AT THE height of the Cold War, six years before she was born, Julia Gunther’s East German mother Lore escaped across the Iron Curtain to seek a better life in the West. It was a promise fulfilled in good measure by her marriage to a doctor at the West Berlin hospital where she worked as an anaesthetist, and the birth of their two children, an older sister in 1976, and Julia three years later.
When Gunther was 16, however, her parents broke up; it was a devastating experience, particularly for her mother.
“The family was torn to pieces, and everything my mother had worked for was lost within a few years,” Gunther remembered, writing from her studio in Amsterdam this week. “She had to start at rock bottom again... yet never gave up.”
It was a salutary experience for the young photographer-in-the-making.
“I think now that my mother was the original inspiration for my Proud Women project.”
Though her first visit to Africa was still a decade away, Gunther’s determination to grapple with the trials of life through the lens began early.
“My passion for images started in film,” she said. It was a high school ambition to become a film director, later modified to cinematographer. “I even tried to document my messy family situation during my teenage years but it just got so intense for everyone involved that I had to stop.”
Throughout, she fostered an interest in photography; a portfolio of prints made in a portable photo lab procured as a teenager earned her a place at a film school in London, where she graduated a few years later in cinematography.
The first offers of work came from the Netherlands, where, from 2003, she worked as an electrician on feature films, commercial shoots, music videos and student productions. But from 2010, she began to invest more energy in photography. Among the photographers she worked with was Isabella Rozendaal, who taught her a lot about the craft. It all “started to make sense to me”.
That sense-making assumed more focused form in 2008 when she visited South Africa for the first time, working for a production company in Cape Town.
“I took a year out of my Amsterdam life to discover the world a little.”
Meeting a woman named Philipa proved decisive. They became firm friends. When, shortly after, Philipa was diagnosed with breast cancer “we decided to document her illness, with the idea of showing the world what she had gone through once she’d recovered”.
Philipa did not recover – she died in February 2012 after the cancer had spread to her brain.
There was a redemptive element, however: this series of images became the first part of Proud Women of Africa.
“Philipa was proud of who she was, and never let her illness define her. I was struck by her tenacity, and subsequently decided to look for other women in Africa who lived life with the same pride.”
Another new friend, Ruth – mother, youth worker, and first-in-command of her church brigade, who had overcome the trauma of being raped as a teen – became the subject of the second Proud Women series.
The third sequence is the Rainbow Girls project, from which photographs on this page are taken, and which is featured in the GRID Cape Town Biennial 2015 exhibition at the Castle, which ends tomorrow. The work has also been shown this month on The Huffington Post.
Gunther became aware of the plight of the black gay community through friends in Cape Town. “Forced to hide their sexuality, they are subjected to unimaginable horrors by an ignorant and bigoted culture. The stories about corrective rape, beatings and banishment, but also about the bravery with which these women face each new day, convinced me of the need to photograph them, to capture... their unflinching defiance and their refusal to accept the repressive attitudes that dominate South Africa.”
Gaining access to these vulnerable women and their trust took a lot of effort, research and conviction.
“When I heard about the Miss Lesbian competition, a beauty pageant in the middle of a township, I knew I had to get down there and try to photograph it.”
Over time, Gunther nurtured the friendships that yielded the trust she would count on.
“One thing I definitely wanted to avoid was the usual ‘townshippy’ pictures of slums and poverty. I wanted only to show what is important to these girls in that moment – and that is their group dynamic, their love for each other and their pride in presenting themselves freely just as they would like to be seen.
“I am interested in finding marginalised people who have remained proud and strong despite everything life has thrown at them. There is a truth to the way they live, a purer form of pride and strength.”
This is the essence of the “short visual stories” that form Proud Women of Africa.
“They might be victims but they do not see themselves that way. They’ve been ostracised, are desperately poor, or have experienced terrible injustice, but these women are not giving up.”
Accounts by the women accompany Gunther’s portraits. She said while it was “really important to me to give these women a voice, I don’t feel I have the right to talk about their lives and what they’ve been through”.
Their testimonies make for harrowing reading. One writes: “My name is Terra, and I was born in Cape Town on 21st April 1989. I got kicked out of the house when I was 16 years old because I’m a lesbian. Up until then, I lived a secret lesbian life and living a lie is very difficult; you have to come out and be yourself. I started living with my grandparents, who were very strict and taught me to be disciplined. Life was hard but you always have to remember – if I’m not gonna make it through this, who is going to make it for me? The name Terra is a butch name, and it gives me respect where I live. I’m not safe living in Gugulethu as a black lesbian. I’m not safe in my community. I’m not safe in South Africa, and I will never be safe. I’m living in fear but with the respect I got, I seem to be able to stay out of trouble.”
Gunther, who will be returning to Cape Town next month to continue work on the next instalment of Proud Women of Africa – Chedino & Family, a photographic documentary about “gender reassignment” – said that while she is conscious of the importance of technical elements in making an image, the framing, location, lighting and colours, “I only photograph what I find, and it’s the places and, more importantly, the people I photograph, that constitute the aesthetic”.
It’s the subject, she implies, that contains the force of the image.
“What I do know, is that the lives of my subjects are poorly understood. No one expects these women to be as proud or as strong as they turn out to be and, if anything, it is this that I want to show.
“These women will continue to make a difference in their community and in other people’s lives. All I did was shine a light on them for a moment… the rest is all them.”