Zanele Muholi is one of two South African artists shortlisted for the Deutsche Borse photography prize of 2015 for her recent photobook Faces and Phases. We chat to the photographer about LGBTI (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Intersex) activism, homophobia and staring straight into the lens.

Zanele Muholi’s latest exhibition and book, Faces and Phases was first launched in Ulm, Germany followed by other introductions in Johannesburg and New York late last year. The collection consists of over 250 portraits of black lesbian and trans individuals, many of whom have been survivors and victims of hate speech, rape and violence. The photos were taken over eight years in South Africa and beyond, in communities all over the country, and Muholi insisted that all the women who stood for a portrait stare straight into the lens.

“This whole project is supposed to be confrontational,” said Muholi. “Participants looking at you as you look at them with that question: ‘What are you looking at’?”

Muholi’s photography stands in strong contrast to the traditional imagery of rape survivors and victims as helpless and vulnerable, no fear, or weakness is present as these women stand tall, arms crossed, and glare right back at those who have inflicted pain. Assault. Rape. Murder.

“People have suffered. You can’t smile in these photographs because there’s nothing fun about being in this position,” she said. “It’s not easy to deal with violence, it’s not easy to deal with any trauma. Attending funerals of lesbians who have been killed is the most painful experience. It’s just not bearable”.

The images have become a record of those who have lost their lives to violence over the years, such as Busi Sigasa. A committed LGBTI activist and one of Zanele’s closest friends, Sigasa, was a rape survivor who contracted HIV from her perpetrator. She passed away a few years later from an HIV related illness at the tender age of 25. Muholi dedicated the book to her, as well as mothers of LGBTI children.

“When [Busi] was still alive I thought it’s important for us to have images of ourselves as we’re contributing towards LGBTI history. Unfortunately she died so early after being a survivor of a hate crime,” said Muholi.

The black lesbian community continues to be violated and women have remained targets of vicious homophobic attacks over the years despite the South African constitution outlawing discrimination based on sexual orientation, not to mention progressive legislative protections and the legalisation of gay marriage in 2006. However, according to recent reports, over 30 lesbians have been raped and killed because of their sexuality over the past 15 years.

Zanele has worked tirelessly to publicise hate-crimes against lesbians and address the representation of black lesbian identity in a post-apartheid society by documenting funerals of women who have been victims of hate crimes.

She believes giving voice to the marginalised means more than picking up a camera; it’s about building trust and showing empathy. “It’s impossible to capture an image without having good relations with those who are in the image. I call the people in my work participants, as they partake in these ongoing projects, which then connects us as human beings and demands human rights,” she said.

“We are marking a new visual history and South Africans can’t talk about any LGBTI laws without imagery”, said Muholi, who is adamant that change is happening through visual representation and social media. “We have a lot of the younger generation that even talk about being lesbian in social media. They know for sure they’re not alone and it’s not a crime to be a lesbian, or to be a trans, and also it’s not a crime to be an LGBTI activist or to be around activist spaces.”

Muholi was born in Umlazi, Durban; She studied Advanced photography at the Market Photo Workshop in Newtown, Johannesburg. In 2009 she completed her MFA at Ryerson University, Toronto. Muholi co-founded the Forum for Empowerment of Women (FEW) in 2002. She has won numerous awards including the Ryerson Alumni Achievement Award (2015), Fine Prize for an emerging artist at the 2013 Carnegie International; a Prince Claus Award (2013); Freedom of Expression art award (2013) and Feather of the Year (2013), among others. Faces and Phases was shown on Documenta 13; the South African Pavilion at the 55th Venice Biennale, Imaginary Fact: South African art and the archive; and the 29th São Paulo Biennale.

In 2009 Muholi founded queer and visual (activists) media, which she uses as a platform to train and co-facilitates photography workshops to young women in the townships. Muholi currently lives in Johannesburg.