For the past eight years, South African photographer and visual activist Zanele Muholi has taken portraits of queer and transgender individuals in her community. Her project began in 2006, when she first photographed her friend and colleague Busisiwe Sigasa, a poet and activist who was suffering from AIDS she’d contracted from a “corrective rape” — which remains a brutal and prevalent hate crime in South Africa. Eight months later, Sigasa died. She was 25.
“I’ve lost friends, and I wanted to remember my friends as beautiful as they were when I interacted with them,” Muholi told the Cut. After Sigasa’s death, she continued photographing LGBTI friends, colleagues, and acquaintances living in and around Johannesburg and Cape Town. The resulting collection — which was first exhibited at the Yancey Richardson Gallery in 2013 — now includes more than 250 portraits, which comprise her latest book, Faces and Phases: 2006–2014.
In a country where LGBTI individuals remain frequent targets of hate crimes and violence, Muholi’s work aims to increase visibility of gay and transgender experiences there. “I wanted to fill a gap in South Africa’s visual history that, even ten years after the fall of Apartheid, wholly excluded our very existence,” she writes in the book’s introduction. A collection of portraits, poems, and personal essays, Faces and Phases provides a sobering testament to the suffering and strength of its subjects. “I think it’s the first book of its kind in Africa that features black lesbians in a positive way,” Muholi told the Cut.
“My photography is therapy to me,” Muholi writes. “I want to project publicly, without shame, that we are bold, black, beautiful/handsome, proud individuals. It heals me to know that I am paving the way for others who, in wanting to come out, are able to look at the photographs, read the biographies, and understand that they are not alone.” Click through the slideshow to see Muholi’s powerful portraits.