Not many can tell a story as subtle and nuanced, but simultaneously harrowing as Dahlia Maubane. Having been born in Mafikeng, the photographer moved to Jo’burg in 2004 to pursue a degree in animation and multimedia. Around that time, she picked up her first camera and subsequently fell in love with the medium.
Now, after studying at the Market Photo Workshop, Dahlia has gone on to document some of Johannesburg’s most delicate and compelling narratives through her considered and focused lens. From Diski Queens, which tells the story of an all women football team, to the widely lauded Woza Sisi exploring women working as street hairstylists in Johannesburg CBD, Dahlia’s photography is forever influenced by her daily interactions and observations in the city. Because of this, Dahlia offers incredible access to people and places through her images, all painstakingly conceptualised and framed resulting in a truly arresting and awe-inspiring body of work.
We caught up with Dahlia to discuss her history with photography, her time spent in residency overseas, her process, and what she’s up to next (Hint: Woza Sisi‘s making a comeback!).
Before we get into your work, can you tell us a bit about your history with photography?
I studied Multimedia at the University of Johannesburg. I majored in Animation and specialised in experimental animation exploring the stop-frame technique. At that time I was using a DSLR camera on auto function. I got so curious about this device and imagined the endless possibilities if I understood its technical capabilities. I started researching on institutions that offer short courses in photography, and I found the Market Photo Workshop. After enrolling and going through a couple of lessons, I was quickly drawn into the conceptual and storytelling aspect of the practice.
And how did formally studying photography at Market Photo Workshop influence how you already went about the medium?
I completed the Foundation and Intermediate Courses in photography at Market Photo Workshop. Training included technical, practical, visual literacy and professional practice. Although I had a visual literacy background in art, it helped me to understand the differences when compared to image-making. Processing images in the darkroom was another way of understanding the technicalities of creating an image, from capturing a frame to the final print. Applying critical thinking and understanding how an image is processed helped me create meaningful images.
You’ve done a few international residencies before. How have you found your work to be received in international markets and how does it differ from local markets?
During my residency at the ISBK International Summer Academy in Salzburg, I developed a new body of work based on my ongoing project Resettlement – Passing Housing. I looked at how people occupy and identify with temporary living/working spaces. When I presented the outcomes – the audience included the people I interacted with during this process – the images were well received. The audience engaged with the images. It seemed that investigating and photographing living spaces was an identifiable theme, universally people could relate or were interested in seeing how personalities shape intimate spaces. Lastly, I believe that documentary photography is subjective; there will definitely be critique around the images I choose to present internationally and locally anyway.
Both Woza Sisi and Diski Queens are seemingly small, but very powerful topics. What sparked your interest in these two topics?
Woza Sisi, a photo series exploring women working as street hairstylists in Johannesburg CBD, was inspired by seeing the influx of street hairstylists in downtown Johannesburg, and how they position themselves; how they use and negotiate urban spaces – busy pavements on street corners, trading zones and taxi ranks. I always dealt with the persuasive calling – woza sisi, woza uzobona, woza nice. I then became curious to investigate how the women navigate and shape these spaces just by capturing them with their open-air mobile studio and environment.
Diski Queens is a documentary celebrating exceptional women football players. During my studies, I was involved with women’s football related projects, and co-founded Chest Trap Sports, a media and events company aimed at sustaining women’s football in South Africa. I also used to play football and I was bothered by the lack of interest from most people who supported men’s football and not women using issues around gender and identity as basis. Through this photo project I wanted to explore the women who take part in a male dominated sport irrespective of the lack of support, and provoke a discourse around the effects of gender roles generated by societies and owning ones identity.
In your everyday photography, how many of your images are conceptualised beforehand and how much of them are a result of spontaneously captured moments? Is one method necessarily better than the other?
Many of my images are conceptualised beforehand; I wish I had the guts to walk around openly with my camera to capture spontaneous moments. Mostly, I approach whomever I want to photograph, and that includes me introducing myself and explaining the reason for taking the image, and then only do I capture the image. Whenever I see a moment or scene I want to capture, I have to make sure I walk past it or “engage” with it several times, then only after careful consideration finally take the image, and do so until I’m satisfied with the image. I guess it’s all influenced by my personality, I am quite shy and that’s evident in my images – I have been told.
In terms of documentary photography across Africa, where do you think South Africa situates itself and do you think SA photographers are doing enough to showcase the country’s lesser-known narratives?
I think in terms of documentary photography across Africa, South Africa is definitely one of the leading pioneers in producing talented photographers. For instance, recently at The Bamako Encounters 2015, both Jury Prize winners were from South Africa, and Johannesburg-based photographer Lebohang Kganye’s work was greatly appreciated during the biennale. That gave me confidence that we as SA photographers are indeed trying to populate our narratives. I was trained to develop content that I can relate with and investigate a narrative that is personal. I think that is when one produces their best.
How do you navigate the line between documentary photography and fine art photography, and how easily do the two come together?
I think that documentary photography and fine art photography are classified by how the viewer deciphers the image presented. Documentary photography is believed to be the purist of genre, but is it really? I choose my subject, I decide on the composition to best represent my subject, I crop out what I feel is unnecessary just to communicate what I want to say about the subject. Already that alters the “reality”. With fine art photography, I would create the context and place my subject in a particular way to emphasise what I am trying to communicate. Its difficult to show one’s truth in one image, hence I personally believe that documentary photography is a tool I use to communicate a story by capturing the subject/s relating to it, whilst fine art photograph is read more as an artwork, and can stand alone in that instance. That is how I navigate between the two genres.
In terms of local and international photographers, who do you draw inspiration from?
I draw inspiration from different photographers for different reasons. I am intrigued by Pieter Hugo’s portraits; the bold characters or subjects he captures and how he positions them, be it in constructed movie sets, explosive backgrounds or intimate spaces. Also, I admire Zanele Muholi, on being a visual activist and choosing to photograph black lesbians who are socially and culturally marginalised by society. Through her portraits it is evident that she has reclaimed a space for black females and will continue doing so, showcasing an ideal model of owning your subject matter and always enhancing what you are passionate about as a photographer.
Tell us a bit about your ongoing project Resettlement – Passing Housing and how you managed to capture such intimate stories and narratives in such confined locations.
Resettlement – Passing Housing is a comparative photographic study exploring living spaces of student tenants in communes around Brixton, Johannesburg. The ongoing project consists of environmental portraits of different students within their personal spaces. There is a vast range of rooms suited for one’s socio-economic means, because of the different students residing from a wide variety of backgrounds, reflecting our society and world. During my varsity years, I was a tenant at the same commune for four years and I noticed a gradual change in how I moulded my personal space, by positioning objects. I managed to create a house in one room by forming invisible walls subdividing the space. I wanted to explore the diverse ways different students assemble personal spaces considering factors such as socio-economic and cultural background and personalities; investigating how unfamiliar people share and occupy a space. This project communicates the identities of the different students that live in each space. I had access to many students and most of them allowed me to capture their personal spaces. Most of them were not reluctant once I showed them images I had taken previously. They were welcoming.
What lies ahead for you? Any upcoming projects you’re particularly excited about?
Currently, I am working on expanding Woza Sisi. I want to explore other mediums. I have already created drawings and a short animated experimental film. I want to produce an open-air exhibition exploring women street hairstylists in my hometown, Mafikeng. Through this project I will also design and issue Woza Sisi branded business cards to the participating street hairstylists for them to market themselves and produce the 3rd edition zine publication on the body of work. I am excited to be introducing photography as a visual tool to the general public in Mafikeng by activating this open-air exhibition. The whole plan is to produce comprehensive content regarding women street hairstylists.
Find more by Dahlia on her Tumblr.
More Africa Month on 10and5.