“I’ve always been fascinated by the role of images in shaping our understanding of the world,” said photographer Alice Mann as she took to the stage at last month’s Nicer Tuesdays event. In a talk which focussed on her much-loved body of work, Drummies, the South African photographer invited us into her reflective and “people-oriented” approach to image-making which uses photographs to break down the stereotypes they are so often used to reinforce.
A project which began in early 2017, Drummies documents the all-female majorette troupes of Alice’s home city, Cape Town. Reflecting on what a formative process this ongoing series has been for her, Alice took us back to the feelings of dissatisfaction she felt after her first shoot: “I just felt like I hadn’t quite done the girls justice,” she said. “But sometimes it happens that you just feel like you haven’t quite got it and that’s disappointing, but sometimes you have to let things sit and come back to them.” So she let things sit, allowing herself the time and space she needed to reflect.
Returning to the series later that year, and after spending more time getting to know the girls, Alice was able to locate what had been missing from her first set of images. “I was very struck by the way these very young women were so self-assured and confident, and the way that, when I met them and worked with them, they really asserted that,” she told us. “I was also inspired by seeing the way that involvement in this sport was visibly emboldening and uplifting these girls.” The realisation that her first images hadn’t fully portrayed that confidence and dignity marked a turning point, not only in the Drummies project, but in Alice’s practice as a whole. Embracing a more collaborative approach, she started to re-centre her photography around its subjects, working together with the people she portrayed to make images they wanted to see.
Building long-term relationships with the people she shoots is central to this approach. Nurturing these bonds over long periods of time allows her “to go back, show people the images, have them respond to those and then incorporate something different when we make the next set of portraits.” Now, Alice told us, to ensure she’s done her job properly, at the end of each project she makes sure of two things: “that everyone gets a photograph of themselves and that the people in that photograph feel it’s the image of themselves that they want to see.”
As she closed the talk, Alice reflected on her responsibility as an image maker to portray her subjects with honesty and empathy. “I think it’s important to create images that challenge the dominant stereotypes that we see,” she said. “I wanted to show these young women as strong and dignified, powerful and confident, which I think, if you met them for two seconds, it’d be obvious that that’s what they really are.”