A project by photojournalist, Corinna Kern

German-born, South-Africa based photojournalist Corinna Kern is fascinated by alternative, non-conformist lifestyles. Her projects have ranged from London’s underground rave scene to hoarders and squatters and now to the lives of transgender South African women. While working with South African NGO S.H.E. (Social Health and Empowerment Feminist Collective of Transgender and Intersex Women of Africa), Kern explored the conflict between tradition and liberalism in South Africa by turning her lens on the intimate day-to-day experiences of four South African women who challenge traditional modes of gender expression. Ayiba spoke to Kern about her experiences as a photographer and how her subjects navigate the fluidity and complexity of gender expression.

How did the idea for “Mama Africa” arise?

For many years I have been fascinated by non-conforming gender and gender expression. Coming from a background in which people take their gender and sexual orientation for granted, I have been looking to explore the realities of LGBTI people subjected to discrimination and violence, which is particularly prevalent in communities of color.

Initially I was considering going to places like Uganda where a new anti-gay bill was passed at the end of 2013, rendering repeated homosexual acts punishable by life imprisonment. However, when I learned about the challenges LGBTI people face in liberal South Africa, despite a constitution being one of the most progressive in the world, this topic became more interesting and relevant to me.

How did you become involved with NGO called S.H.E., Social, Health, and Empowerment Feminist Collective of Transgender and Intersex Women of Africa?

I came across the NGO S.H.E. during my research on transgenderism in South Africa. When I got in contact with the director she was very welcoming and open-minded for a collaboration. At that time S.H.E. was looking to host the second annual “Miss Trans Diva” event for transgender women of the Eastern Cape, for which they were planning to exhibit photographs alongside a human rights narrative. That was something that I, as a photographer, could help them with.

When I first started my project “Mama Africa,” I spent ten days meeting and documenting a variety of transgender women that S.H.E. introduced me to and whose portraits were later exhibited at “Miss Trans Diva.” For my final body of work I decided to focus on only a few individuals from very different backgrounds. During an intense period of another four weeks, I spent almost every day following at least one of them around, enabling me to document their lives in an intimate way.

An interesting aspect for me was that S.H.E. operates in the Eastern Cape of South Africa, an area that is particularly prone to hetero-patriarchal beliefs.

Which of the women you photographed were you most drawn to / fascinated by?

Every transgender woman I photographed was interesting in their own special way, with their own eye-opening stories so different from each other that it would be hard to choose. With regards to the background of my documentary, I was intrigued by “Mama Africa,” the person that my project is named after. Coming from a rural area where traditional gender roles shape people’s lives, Mama Africa fully complies to the role of women whose main duties are cleaning, cooking, fetching water, collecting firewood, and looking after the children. It was interesting to see how the ambiguity and fluidity of gender manifests in a very traditional African context based on gender binary.

What is life like for transgender people in South Africa? How does it differ from other countries in Africa, like Uganda, for example?

South Africa is a challenging and often dangerous place for transgender people. Especially in townships and rural communities, homosexuality and transgenderism are afflicted with strong social stigma. The hetero-patriarchal notions entrenched in African culture declare nonconforming gender expression “un-African,” often forcing individuals to perform their gender according to society’s standards.

Gender-based violence is a prevalent phenomenon that not only affects transgender people, but LGBTI communities in general. Cases often remain unreported due to the victims’ fears of disclosing their gender to the police, which potentially renders them open to secondary victimization via institutionalized homophobia. Many transgender women I interviewed experienced discrimination at police stations resulting in their cases not being taken on or pursued. Similar barriers of stigma and abusive behavior apply to health care services as well as access to education, employment, and housing. This often leads to a problematic socio-economic situation in that sex work or transactional sex are common consequences, enabling transgender women to remain resilient in the context of poverty. Last but not least, the rejection by their own family, friends, and communities is a big, if not the biggest, challenge for transgender people, especially within the context of a collectivist and family-oriented culture. It often places individuals with the decision of either complying with their culture or their gender identity – two essential aspects shaping one’s life and overall identity, yet often still incompatible in democratic South Africa.

The main difference to other countries like Uganda is South Africa’s liberal constitution – one of the most liberal in the world in terms of LGBTI rights, outlawing discrimination on the grounds of gender, sex, or sexual orientation while legalizing same-sex marriages. In most other African countries homosexuality is illegalized and often punishable by lengthy prison sentences. Uganda’s laws originally included a death penalty for homosexual acts that was later replaced by life imprisonment. Living out a nonconforming gender identity does not only put individuals under threat of political persecution but also in fear for their lives.

Nevertheless, despite the harsh realities for many transgender people in South Africa, I met many individuals that were fully accepted within their families and communities. That was a positive and encouraging surprise and will hopefully pave the way for transgender people’s realities in South Africa.

NAHOON, EAST LONDON, SOUTH AFRICA - OCTOBER 07, 2014: Being exhausted after having played rugby with a group of strangers on the beach, transgender women Tulie Naomi Vili (C), 24, and Adida Austin Mzukwa (R), 19, and their gay friend Anathi James (L), 18, walk back to the car October 07, 2014 in Nahoon, East London, South Africa.

NAHOON, EAST LONDON, SOUTH AFRICA – OCTOBER 07, 2014: Being exhausted after having played rugby with a group of strangers on the beach, transgender women Tulie Naomi Vili (C), 24, and Adida Austin Mzukwa (R), 19, and their gay friend Anathi James (L), 18, walk back to the car October 07, 2014 in Nahoon, East London, South Africa.

What’s the main challenge you’ve faced as a German photojournalist working in South Africa?

The primary challenge has been the safety issues involved in my work as a photojournalist. Coming from Europe where I was used to working independently and without constraints, I often feel very restricted in South Africa as I cannot just go out wherever and whenever I want, especially carrying equipment. Particularly in townships and rural areas that my project focuses on, crime rates are high and as a white person I stand out. Hence, I make sure that someone living in the area I photograph accompanies me. As I prefer to have as few people as possible accompanying me in order to keep all situations as real and uninfluenced as possible, I usually stick to the individuals that I photograph. We make sure that we stay in the communities in which the individuals are widely accepted.

Moreover, language barriers are a challenge since people in the rural areas and townships speak Xhosa and many of them little English. Especially when people in communities are talking amongst themselves I often could not understand their conversations, which made it difficult for me to integrate.

Did you form any relationships with the women you photographed? 

When I pursue personal projects, I like to fully immerse myself in these, hence I often end up spending a lot of time with the individuals I photograph and relate to them in a non-judgmental way and on a friendship-level. That approach feels most natural to me and complies with the intimate nature of my projects. With many of the people I am still in contact, especially the ones that I documented for my final body of work.

Can journalists be activists? How so? Do you see yourself in this light?

In the first place I envision myself as a photojournalist rather than an activist since I am aiming to produce a body of work that captures African transgender people’s lives in all its facets. Nevertheless, in this instance the line between journalism and activism gets blurred as my project has a personal nature to it with the intention of shifting people’s mindsets away from Africa’s heteronormativity towards a contemporary view on African gender identity. Thereby I intend my work to advocate for transgenderism as a human right regardless of nationality or background. However, at this point in time, I do not expect it to enact a direct change towards the status quo, which would then render it activism. I do hope, though, that at some stage my work may operate as visual activism. For example, I have been considering exhibitions that comprise a dialogue and an audience engagement by inviting activists as well as the photographed individuals to speak about their experiences.

What advantages does a photojournalist have over a print journalist? 

Photos are a universal language with a strong potential to act as a cultural bridge and visual education. I believe that a good picture can captivate someone’s attention and stir empathy in a very powerful way, hence, can be a first catalyst towards social change.

What projects are you currently working on?

I am currently working on several topics within South Africa that I will not reveal yet. Nevertheless, one of them is a continuation of my project “Mama Africa,” which aims to highlight the discrepancy between South Africa’s official acceptance of transgenderism, and the unofficial reality shaped by discrimination and persecution, hence goes beyond my current body of work. I am still looking for transgender individuals throughout Southern Africa that are interested in joining my project and kindly invite them to get in contact with me. People from other parts of Africa are also very welcome to get in touch. (Corinna@foto-kern.com).

Learn more about Corinna’s work by visiting her Lensculture and  Getty Images Reportage profiles.

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