Mara Mbele – The graduate using photography as a tool for activism

Mara Mbele is a Wits graduate, activist and freelance photographer. The Joburg creative views her degree — a Bachelor of Arts in History of Art, Media Studies and Politics —  as an opportunity to expand her understanding of reality and society through academic frameworks. Her student work focused heavily on the #FeesMustFall student movement, as well as documenting the everyday reality of South Africans.

The combination of the theoretical framework she got from her degree, and the on-the-ground experience that photographing the movement gave her, has helped Mara refine her understanding of the socio-economic and political strife in South Africa.

Mara’s work on #FeesMustFall

Tell us about some of the themes and ideas you’ve been exploring with your work?
As a photographer, I strive to document the dynamic socioe-conomic and political conditions in South African protests, social life and specific sites located in Joburg’s urban spaces. The inspiration for my images is continuously fuelled by my desire to represent counter-narratives and counter-lifestyles against the mainstream representation. Additionally, through photography, I navigate and narrate my experience as a WoC (womxn of colour) in post-apartheid South Africa. The majority of my coursework focused on critical social theory, feminist and queer studies, postmodernist concepts, as well as postcolonial critiques of society.

You also do freelance creative work. Has your degree affected your art?
Seeing as my coursework didn’t involve much practical work, I applied theoretical understandings and concepts towards understanding the academic dimension of my photographs. Before attending university, my images predominantly comprised of decaying buildings and socio-economically disenfranchised people, in the Joburg city centre. While at uni, I used photography as a tool for activism. Post-apartheid South Africa is a mess and now I have theory and academic concepts, alongside lived-experience, to back it up.

You have Fees Must Fall photobook coming out that is related to your History of Art course. What inspired you to pick your topic?
As a formal assessment for the 2nd term in History of Art, we were given the task to create a photobook that critically employed the theoretical dimensions and practice of photography as a series of “relationships” in public. Naturally, I felt compelled to compile a photobook on Wits Fees Must Fall, as a student activist and photographer.

The photo book, titled Trigger Warning, facilitated the possibilities of my self-representation (protester and photographer), as a means to advocate for the students’ agency and visibility, as well as offer a counter-narrative to the homogenous violent nature of protests in the mainstream media. The photobook seeks to navigate the specific relationship between student protesters amongst themselves, as well as the collision between protesters and police in terms of “comradeship,” “trauma” and “brutality”.
What excites you most about the South African creative industry?
You can put anything on a tote bag. jk. I admire the dynamic and transformative nature of the creative and artistic landscape. The constantly growing visibility of different cultures and inclusivity of gender and sexuality is iconic. South Africans are truly iconic.

Where do you see yourself in 10 years time?
My face on your tote bag.

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