An eye on photography

2012-02-10 07:38

It was American thinker and writer Susan Sontag who advanced the treatise that “photography is essentially an act of non-intervention”.

She explained that this particular form of image-making allows for a unique way of participation in events without obviously interfering in them.

But in the current photographic exhibition of Sabelo Mlangeni’s work, now on at the Stevenson Gallery in Braamfontein, the photographer’s presence is more than apparent.

The pictures are almost entirely suggestive of his intervention.

However, this fact is not without qualification because the subjects and the suggested gaze that directs the camera are all aware of their roles.

Mlangeni’s show comprises two bodies of work. First is work gathered under the heading of Black Men in Dress.

They are made up of a series of portraits photographed at the Johannesburg and Soweto Pride, a yearly event for the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Intersex (LGBTI) community. Second, there’s a set of pictures called Iimbali.

This series of photographs were shot at reed dances in KwaZulu-Natal and Swaziland.

In a different passage in On Photography, Sontag invokes observations famously made by Feuerbach in the preface to the second edition to The Essence of Christianity.

There Feuerbach observes that our era in human history, “prefers the image to the thing, the copy to the original, the representation to reality, appearance to being – while being aware of doing just that”.

So then in bringing this observation to bear on Mlangeni’s images of Black Men in Dress, one discovers a host of questions.

Are these representations of homosexual men performing their own identities, or are these representations of men role-playing as women? Or even homosexual men acting as female?

A further stream of wonder also relates to whether the priority here should be the photographs as framed in the gallery or the spectacle they represent.

This is precisely because the event at which Mlangeni culled these images is fundamentally a space of ideological contest.

Johannesburg and Soweto Pride are organised to highlight the tormented plight of gays and lesbians in our society.

Hence the activist vignette of this body of work is arguably central to how it is read.
It would appear though that this photographer also harbours aesthetic intentions.

His subjects have also all responded well to this particular requirement to pose. Hence their role is transformed into that of artist’s model and not just that of passive objects of the documenting gaze.

The show’s accompanying curatorial notes also inform us that all the images are hand-printed silver gelatine prints.

Beyond acquiring a beautiful creamy sheen, they also appeal to an archival aesthetic, something akin to historical documentary photographer.

This effect comes to full fruition in the Iimbali series. The images, instead of celebrating the spectacle of the reed dance, go behind the scenes. Mlangeni shows us maidens preparing for their appearance at the yearly event.

The photographer cuts beyond the sometimes hypersexualised and exotic mythology of females who participate in this ritual. However, instead of falling into the cliches of the strong African womanhood, these images also explore their subject’s vulnerability.

Rarely facing fully to the front, they are always shot from the side, only returning a partial gaze.

This fact of the pictures betrays the camera’s unfamiliar intrusion into this apparently sacred space. So in this instance, Mlangeni’s work tries to test the limits of Sontag’s ­non-intervention nature of his chosen medium.

» Black Men in Dress and Iimbali are showing at the Stevenson Gallery in Braamfontein until February 24. For more images, visit

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