Fashion photographer Kristin-Lee Moolman wants to showcase the real South Africa

Written by Rebecca Cairns, CNN

South African photographer Kristin-Lee Moolman has gained international recognition for her powerful portraits against surreal, bleached-out landscapes.

In 2020, she won the Rudin Prize for Emerging Photographers, and has worked with big names including Rihanna in a shoot for New York Times Style Magazine, and fashion houses including Dior and Burberry.

But her fashion shoots are about more than sleek silhouettes and couture design. Moolman is using her platform to challenge negative media portrayals of South Africa — and counter the stereotypes perpetuated about her home country.

“Homecoming”

Moolman was born into a White Afrikaans family and grew up during the final years of apartheid, a system of legislated racial segregation in South Africa. Apartheid ended in the early 1990s when Nelson Mandela became the country’s first Black president, after fighting against oppression for half a century. The political turmoil in South Africa had a profound effect on Moolman, and her sense of identity.

“I felt so much guilt by association of what my people did to other people,” she said. “For a long time, I wanted to get away from being Afrikaans, being White, being South African.”

In 2020, Moolman took part in a virtual photography show, "28 Hats for Lamu." The photos, featuring eccentric headpieces, celebrate the transformative power of creativity.

In 2020, Moolman took part in a virtual photography show, “28 Hats for Lamu.” The photos, featuring eccentric headpieces, celebrate the transformative power of creativity. Credit: Courtesy Kristin-Lee Moolman

Moolman began traveling abroad in the mid-2000s, working on commercial fashion shoots and advertising campaigns. “It was work that emulated what I thought people wanted. There was no soul there,” she said. “I reached the conclusion that I couldn’t make work that I didn’t identify with.”

This wasn’t an overnight revelation, she said, but one that took years: a lengthy mental and emotional “homecoming” as Moolman changed her perspective on what it meant to be South African.

While Moolman describes her lifestyle as “nomadic” — before returning to South Africa for the duration of the pandemic, she was based in Thailand for several months and used to fly frequently around the world for shoots — she now feels at home in South Africa. The landscapes of her work are free of perspective lines, showing yawning desert dunes and stretches of endless sky, reflecting the small towns she grew up in. “Everything coalesced when I made this mental and physical move to be at home,” she said.

Moolman shot non-binary DJ and model Caleb Nkosi for arts and culture magazine Document Journal.

Moolman shot non-binary DJ and model Caleb Nkosi for arts and culture magazine Document Journal. Credit: Courtesy Kristin-Lee Moolman

Creating a counter-narrative

Part of Moolman’s struggle with her nationality was a product of what she says was a predominantly negative portrayal of South Africa in the media.

The prevalence of stories about poverty, violence, and lack of education in South Africa struck a nerve for Moolman — while she acknowledges these problems exist, she is frustrated that so much of her country’s “creativity and joy” is overlooked.

“There’s this strength of character that people don’t show,” she said, a key part of the counter-narrative her work tries to highlight. Staring directly into the camera, Moolman’s diverse subjects are powerful and sculptural against a dreamy, washed-out pastel landscape. This direct gaze helps to neutralize the “predatory voyeurism” inherent in photography, she said.

This is a still from the shoot for "Peau de Chagrin/Bleu de Nuit," a music video filmed with Belgian-Congolese rapper Baloji.

This is a still from the shoot for “Peau de Chagrin/Bleu de Nuit,” a music video filmed with Belgian-Congolese rapper Baloji. Credit: Courtesy Kristin-Lee Moolman

Showcasing strong women

In recent years, Moolman says she is focused more on women and showcasing diversity. One of the trigger moments for this focus was Moolman’s 2019 shoot with Rihanna, for the superstar’s Fenty line. “Rihanna was one of the first ones (shoots) where I realized, you know what? Women are powerful.”

“I have a tremendous amount of respect for Rihanna, because of her voice in terms of diversity, women, sexuality. I really like her ideology and her view on the world, so to be able to work with her was really cool,” Moolman said.

One of Moolman’s latest women-focused projects is “Banyoloyi A Bosigo” (“Ultimate Midnite Angels”). The short film showcases the Autumn/Winter 2021 collection of Moolman’s frequent collaborator, South African fashion designer Thebe Magugu, and premiered virtually at Paris Fashion Week in March.

The 12-minute film, shot and written by Moolman, features an all-female cast in a story infused with African spirituality and queer characters. Moolman, who identifies as queer, is determined to highlight this often-overlooked part of South African identity.

The African photographers pushing visual boundaries

The film also marks Moolman’s move towards filmmaking, an area that she’s been exploring over the last few years. Using film to go deeper into women’s stories, Moolman wants to go beyond the movie trope of female characters having to survive trauma such as rape or assault to be considered strong. “There’s always a condition, a reason they became powerful,” she said of the cinematic convention. “It’s never shown that they’re powerful to begin with.”

As the medium for her creativity changes, Moolman says honesty is the most important aspect of her work. “You will never stop evolving, because everything you experience, you assimilate into what you do. So I think my work will continue to change and especially moving into filmmaking more, it’s just a whole new world of things to explore.”

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