South Africa Special: Julia Gunther
The electrician-turned-photographer talks about her award-winning photo-series, Proud Women of Africa.
An all-female anti-poaching unit dubbed the Black Mambas and the participants in a Miss Lesbian Beauty Contest are just two of the fascinating female narratives unveiled in Julia Gunther's ongoing photo project, Proud Women of Africa.
The Amsterdam-based photographer has spent several years travelling around the continent, from the Balulue Nature Reserve to the townships of Gugulethu and Khayelitsha near Cape Town, in search of women whose stories encapsulate the title. On the surface, Gunther's subjects are a disparate group - Chedino & Family follows a transsexual community in Cape Town while the protagonist in Ruthy Goes To Church is second-in-command of a township church brigade - but a closer look reveals their common thread of bravery in overcoming the daily hardships of poverty, crime and oppressive societal norms.
Currently working on the seventh installment in the series, Gunther talks to shots about changing popular media portrayals of Africa and the allure of the continent.
You previously worked in film production, what prompted the move to photography?
I worked in film as a spark for eight years, which was a great way to learn about the power of light. But after eight years I was getting frustrated that I could not tell my own stories. I was part of a bigger puzzle, someone else’s dream/vision. Then, in 2008, I moved for a year to Cape Town - a place I didn't know and for a job I had never done before. I started working at Egg Films, a production company in the heart of Cape Town, assisting on international commercial shoots throughout South Africa. That’s when I fell in love with South Africa and it’s people. Everywhere around me there were incredible stories that I wanted to document. Rough and painful stories, but that were also beautiful. The pride of the people I met during that year made me decide to focus on Africa and I started telling the stories I find important and seem to be also interesting for others.
Did you originally conceive the idea of Proud Women of Africa [PWOA] as a series, or did it develop on a more piecemeal basis? Can you tell us a bit more about the concept behind it?
As I was shooting Ruthy Goes to Church, I realised that Ruthy had so much more to tell than I could ever hope to convey in the pictures. So I decided to interview her and include her own words in the series. That way you get a real sense of why she is a PWOA. Gradually I met more and more women who were strong and proud. I realised that Africa is built on these women, that they are what holds the continent together. I guess that is when I decided to call the project Proud Women of Africa. It was never planned as a series, but I understood pretty quickly that it would work much better if it was a collection of stories.
I want to show the world how strong these women are, and how, despite their tough lives, they are the opposite of what we in the ‘west’ expect. Through a combination of text, portraits and ‘action’ I feel you get a real sense of what these women are like.
How did making Proud Women of Africa challenge your own preconceptions about the region and its people?
I think I got a much better sense of the incredible resilience of South African women. And I certainly came away with an enormous amount of respect for them. But I don’t think I had any preconceptions.
Out of the whole series, which was the most difficult story to tell?
Philipa’s Story was the most difficult one to tell because I had to tell it without Philipa. She died in February 2012 after battling breast cancer, which later turned into brain cancer. All these years I was by her side, documenting every step she was taking. Losing a friend and at the same time trying to objectively tell a story was very difficult.
How have the women responded to their depictions in PWOA?
It’s been great. I was worried at first, not only because I wasn’t sure they’d like the pictures, but also about how the pictures would change their lives. For some, the pictures meant exposure of their cause, like with the Black Mambas. But with others, exposure meant more risk, more criticism. But every single PWOA has been wonderful. In fact, I’m happy to say that they are using the pictures to firmly establish their true selves, like Chedino, who thanks to the exposure my pictures got her, is now trying to change perceptions about LGBTQ in her own community.
Media depictions of Africa are often negative, which is something that a lot of local creatives – photographers and filmmakers – are seeking to change. Is Proud Women of Africa part of the movement towards a more positive representation?
I think my pictures show a combination of the positive and the negative. These women cannot be one without the other. You can’t have joy without suffering. On the one hand the viewer is told, directly by the women, about their tough lives. On the other hand, the photographs depict proud people, who are not downtrodden, who have not given up. So I think it’s as much about shifting the primarily negative focus on women in Africa to a more realistic one, as it is about trying to create a more positive outlook. I wanted to portray these women the way they want themselves to be seen. An image which the mainstream media is often only marginally interested in.
Do you have any other South Africa-based projects planned for the future?
Absolutely, but they are still in the planning stages, so I don’t want to jinx them just yet! But I will be returning to Africa for PWOA later this year, and hopefully also in early 2017.
For more of Gunther's work, visit juliagunther.com