SA photographer wins big with drummies
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.”
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’
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.