sees a need for change, devotes her time and energy seeking that change, and is driven by her passion and vision for a better future for her community. She communicates her passion and vision beautifully through her photographs.
Internal Source Analysis I have chosen the following photographs from her book, and its accompanying exhibit, Faces and Phases: Ayanda Megoloza (2012), Anelisa Mfo (2010) and a third, photo, Aftermath (2004), that is separate from the Faces and Phases works. Faces and Phases is a collection of over two hundred photos taken of members of the queer community (primarily black lesbians) in South Africa (Curtis, par. 2). The images are done in a black and white portrait style and presented in a way that offers to neutralize a viewer’s way of seeing. A sense of belonging is asserted by way of inclusive logic about how people belong and connect with their many community levels (Salley, par. 9). Ayanda Megoloza is black and white portrait style photograph; evoking a fashion magazine- type feel. The photo is closely cropped and in so we lose a portion of the subject’s curly up-do hair and see just a slight curvature of her bare shoulders near the base of her neck. The subject’s gaze is serious and straight forward at the camera. She stands in front of a dark draping of cloth. Her face shows no signs of make-up and she has well-shaped, full lips that are in their natural state. There are no other adornments, such as jewelry, being worn by her. She presents a presence of confidence, but there is also an underlying look of sadness. Anelisa Mfo is also a black and white portrait style photograph. The photo is cropped so that we see the upper portion of the subject’s body as well as the background. The background is that of a corrugated metal covered building or wall. The seams of the corrugated metal are defined and at the base of the wall, on the left bottom corner of the photograph, there is a small piece of grass or some other groundcover. The subject herself is standing at a slight angle away from the lens, but her gaze is direct. Her hair is cut close to her scalp in a buzz cut fashion. Her features are somewhat masculine and she bears a look of sadness and mistrust. She is wearing a plain dark colored polo shirt, fully buttoned up, that has a pocket on her left breast. Her arms appear to be behind her back, possibly in a clasping hands arrangement. The subject wears no makeup, but has an earring in her exposed left ear. There is a keloid scar that runs the entire length of her left jaw bone and reaches into her chin area. Though somewhat hidden by the collar on her shirt, you can see hints of extensive scarring on her neck near her tracheotomy. Lastly, the photo entitled Aftermath, is, as much of her photography, a black and white image, but taken in a documentary style instead of a portrait style. The image is cropped so that we see the subject’s lower body to just below the knee. The background is indistinguishable and blurred. The subject is that of a black female standing at a three-quarter turn away from the lens, much like her subject in Anelisa Mfo. The woman is wearing only a pair of conservative Jockey underwear, but there is no inclusion of her face or breasts. Her hands are crossed left over right and cover her crotch in a protective manner. Her left hand guides the eye of the viewer, as if to point, toward a large scar that runs nearly the full length of her right thigh. The scar is an older, healed scar with the scarring in the form staple tracks running a dotted pattern on either side. The gaze is that of the viewer.
External Analysis In support of my analysis, I believe it is important to include some background information regarding the history of gender and sexuality in South Africa. In 1996, after apartheid had ended, South Africa was the first nation in the world to rewrite portions of their Bill of Rights to specifically include the rights of their gay and lesbian citizens (Gunkel 77). There have been many cultural changes in preceding years regarding sexuality and sexual identities, but has also brought forth questions about gender relations and the ideas and beliefs that homosexuality itself is ‘un-African’ (Gunkel 78). Much of this is blamed on Western influence by many, including the South African government, stating that our models of media influence, women’s rights, gender roles/norms, dating and marriage customs are destroying the traditional male/female roles and hierarchies custom to South Africa (Vorholter 288). The older generation, in particular, voice concerns that the rate of change is too fast and that the ‘culture’ is being lost. “The typical traditional African woman was depicted as a caring, loving ‘mother’, who respects her husband and her defined gender rules” (Vorholter, par. 39). Some of her greatest critics are a those classified as virginity testers. “Virginity testing, is a prenuptial custom traditionally conducted just prior to marriage, refers to the examination of females to ascertain whether or not they are sexually chaste” (Vincent 17). This practice has made a huge comeback in the last 15 to 20 years as the nation struggles with its ever rising HIV infection and death rates. It is noted that many fear the influence of white Westerners on the South African cultural and social structure as pertaining to sexuality. They believe that same-sex relations taint the black image. One viewer said:
I would never allow my child to take such photographs. You see something like this gives a bad picture, to us as virginity testers and black people. Our image has be dented by this thing. This whole thing is for whites, because it causes people to become gay.

Sociocultural divisions, as suggested by the above statement, are controlled by this practice and are framed by cultural fears laced with white Western fears and of white ‘deviant’ behavior. In 2009, Lulu Xingwana, South Africa’s Minister of Arts and Culture, refused to allow the opening of the ‘Innovative Women’ exhibit after taking offense at the intimate images portraying black lesbians in some photos displayed by Janele Muholi. She labeled them “pornographic, immoral and offensive and going against nation-building” (van der Vlies 140). This was a clear demonstration that the keepers of the nation were less than accepting of the Bill of Rights and those who it is supposed to protect. Zanele Muholi had this to say about her work, “ aimed at erasing the very stigmatisation of our sexualities as “unAfrican”, even as our very existence disrupts dominant (hetero)sexualities, patriarchies and oppressions that were not of our own making” (van der Vlies 147). Muholi works through her photography to capture and focus on the positive aspects of her community and not the popular visual cultural standard of women, blacks and queers as ‘manifestations of the undesirable’ (Salley, par. 27). While her attempt to give the queer community a voice in the opposition of their social and political invisibility, some criticize her and say her act of encouraging ‘hypervisibility’ is exploitation and inviting further danger, harm and ridicule. Zanele Muholi’s desire is that the queer community be treated equitably and not be forced to live in fear in an underground manner. Yvette Abrahams, historian and feminist activist, had this to say about Muholi’s work, “..creates for me a sense of love that we can take for granted. It brings me a foretaste of a future when we are truly free” (Baderoom 404).
Adams work offers no hope for change or a better future. His work conveys to me that this is how he sees Appalachia, this is how Appalachia has always been and this is how Appalachia will always be. It doesn’t invoke a desire for activism, equality or a need to educate and change a social or sociopolitical system. As keenly observed by an Adams' critic, “Where’s the new learning? Where’s the opening for people to learn more about these folks? This is deploying so many stereotypes that simply reaffirm that the poverty of the Appalachian is that person’s own fault; after all it’s got to do with the centuries of violence, inbreeding, moonshining, laziness and bad genes and bad socialization. I don’t have to worry about it. They’re doing it to themselves” (Cummins 3).
There has also been a significant increase of hate crimes, ‘curative rape’, assault, HIV and brutal murders of black lesbian women in post-colonial South Africa. Statistics show that one in three women will be raped in her lifetime and that one in four will be threatened by a domestic partner (Salley, par. 26). Muholi herself dedicated over three years of her life to the study, research and documentation of hate crimes targeting the queer population in order to bring heightened public awareness of its prevalence and realities (Stevenson Info, par. 2). In her photographs Anelisa Mfo and Aftermath, the lasting reminders of these hate crimes is very apparent. For men, scars are a badge of honor, for women they are a defiling of their being; an innocence lost. Most often these acts are carried out by the offenders as a means to ‘cure’ homosexual tendencies and desires. Janele Muholi stated at an exhibit, “Many lesbians bear the scars of their differences, and those scars are often in places where they can’t be seen” (van der Vlies 142). These photos both record the horrific pain and suffering these women suffered. For me, her portrait style really hits home. It puts a face to the issue and shows the human side of this tragedy. It is a concrete reminder that while she survived her attack, her fight, and the fight of others like her, is far from over. While the victim may have physically ‘healed’ from her horrific ordeal, the portrait in its classic and simple design, captures the ongoing fear and pain of the mental and emotional scars that will never truly heal. She’s female. She’s human. She’s someone’s daughter, sister, and lover. She’s just like you or me. When I view the photo of Anelisa Mfo, I view it as a portrait. Yes, one cannot help but take note of the evidence of her experience, but they are presented as a feature; like hair or nose, they are part of her. The photo is not distasteful, exploitative or sexual and does not purposefully aim to focus on her survivor identity or her community orientation.
On the other hand, Aftermath, which also contains the characteristics of a survivor of a hate crime, is quite different in that the focus is not on the person, per se. It, too, is a respectful documentary photograph in which the face is not revealed for it is not the focus. The female in the photo is a victim, but she is not objectified by a harmful gaze. She retains her dignity and has reclaimed her privacy. It is seemingly obvious the hands placed over the subject’s crotch are meant as a guarding gesture referring to her rape, but all of her private, or sexual, anatomy is covered; her breasts are not included in the picture. Here, I believe it was Muholi’s intent to show the horrific physical results of violence and curative rape practices that occur that are not usually visible to the eye. The idea was to record her past experience. Again, bringing to light and forcing the acknowledgment of ‘invisibility’; in that, just because you can’t see it, doesn’t mean it hasn’t happened, doesn’t still happen or won’t continue to happen. Even though the queer community is protected under the South African law, it is clear that it is not socially accepted, and many lesbians never report the rape or attacks in fear of further attacks and ostracization. Muholi has taken on the important task of documenting the queer community through her photography in hopes of giving them a face and allowing them to be heard. What does gay and lesbian look like? How do the queer view themselves? The images from her Faces and Phases works challenges you, the viewer, about any preconceived notions about how a lesbian ‘looks’. Muholi poses these questions “Is there a lesbian aesthetic or do we express our gendered, racialised and classed selves into and diverse ways? Is this lesbian more “authentic” than the other lesbians because she wears a tie and the other does not? Can you identify a rape survivor by the clothes she wears?”(van der Vlies 148). Ayanda is a beautifully done black and white portrait of a young black woman. One would have no assertion that she is a lesbian or possibly a rape survivor. This photo doesn’t depict a ‘type’. I think Muholi did wonderful job capturing the person and presenting a normative view that would not lead one to categorize, or stereotype, based on sexual orientation. The portraits in this series depict friends and acquaintances who come from many walks of life - an actress, soccer players, a scholar, cultural activists, dancers, filmmakers, writers, photographers, human rights and gender activists, mothers, lovers, friends, sisters, brothers, daughters and sons. I believe this is not only important to those of us not of the queer community, but to the members themselves. For any member of an excluded community, I think such tastefully done portraits also allows them to see their positivity, their beauty, their value. So often they are made to feel negative, ugly and unwanted for not being someone’s idea of the ‘social norm’. The negative stigmatisms that surround this group are not only internal ones, but also overflow to other social arenas that can be dictated by heterosexual norms such as religion, relationships with friends and family acceptance. “Thus, the powerlessness of lesbians in a patriarchal society affects their lives in many different spheres , such as their family life, work environment and social gatherings - in fact, any heterosexual space in which they find themselves”(Ochse 2) . Muholi’s portraits differ for me from Adams’ in their neutrality. They present the members of the black lesbian community as just that: members of a community. They contain a straight component that depict a normative, unbiased presence. There is no staging of photographic subjects in ‘triangular fashion’ or purchasing of props to invoke an ‘authenticity’ or story. They do not further or reinforce negative social assumptions about their community. Critics of Adams’ work often state that he portrays the Appalachian community as ‘hillbilly’, stupid, ugly and uneducated. Many claim his photographic documentations are a reflection of himself, not the community he claims membership (Cummins 3). One critic’s observation of Adams’ photos describes them as “people I wouldn’t want to meet in a dark alley at night” (Cummins 37). It is clear that the Appalachian people are portrayed in an unsavory light. Adams admits to purposefully distorting photos which is clearly ‘othering’; to view or treat (a person or group of people) as intrinsically different from and alien to oneself. Adams stated, “By getting in there with the camera, by creating some distortions, I’m hoping to make everyone think” (Cummins 3). I am of the opinion that if you truly want to convey your community to a public, a community that is already negatively stereotyped, to educate others about a human condition, then one doesn’t go above and beyond to create a distorted view. The act is dehumanizing. !
In 2002, Muholi co-founded and currently works for the Forum and Empowerment of Women (FEW) as a way to confront a system that conceals these violent acts and give the queer community a safe haven (Makhubu 505); something that was not available to her as a young adult. Many people today still live in fear or confusion regarding their sexuality because they have no outlet. Zanele Muholi recognized this void and acted to provide the support her community needed. Muholi recounts her own experience in self-realization that she was lesbian:

At fourteen years I was a tomboy. I played games. Five months later I found I had feelings for women. I actually struggled against that, I couldn’t believe I was attracted to the same sex. I didn’t talk to anyone about it, I tried to hide it, but I couldn’t hold it in for too long…(Salley, par. 33).


In addition to her work with FEW, Muholi has received many awards for her works, has contributed her documentations and photos to several queer and art publications and academic journals. She has also received accolades and an award from the IRN-Africa for outstanding contributions in the areas of research and advocacy of sexualities in Africa (Stevenson Info 1). Zanele Muholi‘s photo, which I added not as part of my analysis, but as of interest, doesn’t stand out from the others in her exhibition in a noticeable fashion. She blends in seamlessly among the other portraits of black, lesbian women: the artists, the soccer players, the actresses, the teachers, the preacher, the sisters, the lovers. All these women are diverse in their oneness. Zanele Muholi is a photographer, an advocate, a historian and above all, she is a great visual and social activist. She is true to her roots, she owns her identity and she continuously champions for the queer community through her photographs in the hopes that one day we live in a world where sexual identity is no longer a hot topic by which people suffer.

Photo Credit

All photos were taken by Zanele Muholi.

Ayanda Megoloza, Katlehong, Johannesburg, 2012

Anelisa Mfo, Nyanga, Cape Town, 2010

Aftermath, silver gelatin print, 2004

Zanele Muholi, Vredehoek, Cape Town, 2011

Works Cited
Adams, Shelby Lee. Appalachian Legacy. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1998. Print.
Baderoom, Gabeba. “”Gender within Gender“: Zanele Muholi’s Images of Trans Being and Becoming.” Feminist Studies Summer 2011: 390-408. EBSCO HOST. Web. 28 Nov. 2014.
Breukel, Claire. “Unapologetically Zanele Muholi.” Women’s Review of Books 30.3 (2013): 16. Web. 28 Nov. 2014.
Cummins, Kathleen. “The True Meaning of Pictures: Shelby Lee Adams’ Appalachia.” Take 1 Mar-May 2003: 37. EBSCO HOST. Web. 3 Dec 2014.
Curtis, Alissa. “Faces and Phases: Portraits from South Africa’s Lesbian Community.” The New Yorker 21 May 2012: N. pag. Print.
Gunkel, Henriette. “Through the Postcolonial Eyes: Images of Gender and Female Sexuality in Contemporary South Africa.” Journal of Lesbian Studies 13 (2009): 77-87. EBSCO HOST. Web. 12 Nov. 2014.
Makhubu, Nomusa M. “Violence and cultural logics of pain: representations of sexuality in the work of Nicholas Hlobo and Zanele Muholi.” Critical Arts: South-North Cultural and Media Studies 4 Oct. 2012: 504-524. Web. 3 Dec. 2014.
Ochse, Angela. “’Real Women’ and ’Real Lesbians’: Discourses of Heteronormativity Amongst a Group of Lesbians.” South African Review of Sociology 42.1 (2011): 3-20. Web. 1 Dec. 2014.
Salley, Rael Jero. “Zanele Muholi’s Elements of Survival.” MIT Press Journals 45.4 (2012): n. pag. EBSCO HOST. Web. 20 Nov. 2014.
Stevenson Info. N.p, n.d. Web. 28 Nov. 2014. <>.
Vincent, L. “Virginity testing in South Africa: re-traditioning the post-colony.” Cult Health Sex 8.1 (2006): 17-30. Pub Med. Web. 3 Dec. 2014.
Vorholter, Julia. “Negotiating Social Change: Ugandan discourses on Westernisation and Colonialism as Forms of Social Critique.” The Journal of Modern African Studies 50.2 (2012): 283-307. ProQuest. Web. 11 Nov. 2014. van der Vlies, Andre. “Queer Knowledge and the Politics of the Gaze in Contemporary South African Photography: Zanele Muholi and Others.” Journal of African Cultural Studies 24.2 (2012): 140-156. EBSCO HOST. Web. 12 Nov. 2014.

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