So, you recently returned from the Gay Games held in Cologne. You take any good photographs?
(Laughs) Yeah, yeah... I was one of like 10 African photographers which was pretty wow!
Will you be showing these photos?
Not just yet. I’m still thinking about it. I would like to possibly use it for fundraising for my soccer club.
Your soccer club?
Yes, in 2008 I started a football club called Thokozani Football Club in Durban.
Are they a good team?
Yes, they’re registered with the Absa Women’s League. They’re not a fly-by-night.
Why start a soccer club?
Well, because I come from that area and development is really poor. I wanted to give something back to that community.
At the artists’ talk [with Anton Kannemeyer and Glenn Ligon at the Michael Stevenson Gallery, held as part of the This Is Our Time group show], a member of the audience challenged you by saying that by showing in galleries you are not giving these communities access to your work. Do you get a lot of this kind of criticism?
I was actually glad that guy mentioned that, because so many people don’t say what they’re really thinking. I do a lot of outreach work, like the photo workshops – it’s just that hardly anyone knows about it because I don’t feel the need to be telling everyone. For a lot of people art is complicated and you really need to feel you have an understanding of it before you’d want to step into a gallery. I remember telling him that it was a great pity that there were no galleries in townships. But, then again, people are dealing with bread and butter issues and I can’t change people’s priorities for them. If, for example, you’re a 16-year-old girl in the townships and you have very little education, what are your priorities? Finding a job or going to visit a gallery? Also, with the subject matter of my work, how many people are really willing to come into a space and absorb that kind of information or allow themselves to be confronted by it? I feel I have mobilised people, especially lesbians, who would never ordinarily frequent galleries, to see shows – even if it is just the shows in which they or their friends are captured. I often had to pay for their transport myself – and I am not the government! (Laughs)
A young gallerist recently told me, and not in a disparaging way either, that your work was not art but rather activism.
Yes, my work is activism but the medium I work with – photography – makes it art. It really depends on the viewer, what they bring with them and how they choose to engage with it.
So the book Faces and Phases (Prestel) has just been released. You excited about it?
I am so excited. For me, it’s like passing Matric and seeing your name in the paper (laughs). It’s been four years since [the first monograph] Only Half the Picture.
Why the long wait?
Well, where do you get money from to produce books like this? It’s really hard. I am just so happy that Prestel [the publishers] came on board to help me realise this dream... of passing my matric (laughs). It’s very exciting. (Pause) Though for my family it’s not really that impressive.
Why not? They’re not proud of you being a respected photographer and getting to show your work all over the world?
Yes, they’re happy for me, but to them it’s not work. Work is nine to five; it’s benefits such as pension and medical aid. When I show in Brazil later this month [as part of the São Paulo Biennale] it will be a year since my mom passed away. If you tell my sisters “Zanele’s going to show in Brazil’, they’ll be like “where the fuck is Brazil?” You know what I’m saying? Once again, it’s just about people having different priorities. I don’t come from any posh space.
Speaking of Sao Paulo, you must be looking forward to having Faces and Phases shown there.
I’ll be showing next to big names such as Nan Goldin and David Goldblatt and it’s an inter-generational show which is tight! (Pause) Maybe it would be a dream come true for other photographers, but for me it’s ok.
(Laughs) Oh, “it’s ok” is it?
Well, yeah, without wanting to sound pompous. It’s cool, (laughs) but, really, life would go on without it... you know what I mean?
What would you say to those detractors who say there is very little longevity with your chosen subject matter? That there are only so many black lesbians one could photograph?
Well, it’s beyond just capturing the lives of lesbians for me. I am also shooting transsexuals and am hoping to challenge the way, even as lesbians, we perceive transsexual men, just as, as black people, we perceive difference in others. I am also working on a series called Massa and Mina(h) which draws on my mother’s life as a domestic worker and in which I draw parallels between this and my romantic relationship with a white women. While I was in Spain recently I also shoot a lot of landscapes because they’re so representative of us ... even when we’re not present.
What else have you been working on?
I’ve just finished a documentary, called Difficult Love, which should be screened sometime next year.
What’s it about?
It’s about my life as Zanele: the work I do, the women I’ve slept with, my family. So often as artists – especially queer artists - we function outside of our families. When we present ourselves to the world, very little about our family is ever said. I thought it was very important to include this aspect of myself in the film.
One of your strengths as a photographer, I find, is the way one feels an almost tangible sense of connection between you and the lesbian women you photograph (I won’t use the word ‘subjects’ because I know how much you hate that). But for me, when I look at your portraits of gay men, I feel a great disconnect between you and them. The intimacy isn’t there... just distance. Would you agree with this?
(Pause) No, I wouldn’t. The gay couples I shot I did not really have a chance to bond with personally. I would definitely not hesitate to shoot more of these portraits... I am not the only one capable of taking photographs like these... I sometimes wish someone could meet me halfway and start doing it too. Though I know it’s an expensive thing to be producing photographs. No, I wouldn’t say there was a distance there.
What I noticed about the portraits in Faces and Phases was that, aside from two or three, all the women you photograph stare directly into the camera. Was this deliberate on your part to create the sense of pride - or defiance even?
No, not at all. People do their own thing.... they’re just being themselves. I just try to keep it as natural as possible and let them do their thing.
The monograph, Faces and Phases, is available at Michael Stevenson Gallery (+27 (0)21 462 1500) or through Prestel. The São Paulo Biennale runs from 25 September to 12 December 2010.