Photographic experiences

No More Pot Lucks” – an interview with Zanele Muholi by Michelle Pearson Clarke – a friend for Faces and Fazes. Michelle starts with her own story which is as it should be because Zanele’s work is about the women and transmen she photographs. It never was and never is about Zanele. Her photographs are conversations between her and her friends. Every 150 plus portraits is a friend. Not an acquaintance but a relationship of two or three or four.

I won’t write about my own experience of being photographed by Zanele because this is not my time. That will come later and requires a renewed inspiration which I am still seeking out.

This is a very different introduction to this interview than I had planned. As I write this, my mother is undergoing surgery to remove cancerous tumours from her brain. We are nearing the end of a 14-year battle with pancreatic cancer and I am reminded yet again of her inordinate reserves of grace and resilience. And as I write this, I am reminded yet again of all that she will leave behind with me.

It’s a lot. I’m lucky, I know. I love my black queer self because she loved me. She was the first person to see me as I am. Her seeing me meant that she cut my plaits off when I asked at age six and it meant that she made me a bowtie and cummerbund for my graduation dance at age 16 and it meant that she danced with me and my friends at Pride at age 33. She saw me right into my current existence.

This is what it’s like to have Zanele Muholi take your photograph. It is the experience of being seen. A South African artist, Zanele has been documenting black queer women and transmen in her ongoing series of black and white portraits, Faces and Phases, since 2006. She began the project as a commemoration and a celebration of the lives of the black lesbians that she met in her journeys through the townships of Johannesburg. I met Zanele in 2008 while she was in Toronto studying in the Documentary Media MFA Program at Ryerson University. By then she had expanded the project to include people that she met in her travels from Cape Town to London to Toronto.

Zanele took my photograph on July 28, 2009. She met me at work and we walked down Sherbourne Street and we talked about life and photography and Joburg and Port-of-Spain. Every so often, she stopped me and took another shot with her film-loaded SLR camera. We had become friends and it was quick and casual. Months later, she sent me a single digital image. For a long time, I found it difficult to look at that photo. It was taken two days before a very painful transition in my life. When I looked at that picture, it was almost unbearable to look at the sadness in my eyes. That was all I could see and I knew why it was there. The bathroom mirror had mounted a long and spirited defense but here was undeniable evidence of loss and grief…..Continued