People might associate the continent with vibrant colour, but through the eyes of South African documentary photographer Sabelo Mlangeni (1980) it’s a world in black and white, better to emphasise the essence of his subjects.
With his images Sabelo reflects on his countries past while at the same time looking forward into the future, documenting those lives that are forgotten in the fast-moving society of South Africa today. All of his shots have a touch of the historical, of a time gone past. “History is an important part of my work,” he explains, especially in my own country where apartheid was abolished just two decades ago.”
Sabelo is particularly interested in tracking the changing relationships and interconnections between the urban and the rural, and he usually does this through a slice of society that remains a sensitive or taboo subject for many, even in South Africa: LGBTI life.
Black Men in Dress
Take one of his latest series for example: Black Men in Dress, a series of portraits shot at the Johannesburg and Soweto Pride. “This yearly event is a celebration for the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) community. Most communities have what we call ‘uSis’bhuti’, a term used to describe a boy who behaves like a girl. We all grew up knowing this, but never acknowledged it. So I asked myself questions like: Why then do we hate these boys when they have grown up to be men who dress as women? Why do we turn and call them names, pretending that we’ve never seen anything like it? These are some of the issues I try to bring to the foreground in this series. We tend to act like LGBTI people don’t exist, but they’re everywhere around us. The same goes for cross dressing; we see it, but don’t know how to react to it. That’s very interesting to me, because my work engages the viewer and confronts them with a part of Africa that’s usually underlit.”
Sabelo came up with the idea for Black Men in Dress while shooting his preceding series Limbali, about reed dances, in KwaZulu-Natal and Swaziland. This being a traditional event where maidens bring reeds to rebuild the queens mother’s home and pay allegiance to her. It’s a rite of passage that forges commonality in the community, although it’s perhaps better known as the king’s opportunity to choose a new wife. “I travelled through the continent looking at how weddings and the associated ceremonies were celebrated, and wanted to aim that at the LGBTI community.
Photography began exploring subjects like these in 2003, with the series Country Girls. He researched gay life behind the scenes of a rural community. “Back then gay couples weren’t allowed to get married officially, but in small towns and rural areas it already happened. I decided to follow these events and tried to capture the progress in their situation. That’s why this project took several years.” The people he portrayed were not used to photographers staying for more than a few hours, but long-term immersion is one of Sabelo’s methods for getting to the truth, and the collaboration saw his stay with his subjects in the South African region of Mpumalanga and shoot for six years. The prolonged stay might have been necessary to get them to open up, but the fact that he grew up in Driefontein and was seen therefore as an insider himself probably helped, too. “It’s a matter of trust, says Sabelo. You need to create a relationship.”
He may have been shooting in rough, poor areas, but Sabelo captures the glamour of the drag queens, hairstylists and beauty pageant contestants, who, even in South Africa with its progressive laws, are still often perceived as “un-African” or not Christian.
So far Sabelo has released two books of work (Country Girls (2010) and Men Only (2009)) and a catalogue containing the series At Home and Ghost Towns. For the first series he focussed on rural areas from which the breadwinners have migrated in search of work, leaving behind only the young and old. These places are where many urban immigrants have their roots, and Sabelo portrays them as tranquil spaces of waiting, seen through the filter of memory.
Ghost Town is about small towns that have been abandoned and forgotten while all the furious energy of urbanisation is churning elsewhere.
“My work might not be mainstream, but I want to give the viewer the chance to interpret my images in their own way.”
As a photographer Sabelo admits to creating his own truth – though that’s something no photographer could honestly deny – but his goal is always to try to find answers to questions he poses to himself through his images, and to bring to the attention of his audience subjects and themes he feels need consideration by a wider public, something he felt quite strongly about when shooting Invisible Woman back in 2007. “It’s about the fact that black African woman weren’t allowed into the city during apartheid, so you didn’t see them. Many still say the city is a man’s world, and now these woman are the ones cleaning the streets at night, but when you wake up in the morning they were gone. Invisible but actually there, just not when others are around. They’re ghosts and I want to get people to wonder who they are with my photography.”
“My approach to people and situations will always be the same: approach and capture with integrity.”