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Zanele Muholi: "I cannot give up myself and my soul simply because I need some exposure."

The photographer and visual activist talks to Bim Adewunmi.

A visitor looks at an exhibition of Zanele Muholi's photographs. Photograph: Getty Images

 “I give thanks for many people who thought that I wouldn’t make it.”

Zanele Muholi insisted that I lead my piece with the above quote. It comes around the 45-minute mark of our hour-long conversation, in which she has done by far the majority of the talking. We are in a cold room in the offices of Index on Censorship, who, the night bfore, bestowed upon her a Freedom of Expression Arts award. Other winners in different categories include Pakistani campaigner Malala Yousafzai, Greek investigative journalist Kostas Vaxevanis and jailed Syrian software engineer, Bassel Khartabil. I ask Muholi what the award means to her. “It basically means recognition for the people who are featuring in the photographs. Sometimes think awards means money; this doesn’t come with any finances, but it comes with the recognition of the people who existed but never had an opportunity, resources and equipment to document their lives.” She continues, “This award equals possibilities and paving a way and also a different kind of expression, a different kind of exposure in the 21st century. There are a lot of black lesbians who existed before me, but maybe the time wasn’t right. Or maybe the politics weren’t right, or were right but their moment became part of the movement.” She shrugs. “I just happened to be the person mentioned.”

Muholi is more than a photographer. She likes to call herself a ‘visual activist’, and it is her work capturing and documenting the lives of black lesbians in South Africa that she was honoured for at the Index Awards. “The award is not about me, but it’s about people. Each and every person in the photos has a story to tell, so it becomes a visual narrative of some sort, in which we have to think beyond just the framed image on the wall in the gallery,” she says. “That visual document is historical, it has it own life. Every individual in my photographs has her own or his own story to tell. But sadly we come from spaces in which most black people never had that opportunity. If they had it at all, their voices were told by other people. So there’s the whole thing of being spoken for.” I tell her of something I saw attributed to Sundance darling filmmaker of Middle of Nowehere, Ava DuVernay: “There’s something very important about films about black women and girls being made by black women. It’s a different perspective. It is a reflection as opposed to an interpretation” and she nods enthusiastically.“If given a chance to express ourselves, we have to do it consciously. And I’m not there to speak for the people, but to share and change the portrayal of black bodies in a space like London, or any other European space. It’s about time that we bring positive imagery of us in space where we are there, but hardly seen.”

On the subject of interpretation over reflection, I ask if that means outside voices cannot, by virtue of their ‘outsideness’ accurately portray the lives that she does in her work. She has a lot to say. “It’s been done for many years. Africa has mostly been projected and documented by the outside world. A lot of scholars come to Africa, doing their PhDs on women and children, sexual politics, human rights... It’s a pity that most people from Africa can’t do the same, to leave Africa and research the West,” she says. “The early images of Sarah Baartman, black bodies and science, all those things, I think there was this kind of ‘spectacling’, of exploring, of adventuring in Africa from a Western perspective.” She talks of an inherited habit of being silent and a culture of exploitation. “People mustn’t use education or academia to come up with a different form of colonising people, African people specifically. I think it’s very important for people to state their intentions clearly. We come from a system where we never question – decades of silence – which is why people take advantage of such situations, because they know people are poor, desperate, and might not have information. Some people regretted giving up their lives, their grandmothers’ lives etcetera. Out of desperation, you give your soul away.” She pauses. “No, I cannot give up myself and my soul simply because I need some exposure. Because at the end of the day, I need to remember me.”

Her work focuses on the everyday lives of often marginalised groups, and as such, they are, and feel quite intimate. Despite herself being of the community she documents, how does she sidestep the very real pitfall of exploitation in her work? “It’s very important for me to say I might not be 100 percent right. And it’s possible that I might make mistakes along the way. I’m not a saint; never even applied to become a nun.” She bubbles with laughter. “I’ve been doing this for a long time. My take, not to feel like I’m exploiting people, I train people to become photographers. I give the opportunity to tell their own stories in their own ways. History is so important. It’s easy for those who have power to write lesbian lives, to forget a lot of others along the way. So I have an organisation called Inkayinso which deals with visual activism. We train people and we educate people about queer histories. We are going to produce our own documentaries, of those who agree to participate, and it works for me, and it informs a lot of people in a lot of other spaces. The person that I photographed in 2010 or 2011 is a person that I’ve known for more than eight years. It’s not like a two-minute kind of set up, it’s years.” She calls these relationships “hard-earned”, and talks about taking photographs of a gay woman who had been a victim of “curative rape”. “This was in 2003,” she says. “It’s only now that people are talking about curative rape. I’ve been dealing with these cases forever. When I mention hate crimes or talk about other things, I know what I’m talking about because I work with a collective and we document. We stop and wait and be with the people. It’s life, we’re living it.”

Her long term relationships with the subjects of her arresting photographs have yielded an astonishing archive of work. With an increasing profile – her work has been exhibited across the globe – comes its own troubles. I ask about the theft at her home in April last year, in which twenty external hard drives of material – audio, photographs and text – were taken. She is still visibly shaken and angry about it. “They did not take the most expensive camera – if the point was about valuables, the camera costs more than an external drive. You won’t get much if you sell the drive. But the information that is in there...” she tails off. “I think the whole point was to slow me down and disorganise me. I’m being trangressive, so I was being punished for being a transgressor,” she says. “I felt so displaced by the loss. I was depressed for the whole month of May. It still hurts me to think of it. Photography to me is therapeutic. So if you take a photo that I’ve worked for, worse, not even published, you’re crippling my soul. I was still looking to see what would’ve transpired out of that, what that stuff would’ve been become.” The burglary made her change the locks in her suburban home, a place she has since vacated. “I felt so uncomfortable there. The suburb turned into some dungeon. It was unsettling, unnerving.” She also broke up with her partner at the time. “It affected my relationship. I couldn’t be intimate, I couldn’t function, I was just off completely.” She had nightmares, offered large sums of reward money, posted messages on lamp posts. “But it was useless. They were not there for cups and saucers. They needed that information and they got it.” I start to ask how she got over it and she cuts me off before I even finish the question. “You don’t. I can’t get over it. Next month will mark a year.” Her sister helped to pull her out of it by reminding her that people had lost as well, as documented in the work she had lost. “She said, “you’ve been documenting a lot of pain, funerals and so on. Other people didn’t survive and their families lost their beloved. Why will you allow yourself to be consumed by this theft?””

She’s in a reflective, grateful mood now, thinking back to the people who have helped to shape her work. “The school where I come from, Market Photo Workshop, that became a political space. It produced good photographers, we learnt a lot from each other and I’m thankful to David Goldblatt.” She calls him a photography godfather. “He rescued me and many other black photographers in South Africa. He gave us a space, opportunities to tell our stories, our black lives. I think it’s very important for people to know what he, a straight white male, did for us. I will always love him. He later became my mentor and my adopted father.” She laughs loud. “I would say I adopted him!”

“Our grandmothers might not have made it, might not have had the same tools we have in this digital age but the oral histories that they left for us to make sense of who we are today, in a way we have learned from them. Many especially black people, queer people, need to know that it’s possible to be a visual activist. And it’s very important for us to write in our own languages, our present visual histories.

“It’s been a long journey. Hard, and it’s still a struggle, but it’s okay. I have no regrets for any hiccups that I’ve encountered along the way. I give thanks for many people who rejected me. I give thanks to gatekeepers who thought that what I was doing was impossible because they shaped my life. That experience made me a better person. I am me because of them.”