What makes a muse? 5 womxn photographers speak on their most intimate portraiture

We invite five talented photographers to speak on portraiture and muses. South African photographers Anke Loots, Nombuso Bhogolo, Nonzuzo Gxekwa, Liezl Zwarts and Romy Maxine share their best-loved portraits of individuals who they have formed intimate friendships with over the years. These artists share their works and tell stories from a womxn’s perspective, challenging the once-standard gender dynamic of male photographer and female model that resulted and continues to produce sometimes problematic representation of womxn. Each portrait is a powerful example of diverse womxns’ gazes, their unique expressions and a celebration of the characters before their lenses who embody a kaleidoscope of inspiring qualities.

Anke Loots

Who is your muse? Azuli Peeters. How did you meet? It was my first time in Paris. I had just gotten off the bus from the airport where I was supposed to meet a friend but my cellphone roaming didn’t work. There was little me, luggage and all, sitting on the steps of the Palais Garnier in the rain. Serendipitously I spotted her familiar face in a sea of people and needless to say I found my way. I invited her to a party under the Pont Alexandre III bridge that evening and we’ve been friends ever since. How long have you known each other? It’s been three years of mutual companionship, creativity and codependence. What is it is like collaborating with one another? Seamlessly efficient, effortless quality. What would you say is the greatest misconception people have about muses? That they are easy to find. – Anke

We shot this photo on a shoddy Fuji Instax, under a blooming frangipani tree at photographer Pieter Hugo’s home in the summer of 2016. There is a real tenderness and vulnerability in this images that encapsulates how I see this beautiful human.

Romy Maxime

Who is your muse? Eveline Besters. How did you meet? We met through a mutual friend and I knew Eve had something special about her. I had just met her and we went with friends to a lake in Berlin in the summer, within minutes we were all skinny dipping. The picture below was taken within an hour of meeting. She had a natural ease, beauty and joie de vivre. How long have you known each other? Three years. We have met up between Europe and South Africa and taken roadtrips together. Each adventure has ended with natural candid shots of her in her environment, mostly outside in nature. What is it is like collaborating with one another? A lot of fun. She is fearless, beautiful and has no inhibitions.  Do you feel it is important to have more woman behind the camera? I think women photograph women in a different light. We relate to one another in a kindred almost sisterly kind of way, especially when it comes to nudes. – Romy

A photograph from when Eveline and Romy met for the first time in 2014.
A portrait captured on a roadtrip in the Karoo in 2015.
A portrait taken on a roadtrip at twilight in Elandsbay this year, 2017.

Nonzuzo Gxekwa

Who is your muse? Andile Biyana. How did you meet? I met Andile in downtown Joburg while I was walking with a couple of friends. There was something about her striped blouse and pink pants, the way she moved confidently and the sparkle in her eyes. I was intrigued so I walked up to her, told her I liked her look and asked if I could take her picture. She was warm and open and allowed me to shoot her. How long have you known each other? About five years. We have grown close and trust each other. What is it is like collaborating with one another? Working with Andile is exciting. We allow each other the freedom to experiment. Andile’s easy-going personality and her comfort in front of the camera makes it easy for me to ask more from her when we are shooting. What are your thoughts on muses? I really respect them. I feel they bring so much to the shoot and make a picture the picture. – Nonzuzo

This photograph was taken in Andile’s home in 2016. It was inspired by our Xhosa heritage and the conversation around the female body, how we see ourselves in this world obsessed with a particular idea.

Liezl Zwarts

Who is your muse? Caroline Brethenoux. She’s a french choreographer and dancer in New York, where I have lived for the last eight years. How did you meet? I first met her husband at a dinner party. We spoke about my love of photographing dancers and he told me I should definitely meet his wife. He showed me photographs. She had an animalistic yet graceful way of moving that I was drawn to and wanted to explore further. How long have you known each other? We have worked together for six years. From the first shoot we had an intuitive connection. Over time the communication became almost telepathic, I would be thinking something and she would interpret it before I even voiced it. What is it is like collaborating with one another? It’s easy, fluid and always exciting to see the end result. What is a muse? A muse can be anyone who deeply inspires you to create something amazing and authentic to yourself. Do you feel it is important to have more women behind the camera? Absolutely, it has been a male-dominated field for too long. Ultimately, for me, the ideal is to recognise a brilliant photographer, regardless of gender. – Liezl

This image is part of Liezl’s ongoing personal project and was shot in Fort Tilden, Brooklyn in 2015.

This portrait (below), forms part of a series titled Dear Caroline and was shot in studio in New York city in 2012. My focus was on capturing who she is as a dancer. My own interpretation of her. It was published in French publication Forét Vierge Magazine.

Nombuso Bhogolo

Who is your muse? It wouldn’t just be one person and they are more male figures. When did you start photographing these muses? When I started finding my voice in photography in 2014 while living in Hillbrow, Johannesburg. I started to be interested in photographing the spaces around me and a lot of those spaces where male dominated. Men sort of own the spaces but with my camera I wanted to own them, even if it was for a moment. I knew that with an image the moment would last forever. What’s your relationship like with them? It’s developed from me just being that visiting photographer to becoming a close friend and someone they can trust with their problems. Not a therapist; I would prefer to be thought of as a friend who documents. What would you say is the greatest misconception people have about muses? Most of the people I have met think that having a muse is somehow holding on to someone who’s now gone, wanting to continue to keep them as a part of you.

At the time the photograph was taken, I was exploring the concept of space in Johannesburg’s inner city, mainly Hillbrow. And photographing inside of an abandoned building called Mnyama Ndawo (an isiZulu expression for ‘dark space’). This man’s name is Ceejay, and would like to keep information about himself private. – Nombuso

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