Consider how crushing it would be to look at the art, films and TV around you, and see not a single person whose story echoes your own, on whose experience you might draw.
Zanele Muholi, though, wasn’t crushed. Instead, the South African “visual activist”, whose photographs are now on display at Tate Modern, met the omission eyeball to eyeball, then set out to correct it.
Since 2003, Muholi, who is 48 and uses the pronoun “they”, has worked hard to create a tangible history describing the lives of Black lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, queer and intersex communities in South Africa, of which Muholi themself is part. They were greatly inspired by the no-holds-barred photography of Nan Goldin, who turned her lens on her circle of drug-taking, drag-wearing friends in Eighties New York.
Faces and bodies haunt this show, acknowledging the troubled relationship that South Africa has historically had with the depiction of its people. (It was almost always the settler elite photographing a colonised subject.) That Muholi is not an outsider is therefore crucial, as is their insistence on the term “participant” rather than “subject”, and that each photograph should be collaborative: the upshot of a sustained relationship or, at the very least, repeated meetings.
We see the outcome of that in the very first room: a trio of pictures titled ZaVa I, III and IV(2013), which show Muholi with some of their “collaborators”. Two were taken with vaseline smeared over the lens, making the figures behind only partly visible, at the centre of a beautiful foggy swirl. The third features two women wrapped jointly in a crisp, Madonna-like cowl, and is photographed so attentively that one notices gooseflesh prickling in an unseen breeze.