The Visual Activism of Zanele Muholi

Written by Sarah Lawson
Photographs by Kevin Downs

“I don’t like the distance. It’s like you’re not allowed to connect.”

Lots of people make work as social documentary photographers, but Zanele Muholi makes her work as a visual activist. She doesn’t photograph subjects, she works with participants in her visual documentation process. “I look at the practice as more of a relationship. These are the people who make it possible. So, they can’t be subjects,” she said. “As photographers, we need to listen to the people who we photograph and not rush to take images.”

“When you document, there’s the connectedness between the two beings who are interacting.”

In Muholi’s ever-evolving “Faces and Phases” series, she works with participants to create portraits, returning every few years to re-photograph them and continue growing the body of work. “I cannot afford to be silenced. There’s a generation before us who didn’t have the opportunity to take photographs. We have to write this history,” she said.

The series is a celebration of people in her life but also serves the more sinister purpose of creating personal histories for those who become victims of hate crimes against the LGBTI community of South Africa. “We’re losing people we love because of homophobia and thickheaded politicians. We cannot afford to be delayed in any way.”

“I’m here. I’m with you.”

For a short time, Muholi was physically present as part of the Charlottesville and LOOK3 communities. Long after she returns home, however, she will remain a vital part of the photography community worldwide. Following a standing ovation, she reflected, “Every time I come to a space like this, I have to go home and work some more. I’m really inspired. The love I’m receiving here forces me to carry on. The world is waiting.”