A few years back, Justin Dingwall was commissioned to photograph a model by the name of Thando Hopa who was born with an inherited de-pigmentation of the skin, otherwise known as albinism. The Johannesburg-based photographer would later work with Thando again, as well as with model Sanele Xaba to expand their photo sessions into a complete series – Albus.
The body of work, which comprises over 40 images of different models and a number of styles, explores the aesthetics of albinism in contrast to idealised perceptions of beauty. Over the next five months, Albus will be exhibited around the world, including an exhibition at the Barnard Gallery in Cape Town this month.
We caught up with Justin to discuss the origins and evolutions of the series, his upcoming international exhibitions, and what he hopes to achieve with Albus.
Albus has been in the works for some time now. How did the idea for the photo series initially come together?
I was first commissioned by Thando Hopa’s publicist to create a portfolio for publicity purposes. As soon as I met her I knew I wanted to create something with her. I began to create a body of work with the aim to reflect her beauty and show people what I had seen. Thando’s inner strength and drive are very inspiring and it made me want to go more in depth about how she, and many others are perceived by society. I saw beauty where some do not, and in this way I hoped to affect preconceived ideas about the idea of beauty. I also felt that by doing this, awareness could be raised about this issue, which I feel is a way forward to a new and more open societal discourse and perception. I hope for my work to be a part of that step.
How has the series changed and taken shape over the years?
The majority of projects that I create are mostly long term processes that tend to focus on a certain topic that I investigate quite deeply. As I learned more about albinism, the more I felt it was important to share this work and create awareness through art. Since I began this project, it has opened me up to things that I was not fully aware of – which made me realise that awareness is the only way forward.
I originally began working on the project with Thando Hopa, but I felt that there was still an untold story that I wanted to tell from the male perspective.
So at the beginning of 2014 I started to work with Sanele Xaba. He is a true professional and he is up for anything! Many of the images were challenging from a model’s perspective but he was always keen. He would also hold poses for long stretches at a time while I worked, as I placed elements and created lighting. I have the utmost respect for Sanele, and his strength of character also inspired me to continue with the work.
We have built a relationship based on trust, which is very important to me in all my projects. Not only does Sanele’s outer beauty reflect in the works, but his inner strength is also revealed.
As the project progressed, you will also start to notice in the newer works that I use elements such as butterflies, snakes and water. These symbolise ideas of metamorphosis, rebirth and fluidity to reveal ever changing perceptions.
As a white photographer, what’s the interest in photographing South African individuals with albinism?
As a South African living in a country where perceived differences are so prominent, it is a part of who I am as a person and an artist. Especially living in the city of Johannesburg where there is so much diversity, my inspiration comes from life around me. There is beauty in difference, and I hope through my work to inspire people to embrace this difference and reinterpret their ideals of beauty as well as humanity.
You’ll be exhibiting internationally in the upcoming months. How do you think international audiences will take to your work?
Albinism is an issue that is rarely discussed, and has only recently become part of our discourse. In the fashion industry albinism is usually viewed as negative (with models not fitting into the ideals of conventional beauty) or these models are viewed as a sought after “oddity” or trend. However, with a recent rise in awareness through American models like Shaun Ross, this issue has moved into the light, and differences such as these are gradually becoming included, and (hopefully) accepted. Fashion is one way of introducing and paving the way for new ideas.
In African countries, people with albinism are especially discriminated against and ostracised because of their skin tone, but this occurs as well as in other parts of the world. One of the reasons is that it is believed that albinism brings bad luck, and this causes fear and distrust towards people with albinism. I hope that when anyone who views the work that they do it with open eyes and allow the work to affect them on a very personal level.
Looking forward, what’s the goal for a series like this? What do you hope Albus achieves in the long run?
My intention is for the images to become a celebration of beauty in difference. As I continue to emphasise: the images are not about race or fashion, but about perception, and what humanity subjectively perceives as beautiful. I want my work to resonate with humanity and make people question societal norms about what is beautiful. To me diversity is what makes humanity interesting and beautiful.
My intention is to create awareness and I aim to affect the viewers’ perspective, not only about albinism but about preconceived structural norms. I hope for Albus to continue to move world-wide in this aim.
Catch Albus at Cape Town’s Barnard Gallery from Tuesday 23 August 2016 – Sunday 11 October 2016.
Photographer: Justin Dingwall // Models: Sanele Xaba, Thando Hopa // Makeup: Lyn Kennedy, Renton Wade, Rain Taiber, Lindsay Swart // Stylist: Jess Lupton, Pierre du Plessis // Assistant: Spencer Jones, Gabriel Louw // Flowers: Evegenia Poplett