“With my photographs, I aim to convey gender as an ambiguous and fluid concept opposing the traditional gender binary.”
Corinna Kern, a German-born photographer now living in South Africa is one of the recipients of the Reportage Emerging Talent Awards. Her candid images give intimate insight into peoples’ lives on the fringes of society.
You’re currently working on a story about transgender women in South Africa. What sparked your interest in this topic and what do you hope your photographs will convey about the transgender experience in this country?
I have been interested in non-conforming gender and gender expression for many years. Coming from a background in which people take their gender and sexual orientation for granted, I have been looking to explore the realities of LGBTI people subjected to discrimination and violence, which is particularly prevalent in communities of color.
Initially I was considering going to places like Uganda where a new anti-gay bill was passed end of 2013, rendering repeated homosexual acts punishable by life imprisonment. However, when I learned about the challenges LGBTI people are facing in liberal South Africa, despite a constitution being one of the most progressive in the world, this topic became more interesting and relevant to me.
Institutionalized homophobia and gender-based violence are common phenomenon contradicting a constitution that outlaws discrimination based on gender, sex or sexual orientation while legalizing same-sex marriages. Especially in townships and rural areas individuals are often forced to perform their gender according to the heteropatriarchal notions entrenched in African culture. With my photographs, I aim to convey gender as an ambiguous and fluid concept opposing the traditional gender binary. By contravening stereotypical gender roles and expressions I intend to challenge the heteropatriarchal and prejudiced notions on gender, inspiring a shift towards an open-minded view on what African gender identity can be as opposed to what society demands it to be.
By sharing individuals’ experiences, I intend to raise awareness about the discrepancy between South Africa’s official acceptance of transgenderism and the unofficial reality shaped by discrimination and persecution. So far I have been working together with a NGO called S.H.E. (Social, Health And Empowerment Feminist Collective Of Transgender And Intersex Women Of Africa) that operates in East London.
Image from the series ‘A Place Called Home,’ for which Corinna joined a community of squatters in London.
“When people in communities are talking amongst themselves I often do not understand their conversations, which makes it difficult for me to integrate.”
When did you arrive in South Africa and how have you found working there as a journalist, compared to England, where you studied, or Germany, your home country? What have been the primary challenges in working on your transgender story?
When I arrived in South Africa end of May 2014, the primary challenge until now has been the safety issues involved in my work as a photojournalist. Coming from Europe where I was used to work independently and without constraints, I often feel very restricted in South Africa as I cannot just go out wherever and whenever I want, especially since carrying equipment. Particularly in townships and rural areas that my project focuses on, crime rates are high and as a white person I am standing out.
Hence, I make sure that someone living in the area I photograph accompanies me. As I prefer to have as few people as possible accompanying me in order to keep all situations as real and uninfluenced as possible, I usually stick to the individuals that I photograph.
At first glance it may appear a bit worrying walking as a white person together with a transgender person through a township. However, we make sure that we stay in the communities in which the individuals are widely accepted. Moreover, language barriers are a challenge since in the rural areas and townships people speak Xhosa and many of them little English. Especially when people in communities are talking amongst themselves I often do not understand their conversations, which makes it difficult for me to integrate.
George Fowler, 72, who is affected by hoarding. George collects all sorts of items from sidewalks and dustbins hoping that they find a better purpose than perishing in landfills. After 33 years of living in the same place, the accumulation of clutter got to a state that his four-bedroom house is barely accessible.
“I intend my work to advocate transgenderism as a human right regardless of nationality or background.”
In making this work, do you envision yourself more as a journalist or an activist? How would you define that distinction in this instance?
I envision myself foremost as a photojournalist and documentary photographer aiming to produce a body of work that captures African transgender people’s lives in all its facets. Nevertheless, in this instance the line between journalism and activism gets blurred as my project has a personal nature to it with the intention of making transgenderism accessible to people who are unfamiliar with it, as well as shifting people’s mindsets away from Africa’s heteronormativity towards a contemporary view on African gender identity. Thereby I intend my work to advocate transgenderism as a human right regardless of nationality or background.
However, at this point in time, I do not expect it to enact direct change of the status quo, which would then render it activism. I do hope though that at some stage my work may operate as visual activism. For example I have been considering exhibitions that comprise a dialogue and audience engagement by inviting activists as well as the photographed individuals to speak about their experiences.
At what age did you take an interest in photography and what inspired you to try to pursue photojournalism as a profession?
I started becoming interested in photography after my A-levels at the age of 19. However, at that point of time it was a sporadic hobby as well as part of my first studies of Media Technology. Only after my degree, at the age of 23, it became my major field of interest when I started to engage in portrait photography.
In 2012, on my search to take my photographic skills while looking to live in another country for a while, I found the Masters in Photojournalism at the University of Westminster in London. During the course I realized that photojournalism and documentary photography is my medium of art and a perfect profession for me, as it fulfills my desire to explore something new, such as alternative lifestyles or people living on the fringes of society.
My projects motivate me to gain access to unique and unusual parts of life, and in return, experiencing these first-hand allows me to capture intimate and extraordinary shots. I like the way that these two aspects – immersing myself in a lifestyle and at the same time documenting it – cohere and reinforce each other.
Transgender woman Loloa Lanzibe, 24, lying on her bed while being dressed in traditional Xhosa women’s clothing. From Corinna Kern’s forthcoming project on transgenderism in South Africa.
“It is the contrast between constitutional progression and traditional beliefs that intrigues me.”
Who are some photographers who have most inspired you?
Mike Brodie’s documentary “A Period of Juvenile Prosperity” has been an inspiration for me.
As a participant of an American subculture traveling as stowaways on freight trains through the country, he captured intimate moments of this non-conformist lifestyle for three years. His photographs show an authenticity that would not have been possible without him being part of the community. This fascinated me and inspired the choice of my personal long-term projects and my way of approaching them.
On the one hand, it motivated me to choose topics that I strongly relate to personally, allowing me to fully engage with them. On the other hand, it made me pursue access to topics where people would not question my presence as a photographer or feel intimidated.
Moreover, Ryan McGinley’s work, even though staged, inspired me by visually embodying intimacy and freedom in a way that I would strive to acquire in a documentary, non-staged context.
What drew you to working as a journalist in South Africa? What are some other topics that have most captured your interest since you arrived there?
Through my research on LGBTI issues on the African continent, I realized that South Africa is an interesting country to work in.
It is the contrast between constitutional progression and traditional beliefs that intrigues me. I feel that this discrepancy is largely underrepresented through the media and especially through photography. Moreover, I have been dealing with alternative and non-conformist lifestyles within my previous projects and was looking to shift my focus to controversial issues concerned with human rights.
I like the fact that my current project allows me to combine these two aspects by giving insight into people’s lives while addressing human rights issues.
Another topic that sparked my interest is South Africa’s traditional healers, called Sangomas, being recognized doctors that are consulted by approximately 60% of the South African population. Moreover, rhino poaching and canned trophy hunting are interesting subjects to me and relevant issues for South Africa.See more of Corrina’s work on the Reportage website.