“I’m interested in examining the relationship between community versus individual identity; how does a sense of belonging affect the way we perceive ourselves? I think wanting to belong is something that everyone identifies with, and this is an idea I return to often in my work… I’m fascinated by the way that feeling a part of something can reinforce an individual’s sense of self.”
London-based, South African photographer Alice Mann is discussing what she looks for when starting out on a new project. Having honed a humanist and socially-engaged approach to image-making across the past few years, her work is full of intimate portraiture made through a deeply collaborative process.
“I don’t believe in ‘documentary’ photography, or the idea of the image being representative of any truth, and I try to interrogate this in my work,” she continues. “I like that images can represent a fantasy, or suggest an alternate reality, and I’m interested in the way people project themselves in images: how do they perceive themselves, and how do they want to be seen? I’m drawn to how photography can be used to reveal aspirations and what people want to see.”
By the same token, Mann says she’s also been very drawn to clothing and uniform in recent years, and investigating how dress affects both an individual’s sense of self, and how others perceive them. This particular curiosity is one of the things that led her to her long-term project Drummies, exploring the culture of drum majorettes in South Africa, through images of the girls involved in the sport. Having begun the series in 2017, it’s bloomed across the years, and Mann is now publishing it in book form with the London-based publisher GOST, coming out later this November.
Growing up, Mann had been aware of drum majorettes, having seen them perform before sporting events and at carnivals, but it wasn’t something she’d considered exploring in her work until a 2017 newspaper article about them caught her attention. “I got in touch with a team and asked if I could meet them,” she recalls. “I did end up making some portraits with the girls, but my approach back then was very formulaic and I didn’t feel I had done them justice. Later that year, I decided to revisit the idea, but this time I worked with a much looser approach. I tried to step back, and create space for the girls to show me what they wanted. They were so confident and assured and ended up directing me about how they wanted the images to look. It was a much more collaborative approach, and this was how I continued going forward.”
Initially, Mann did all the research for the project online, but after a while, she got to grips with the majorette scene and started to get to know more about it on a personal level. She began attending competitions, and often met new people that way. In the end, she photographed 11 teams, in two different provinces in South Africa. They are a combination of school teams, and club teams, which are made up of girls from a few different schools.
Some of the girls on the teams Mann met come from underprivileged backgrounds, but she learned throughout this process how many doors being a drum majorette can open. “The sport is a very empowering one for young women to be involved in,” she says. “You can see how being part of the team creates a powerful sense of belonging and is a safe female space where the girls are very supportive of each other. There are a lot of accolades associated with being a drum majorette, and the discipline and hard work required says a lot about the person who can commit and put in the hours. The girls feel very proud to be majorettes, and this pride is evident.”
Born and raised in Cape Town, Mann is acutely aware of the ways photography is wrapped up with notions of violence in her country’s history, and has worked hard to steer her own use of the medium as far away from that as possible, with projects like Drummies being powerful examples of this conviction. “As a young, white, South African photographer, I am very aware of my position when making photographic work, and I always try to let this awareness affect my process,” she says. “The ways that images have been used in South Africa, as a tool of colonialism, as a tool of apartheid, has a very violent history. So it is important to me that I can create work that empowers and elevates the people I work with. Particularly as I am often working with women, and with younger people, I need to ensure that the resulting images are challenging the representation of these individuals as victims.”
Thinking back, Mann says she was in her third year of art school when she first started to really love photography. She had been making prints in the darkroom, and was completely taken with the process and the care that went into creating a physical image. Then, as she grew, she started to realize the true power of photographs in shaping our ideas of the world—often without us even being conscious of it—and that’s something she has kept in mind the whole time she’s been making Drummies. “Photographs are so ubiquitous, and these images have such a powerful role to play. As an image-maker, I wanted to contribute in a way that might prompt people to re-examine the set ideas we have, because of what we are used to seeing,” she says.
Her respect for the craft also carried through into making the project. “I think younger generations are used to phone cameras, and not many of the girls I worked with had seen a film camera, but they loved learning about how it worked, helping to load the film and taking readings with my light meter,” she says. In the same spirit, she’d ask everyone to look through the viewfinder for every shot she took, to help them imagine how the image would look. “Drummies are natural performers, and the way the girls would take charge and decide what to do was a really central part of the image-making process.”
Recently, a lot of Mann’s work has been very focused on working with young people, particularly in regard to the potential that they represent. “It’s also to do with the fact that when you are younger, you have not yet become jaded about the world, you have so much curiosity, confidence, and conviction in your opinions. I think this is really beautiful, and I enjoy working to translate this,” she says warmly. Full of vivid color, positivity and playfulness, the pictures in Drummies really encapsulate these feelings, and in the end, it’s her respect for her collaborators that remains at the centre of it all. Ultimately, she concludes, “I wanted to translate the ‘girl power’ of the majorettes, and I want my pictures to express their endless strength, pride and empowerment.”
Editor’s note: Drummies is currently on view as an exhibition at Kunsthal Rotterdam until 23 January 2022.