Response to Zanele Muholi’s Only Half the Picture

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This blog post is written in honor of Zanele Muholi who won the ICP Infinity award for documentary photography and photojournalism earlier this month. Her book, Only Half the Picture is a photo series about Black lesbians. The book contains intimate photos of different women who are all gay. The images are stylistically very diverse. There’s a mix of color and black and white photographs, and each image is very unique. Muholi explores concepts through her photography that are commonly considered extremely taboo in our society. In almost all of the photos, the subjects are nude and are shown in a very intimate and personal setting. The human form is presented in a very natural and realistic way. The bodies have hair in natural places and Muholi photographed the female body in a way that isn’t commonly shown. Menstruation is a big theme in this book, and many of the images of period blood would be deemed very graphic by our society’s standards. Even though periods are one of the most natural occurrences, people treat the topic as highly inappropriate. Muholi not only explores issues of sexuality and women but she also explores issues of race. Nude lesbian women in media are usually white, highly sexualized, and fit society’s standard of beauty. Muholi’s subjects are Black, natural, and not over sexualized. She shows the hardships of being queer and Black in today’s society through her images.

Each image speaks so much for itself. The various moments captured by Muholi are quiet yet highly intimate. It is obvious that in most of the photographs she has asked her model(s) to pose in a certain way to evoke an even more powerful message. For example, she has a model suck on a used tampon, or she has three women spoon each other on the floor.  The intent of each image can be inferred, but Muholi does a good job of not being overly explicit with what she’s trying to say. Aesthetically, the images are astonishingly beautiful. The lighting in each photo causes the subject matter to appear even more natural. The deep shadows in many of the black and white film photos adds to the seriousness of the concepts Muholi is exploring. Muholi is positioned in very close proximity to most of the women photographed, which gives the whole collection a feeling of deep intimacy. Overall, Muholi has done an immensely good job of exploring issues and concepts that have been largely ignored and untouched through her incredible photography.

Zoë Gleitsman and Akari Stimler

About Deirdre Donohue

Stephanie Shuman Librarian International Center of Photography Follow on Twitter @icplibrary
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