Zanele Muholi. Photo-activist projecting the positive

Zanele Muholi. Photo-activist projecting the positive

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At the time of my first photographic portrait, in 2011, people wanted to "correct" me, but I still wanted to be out. I put the photo up in my room and thought, "this is a stepping stone to freedom." I finally saw a future.

These are the words of Vuyelwa Makubetse, one of 250 black lesbian and transgender participants captured in Zanele Muholi’sFaces and Phases 10 exhibition, which marks 10 years since the award-winning photo-activist embarked on this important series.

On opening night, the fifth-floor space of the Stevenson Gallery in Johannesburg throbbed with one of the most vibrant and expressively dressed crowds in the country — a testament to this juncture in SA’s lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex (LGBTI) visual history, which coincided with a celebration of 10 years since SA legalised same-sex marriage.

As Muholi said in her speech, this was a "rare moment" for SA’s LGBTI community to come together and bask in the strides that have been made on this "long, hard journey". Nothing was going to derail the evening.

Faces and Phases is an ongoing visual archive that has shown locally, but mostly abroad . It has featured at the Photographer s’ Gallery in London and New York’s Brooklyn Museum last year, as well as at the Venice Biennale in 2013 and Documenta (13) in Kassel, Germany, in 2012 — to mention a handful.

For the 10th anniversary of the series, Muholi presents follow-up shots that map the phases in the lives of her participants from around the country and the continent, "from being single to getting married; from being known as lesbian to transitioning over a period of time; from being a single lesbian to a single mother who still identifies as lesbian — these are our phases," Muholi says.

She is adamant that Faces and Phases should not be reduced to a comment on LGBTI suffering, asserting that "we are recovering from hate crimes, but we are also graduating, getting married, having children, being buried. This document is beyond hate crimes. It’s about preserving a history that we never had the chance to preserve before."

Participants like Makubetse are healing after being scarred by "corrective" rape attacks, and are embracing Muholi’s slick, black-and-white aesthetic as part of this process.

Makubetse points to the photographs of herself on the wall, saying: "You see that I’m wearing the same smart jacket in portraits two and three? In the second one, I was still depressed, but by the third portrait, which was taken two weeks ago, I felt happy. The jacket reminds me of my progression."

Indeed, by the third shot, Makubetse looks effortlessly suave, poised as if she might extend her arm out of the frame, clasp your hand and twirl you in her arms.

For building this visual archive, Muholi is resolute that all participants must already be out of the closet and prepared to project their "best self".

Muholi explains her vision for LGBTI empowerment: "The point is to photograph people who take pride in who they are. This is political. I don’t want people to look clumsy or ugly, like the projections that were made of Africans by the colonisers. I want people to look super-neat. That self-loving projection is key. When I photograph someone for the series I say: ‘P lease look good. We’re all going through pain and challenges, but please don’t project it now. There’ll be time for that.’"

The photo-activist emphasises that this project is about presenting a proud black lesbian and transgender "reference document". It is does not seek to question sexual identity labels or expose homophobic prejudice, like SA performance artist Steven Cohen does, for example. Perhaps this is because the violations endured by SA’s LGBTI people are too regular and too raw to treat in a way that might be interpreted as trivialising these realities.

On hearing Muholi reflect on why she started Faces and Phases back in 2006, her visual strategy becomes even clearer. "When I started this series it was rare to find a document on us by us to share with people who are coming out today and tomorrow. There’s something important in human beings looking at themselves in a decent manner and seeing their many likenesses. [It’s] 22 years into democracy and we still don’t have cover images of our beautiful and handsome people in the mainstream magazines."

After 10 years, Muholi is drained but remains invigorated. "I’m trying to shower myself with positivity these days because life is hard," she says. "I’ve documented so much pain. Right now, I just want to make sure I give hope to the next person who thinks things are impossible. Positive imagery of our people — that’s where I’m at. Let the world see and we will be empowered."

Muholi is acutely aware of the fragility of projects like Faces and Phases within a hostile context. It depends on LGBTI people like herself surviving and thriving in a country where ministers and politicians continue to incite hate by claiming that homosexuality is un-African.

She hesitates to promise a Faces and Phases 20, describing the series as "a life-long project for which I am praying for another 10 years". But, when this hopefully happens, Muholi will proudly pass on the baton: "If it reaches 20, somebody will need to carry on and they will have the reference for it."

Faces and Phases 10 runs from September 15-October 14 at the Stevenson Gallery in Braamfontein, Johannesburg.