"I don't have to wait for a white photographer or a non-local NGO to come and tell my stories."
"Neo Ramalope, 2017" and photo by Boitumelo Nkopane. Photo courtesy of artist and No Man's Art Gallery
Lerato Dumse knows the hardships of growing up as a black lesbian in South Africa all too well. "You face the triple discrimination based on race, gender and sexuality," the 29-year-old journalist and photographer explains.
Dumse is from the KwaThema township in east Johannesburg. In 2008, she started documenting and taking photos of her life in South Africa as a way to speak out and commemorate moments of pride and loss in her community. In fact, Pride and Loss is the title that Dumse and six of her peers chose for a recent exhibition of their work in Amsterdam at No Man's Art Gallery during the city's Pride Week.
"Loss relates to burying our peers who are brutally and unnecessarily killed because of their sexuality," Dumse says, "[and] also looking at other leaders and members of the LGBTI community who have died after being sick. This was our way of remembering them."
Though the South African constitution has protected LGBTQ rights for 20 years, and legalized same sex marriage in 2006, the actual experience of LGBTQ people tells a different story. According to a 2016 survey, 41 percent knew of someone who had been killed because of their gender identity or sexual orientation. Gay women also live in fear of corrective rape, the heinous practice of assaulting lesbians to 'cure' them of their homosexuality—and some gay men and transgender women have also been targeted too.
Dumse sees her work in photography as reclaiming her citizenship as a queer South African woman. Along with other young writers and photographers who belong to the collective Inkanyiso, she shoots Pride parades, funerals, marches, church services and other LGBTQ events across the country.
Artist Lebogang Mashifane, a 28 year old from KwaThema, is also a member of Inkanyiso. "Photography is important to me because of the background that I come from, the township," she explains. "A camera is a foreign, feared and respected machine.
"But to be a lens that portrays the township, the lifestyle, the surroundings etc, is very vital because in that way, as a township citizen, I don't have to wait for a white photographer or a non-local NGO to come and tell my stories."
She adds, "When we take pride in who we are as black lesbians, we lose family because they consider homosexuality as a sin, abomination or un-African. We stand [facing] great risk from the handlers who are our brothers, in the form of 'curative' or 'corrective rape' or hate crime."
Mashifane believes testimony is paramount to face the challenges in their community and beyond, and photographs are a way to articulate their existence, solidarity, and resistance. "I wish I could change the mind with my photography," she says. "Tap into the part of the mind that is damaged and get to undo, unlearn and heal the victimized mind of the human race."