Photo Essay: Motau’s moments in time

Nice and Tipsy: Shebeen patrons get ready to leave the watering hole after an enjoyable day drinking
Nice and Tipsy: Shebeen patrons get ready to leave the watering hole after an enjoyable day drinking

In celebration of Women’s Month, we honour the work legendary photographer and former City Press pictures editor Ruth Motau did in 1993.

With hundreds of black and white pictures on the floor, film negatives and picture slides everywhere, it is hard to navigate Ruth Motau’s study, which resembles a storeroom in an art gallery.

The 51-year-old photographer is racing against time to complete her new book project.

“I’m working on my next project and have a deadline to send pictures for my upcoming project,” says Motau, trying to justify the mess on the floor.

But, for a fellow photographer, this feels like being a child in a candy shop, getting an opportunity to go through her wealth of work dating back 30 years.

Born in Meadowlands, Soweto, Motau grew up during the uprisings. She was one of the first black women to be hired as a photographer at the dawn of democracy.

“I was never threatened by all these men,” she says, referring to how she had to compete in a male-dominated space.

She was taught by legendary photographers David Goldblatt, the founder of the Market Photo Workshop, and teacher Victor Matom in Alexandra.

In 1993, she joined the Mail & Guardian under the stewardship of Pulitzer Prize-winner Kevin Carter.

Despite being surrounded by conflict photographers known as the Bang Bang Club at the height of the violence in the townships before democracy, she focused on the arts and documentary photography, capturing hostel dwellers and the struggles of women in prison.

Motau has worked as a pictures editor for the Mail & Guardian, Sowetan and City Press.

Her work has been exhibited in countries including Brazil, China and the US.

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Nice and Tipsy: Shebeen patrons get ready to leave the watering hole after an enjoyable day drinking
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Pay Up: Customers pay for their drinks at the Dobsonville Hostel shebeen
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Cheers: One of the patrons enjoys a drink at Dobsonville Hostel
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Getting Ready: The shebeen queen washes a container used for serving her customers in the Dobsonville Hostel
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Winding Down: A man relaxes in the shebeen
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Happy Moment: A patron blows cigarette smoke while enjoying a drink with others in the Dobsonville Hostel

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