Tri­umphal march

SA pho­tog­ra­pher wins big with drum­mies

Sunday Times - - Stinsight - SUE DE GROOT

Thanks to South African pho­tog­ra­pher Alice Mann, vis­i­tors to Lon­don’s Na­tional Por­trait Gallery dur­ing the fes­tive sea­son will have the hon­our of meet­ing, in pho­to­graphic form, some of the Western Cape’s classi­est and most con­fi­dent cit­i­zens — school­girl drum ma­jorettes.

Mann, 27, has just won the Taylor Wess­ing prize, spon­sored by a global law firm and judged by a panel of lu­mi­nar­ies, in­clud­ing rep­re­sen­ta­tives of Mag­num Pho­tos and Au­to­graph ABP as well as the di­rec­tor of the Na­tional Por­trait Gallery and Bri­tish artist and fash­ion pho­tog­ra­pher Miles Aldridge.

It is the first time in the 25-year his­tory of the com­pe­ti­tion that first prize has been awarded to a se­ries of im­ages rather than an in­di­vid­ual pho­to­graph. The drum­mies in Mann’s pho­to­graphs ap­pear in var­i­ous poses, but whether re­gally straight-backed or loung­ing in­sou­ciantly, they pos­sess an in­fec­tious col­lec­tive vi­brancy.

Mann said she was in­spired by this en­ergy. “I re­ally love at­tend­ing the com­pe­ti­tions. It’s un­like any sport­ing event I have ever at­tended,” she said.

Her drum­mies are pic­tured in im­mac­u­late re­galia, gleam­ing bright-eyed from the worn-down greys and browns of their back­grounds.

This con­trast is in some ways a metaphor for the girls’ lives. They are from marginalised com­mu­ni­ties and their par­tic­i­pa­tion in drum ma­jorette teams is what gives many of them a sense of iden­tity and self-es­teem. Mann said she hopes, with her pho­to­graphs, “to com­mu­ni­cate the girls’ con­fi­dence, self-as­sured­ness and drive, but every in­di­vid­ual al­ways ex­presses some­thing unique.

“Th­ese four por­traits are some of my favourite im­ages, es­pe­cially the one of Ri­ley and Wakiesha be­cause they are so charis­matic.

“It was my in­tent to cre­ate im­ages that re­flect the pride and con­fi­dence the girls achieve through iden­ti­fy­ing as drum­mies.”

Each of Mann’s pho­to­graphs, re­gard­less of the sub­ject, is framed with the care­ful con­sid­er­a­tion of a Re­nais­sance master por­traitist. She shoots on film and is lim­ited to 10 shots per roll as op­posed to click­ing off a thou­sand dig­i­tal im­ages.

“There’s some­thing about the for­mal­ity of us­ing film that I re­ally en­joy,” she said. “I like that it slows me down, that I have to stop and think and com­pose the im­ages. I like see­ing that so much at­ten­tion has to go into mak­ing one pic­ture; I hope this trans­lates to peo­ple view­ing my im­ages.

“In terms of the ac­tual im­age taking, the cam­era adds nov­elty, es­pe­cially with the younger kids. I let them feel the weight of it, get them in­volved in load­ing the film and wind­ing the cam­era on. It’s a great way to in­volve ev­ery­one. For me, it needs to be a process where ev­ery­one is en­joy­ing them­selves, and I think that shows.”

Work­ing col­lab­o­ra­tively

There is an ad­di­tional quality to Mann’s por­traits: she pos­sesses the rare abil­ity to re­ally see her sub­jects and to recog­nise the ex­act ex­pres­sion that best con­veys their char­ac­ter.

There are al­ways cer­tain things she keeps in mind when taking a por­trait. “I do like peo­ple to be cen­tral in the frame and I lean to­wards more for­mal com­po­si­tions. I like see­ing that care has been taken in com­pos­ing an im­age. But it re­ally depends on the peo­ple I am work­ing with. Ev­ery­one is dif­fer­ent and I at­tempt to work col­lab­o­ra­tively with peo­ple, re­spond­ing to them on an in­di­vid­ual ba­sis rather than hav­ing it all planned out be­fore­hand.

“Orig­i­nally what was so striking for me, when I started this project, was the girls’ com­po­sure and en­ergy. They knew ex­actly how they wanted to be shown and they pro­jected that to the cam­era. They di­rected me a lot in terms of what they wanted.”

The judges of the Taylor Wess­ing prize put this in el­e­vated terms, say­ing: “Each sit­ter is pre­cisely framed within a care­fully con­sid­ered com­po­si­tion, and the girls con­fi­dently meet the cam­era’s gaze. Their pris­tine and vi­brant out­fits jar with the run­down sur­round­ings, lend­ing a sur­real and enig­matic at­mos­phere to the por­traits.”

Mann is not, how­ever, a per­son who makes the cam­era a bar­rier be­tween her and her sub­jects. She has formed close bonds with the girls.

“I’ve been work­ing on this se­ries on and off since the be­gin­ning of 2017,” she said. “It has been such an amaz­ing ex­pe­ri­ence be­ing able to work with th­ese girls. I have so much re­spect and ad­mi­ra­tion for them, which I hope comes across in the im­ages. I like that peo­ple who have never met the girls could in­stantly see that they are so con­fi­dent and proud of what they do.

“I have been vis­it­ing the schools to take them the im­ages from the last time we worked to­gether. I do this every time I do a shoot.”

She also shows the girls down­loads of their me­dia ap­pear­ances (they fea­tured in the New Yorker’s “Photo Booth” in May). “I try to col­lect and share any­thing that hap­pens with the project as it de­vel­ops. All of them are still drum­mies. They will be SO pleased to be in the news­pa­per!”

The drum­mies project is a con­tin­u­a­tion of Mann’s vis­ual in­ves­ti­ga­tion of “no­tions of fem­i­nin­ity and em­pow­er­ment in mod­ern so­ci­ety”.

A grad­u­ate of UCT’s Michaelis School of Fine Art, Mann now lives in Lon­don and has re­ceived in­ter­na­tional ac­claim for pro­jects doc­u­ment­ing do­mes­tic work­ers in SA as well as the stylish sub­cul­ture of Con­golese dandies in Europe.

She was drawn to pho­to­graph the drum­mies not just by their colour­ful uni­forms but be­cause of the role the sport plays in their lives.

“Many par­ents are very keen for their girls to be in­volved in the sport,” she said. “It’s recog­nised as be­ing an ac­tiv­ity that greatly im­proves girls’ self­con­fi­dence and work ethic. The coaches say it keeps them out of trou­ble as many of the com­mu­ni­ties where the schools are lo­cated have high poverty lev­els and are af­fected by gang vi­o­lence. It’s a fe­male-only sport, so it’s a safe space where the girls are able to form long-last­ing re­la­tion­ships and sup­port each other. I think that so of­ten all the fo­cus is on the sport­ing achieve­ments of boys and men, so this is very spe­cial.”

In­cred­i­ble young women

Mann still vis­its SA fre­quently. In be­tween con­tin­u­ing work on pro­jects abroad she plans to ex­tend the drum­mies se­ries to other provinces.

“It’s a very em­pow­er­ing sport. Even with girls who have been in­volved in it for only a few months, you can see a marked dif­fer­ence in the way they carry and project them­selves. It’s also in­spir­ing to see the way that fam­i­lies, par­ents, teach­ers and coaches come to­gether to raise funds, help mend uni­forms, en­cour­age the girls at the com­pe­ti­tions. It re­ally does seem to bring ev­ery­one to­gether for a greater cause, which is sup­port­ing th­ese in­cred­i­ble young women.”

‘I have so much re­spect and ad­mi­ra­tion for them, which I hope comes across in the im­ages’

Pic­tures: © Alice Mann/IN­STI­TUTE

POISED Wakiesha Ti­tus and Ri­ley van Harte are two young ma­jorettes who caught pho­tog­ra­pher Alice Mann’s eye. The con­fi­dence the girls get from iden­ti­fy­ing as drum­mies helps them achieve at school and so­cially.

Keisha Ncube was nine when this photo was taken, in her third year in the drum­mies team.

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