I can't remember when I first saw photos from Sarah Stacke's on-going project, "Love from Manenberg," but I know that I responded immediately to their intimacy and beauty. I also liked the people and the setting. Manenberg is an impoverished suburb of Cape Town, South Africa, a city that has been virtually my second home for 25 years. Although I don't know Manenberg well, I spent a considerable amount of time in a neighboring and very similar suburb, Hanover Park, when I was working on my book, One Love Ghoema Beat: Inside the Cape Town Carnival. To put it another way, Sarah's photos touched me deeply.
Last summer, Sarah was kind enough to speak to a class that I was teaching at the University of Virginia on documentary photography in the age of Instagram. I told her at the time that I'd like to feature "Love from Manenberg" on this blog. It's taken me this long to make it happen (and for that, Sarah, I apologize).
Naomi and her two-year-old son Shaquille at the ARK, a center for rehabilitation. [All photos copyright Sarah Stacke. Click directly on any image to see a larger version.]
Manenberg itself is a relic of South Africa's brutally racist apartheid era. Built during the mid-1960s on barren soil about 12 miles from the heart of Cape Town, it was designed to house "Coloured" people whom the government was evicting from neighborhoods much closer to the city center simply because they weren't white. Similar things were happening to African, Indian, and Coloured communities all over South Africa -- communities destroyed and their residents forcibly removed to distant suburbs, all in the name of making the central cities white. High rates of unemployment and crime added to the traumas of physical and psychological dislocation.
For a brief period in the 1970s and '80s, Manenberg became famous as a center of resistance to the apartheid regime and was immortalized in a well-known composition by Adullah Ibrahim. (I've written about Ibrahim's "Mannenberg.") Those days are long past, and Manenberg has yet to reap the fruits of democracy and freedom.
What follows is a conversation that Sarah and I conducted via email.
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JEM: "Love from Manenberg" is more than a title. It's clearly a project into which you've invested a lot of time, talent, energy, and money. Tell how you got started and what keeps you going.
SS: I went to Cape Town in 2011 to work with Paul Weinberg, the senior curator of the Visual Archives at the University of Cape Town; I was doing research as part of my graduate degree. I also wanted to create a body of photo work in Cape Town, although I had very little idea about what. One morning on the Sea Point Promenade I met Ishmael Sondag, an aspiring fashion designer living on the streets. Originally "Love From Manenberg" had a different title and was centered around Ishmael. He and Naomi Lottering were part of the same crew on the streets, so I had met and photographed Naomi, but not often. Sadly, Ishmael disappeared in late 2011; we only know that he was arrested for tik (meth). Naomi was the person who told me Ishmael was gone and that's when our relationship deepened. She grew up in Manenberg and she brought me there to visit her family. Manenberg wasn't a story that I consciously sought, but after my first visit I knew I would pursue it.
Ashwin, 19, and other gang members. Ashwin’s sweatshirt symbolizes the rivalry between the Hard Livings gang and the Americans gang.
SS, continued: The relationships I've formed with the Lottering family and others in Manenberg are what keep me going. I talk to Debby, Naomi's sister, almost daily using WhatsApp. She had her third child in February, just a few months after I had my first. We chatted throughout our pregnancies. She was so supportive, having already gone through childbirth twice.
Beyond the relationships, it's the way Manenberg challenges me to think about the world-and humans-that keeps me going. I've learned not to predict much and I rarely come to conclusions.
JEM: It's obvious that you've gotten very close to Naomi, Tsitso, and the other people that you're working with. How did you achieve that level of intimacy and trust? How did you overcome the barriers of nationality, color, and class?
SS: Trying to share as much about myself as they share with me has built intimacy and trust. Time is the real key, though. I keep showing up and they're my priority in Cape Town. I also try to help with things such as rides to the clinic, rides to visit relatives in other communities, rides to look for Naomi when she doesn't come home for weeks, and I always leave behind a fat stack of prints for everybody.
In 2012 Naomi decided to go on ARVs and we spent days in the clinic. I wasn't able to photograph, but supporting her through the training and long waits was more important. Situations like that provide ample time to get know each other and pave the way to intimacy and trust.
Ashwin, a member of the Hard Livings gang, with his mother Charmaine, right.
SS, continued: It would be interesting to ask Debby and Naomi the same question, but in my memory we never had to make a big effort to overcome barriers like nationality, color, or class. We do talk about those issues and how they exist in the world. We also acknowledge that we come from different places and therefore have different opportunities and challenges. We've had a lot of conversations about why Manenberg is in the shape it's in. That discussion often turns to apartheid and unemployment, which are of course intertwined. To sum it up I think we recognize the differentiators¬ of nationality, class, and color, but have tacitly agreed not to let them be barriers between us.
The people I photograph in Manenberg and I connect on so much -- parenting, care for our own parents, friendships, the consequences of choice, the difficulty of loss -- it seems to outweigh other barriers. The Lotterings are solid people and the people they introduce me to are as well. That's not to say they don't have friends and family who struggle with addiction to alcohol or drugs. Naomi struggles with addiction. The loved ones who choose to join a gang cause particular anguish. The gangs are the source of devastating violence, but I think it's important to note what gangsterism often looks like in Manenberg. For many young gang members it means hanging out with friends, partying, wearing clothes that symbolize membership, small time drug dealing, and then going home to have dinner and sleep under mom's roof. When there are fights between gangs, the members are compelled to stand up for their brothers, and that's when innocent people get hurt.
JEM: I wonder if you can say a bit more about how "Love from Manenberg" evolved. I'm wondering both about factors that were beyond your control -- jailings and disappearances -- and conscious decisions about what you wanted to photograph and to say.
SS: As you noted, the evolution of "Love from Manenberg" has been a combination of factors that were out of my control and conscious decisions about what I want to photograph and say. For example, Ishmael's disappearance was out of my control. Naomi and I went to Pollsmoor Prison looking for him, but his name didn't come up in the system. We think he may have given a false name when he was arrested. Earlier this year I spent five weeks in Cape Town and Naomi was in jail the entire time. She was arrested a couple days before I arrived. We didn't figure that out until almost three weeks later when Franz, Debby and I drove around to the places where she sleeps in Woodstock, Sea Point and Brooklyn and asked about her. Debby and I visited her in Pollsmoor before I left. She's out now and spending most of her time in Woodstock. When I return in September, I suspect I'll photograph her there. She stays with a group of people on the train tracks behind The Old Biscuit Mill [an upscale shopping precinct].
Prayer meeting at Debby's.
SS, continued: Naomi was the focus of the story for a long time, and I generally let her lead the way. As I learned more about her and her communities I became increasingly vocal about aspects with which I wanted to spend more time. My goal for the trip earlier this year was to photograph the gangs in Manenberg. Because Naomi was in jail she couldn't help, but Debby did. Debby also introduced me to many, many women in Manenberg, for which I am very grateful. She has a tight knit group of friends, particularly from her church. I don't think it's an exaggeration to say that most of the women have sons or brothers or cousins in a gang. That's an aspect of life in Manenberg that I'm currently working to build into the project. Another conscious decision that I recently made was to sleep in Manenberg. I spent a couple nights there during my last trip and will again in September. I find the moments that lead up to and follow sleep are unapologetically natural; that's a feeling I want in my pictures.
My intent is to create a deep yet well-rounded story. It's challenging because I've chosen not to adhere to any emotional or geographic boundaries with "Love From Manenberg." It wouldn't be a very realistic reflection of their lives if I did.
JEM: You've recently returned from an extended stay in Cape Town. What was it like to re-engage with the project and with the people who are part of it, after each time being away for so long?
SS: Because Debby and I keep in such close contact it's not difficult to re-engage with the project after being away. She keeps me up to date on everybody and everything in Manenberg. She also keeps everybody up to date on what's happening in my life. We hardly skip a beat when I return.
Ashwin holding a picture of the star of "Four Corners," a movie about Manenberg gangs.
JEM: When you began this project, you hadn't yet become a mother. Has motherhood changed your approach to the project? Has it changed how people see you?
SS: I imagine motherhood has changed how people see me because it's changed me.
In regard to the project, I think motherhood has changed my approach in the same ways it's changed my approach to the world. Well, motherhood and age. Both help me relate to a broader range of people than when I was 23 and single. I've definitely formed stronger bonds with many mothers in Manenberg after becoming one myself. I've also found that I worry about the futures of Debby and Naomi's kids and 19-year-old Ashwin -- Chandra's uncle and a member of the Hard Livings gang -- more than I used to. Part of that is from getting to know them and caring about them. Another part of that is arriving at an age where I've learned how difficult growing up can be and knowing it takes strength to not wander too far off track.
JEM: I may be remembering this wrong, but it seems to me that men were largely absent from the first edit of "Love from Manenberg" that I saw. Women dominated your photos, and it was them that viewers got to know. Now men -- or at least Ashwin and Granpa Franz -- are much more present. Did you decide to broaden the project by bringing in men, or was this more a matter of the way that the project naturally evolved?
SS: I think it's a matter of bringing attention to the gangs in Manenberg. Ashwin is incredibly open with me, which I appreciate. He's a quiet guy, and a leader among his peers. Because he's open with me, his friends are too. I'd like Franz to have a larger presence in the edit than he does; he is a role model for grandchildren. He seems to have a sixth sense for when I'm going to take a picture and I inevitably walk away with hundreds of pictures of Franz smiling straight into my lens. He's always very happy when I bring him his pictures at the end of my stay.
JEM: Gang members appear in many of the photos now, and one of them even references "Four Corners," the new film that depicts gang life in the Cape Flats [the larger district of which Manenberg is a part]. Are gangs and worries about gang activity as pervasive in Manenberg as the photos make it seem, or is this something specific to families like the Lotterings?
SS: I'm not sure images alone could do justice to the worry, fear, and pain that the gangs cause throughout Manenberg. I've begun interviewing many of the women I photograph and I always ask how the gangs have impacted their lives. It's a complex issue because like I said earlier, many of the women love a gang member because that gang member is their son, brother, uncle, or cousin. At the same time, when the gangs are shooting people become prisoners in their homes. Just a few minutes ago Debby told me on WhatsApp that two people were shot and killed today and there are rumors that five new gangs have sprung up in Manenberg.
Debby, Zipoorah, Meezie, and Zobie.
JEM: You're someone who knows quite a bit about the history of photography in Africa, and I know you're aware of the often troubling ways in which photographers have often depicted Africans -- exotic, primitive, dangerous, childlike. As an inherently inferior race. Were you consciously aware of this history when you began to conceive of Love from Manenberg? Does it inform the way that you shot or edit or present your photos?
SS: I was most definitely aware of the fraught history of image making and issues of representation on the continent when I began shooting "Love From Manenberg." It's felt paralyzing at times. In response, I make an effort to be as transparent as possible about my role in the project. Including the WhatsApp messages between myself and Debby is an effort to be transparent. I think they also help the viewer get to know Debby and her world through her mind, which tips the balance a little.
In terms of editing, I think a lot about creating a harmony between images that could be perceived as negative, such as drugs or crumbling interiors, and images that are more relatable, like haircuts and emotions and family. There are images of poverty, drugs, homelessness, and gangsterism in the series because they exist, but people are way more complex than the facts of those things, and I hope the viewer sees that in my images.
JEM: Where is this project going? Let me put it another way... What do you want this project to achieve, both for your subjects and for yourself?
SS: One thing the project has already achieved for the Lotterings is the informal creation of a family archive. I love the thought of Naomi and Debby's kids -- Shaquille, Zipoorah, Meezie and Zobie -- looking at the pictures in ten years, thirty years. For me, I'd like the images to move the viewer to think beyond the individual lives or the specific moments recorded in the frame and open a window into larger questions of humanity. I'd also love to exhibit the photographs in Manenberg at some point.
Debby Lottering (right) and her sister Naomi in their childhood home.
JEM: I'd like to backtrack for a moment and ask how you got into photography. What made you want to explore the world visually? Who have been your greatest influences?
SS: My dad loves photography and when I expressed interest in it as a kid, he encouraged me. I remember him hoisting me up on his shoulders at a Sting concert so I could get a shot of the stage. I was probably 8 or 9 years old and the photo I took hung in a frame on our wall for years. Eventually my photography evolved into a means to say something about the world. It became, and remains, the way I process life - my own and those around me.
My greatest influences have been Burt Glinn and Margaret Sartor. Burt's lesson was to be a person before a photographer. Margaret inspired me to think deeply about the meaning of photography, both broadly and within individual images.
JEM: I imagine that the project will someday come to an end. Where do you go from here? What new projects are on the horizon?
SS: I'm committed to "Love from Manenberg" for the long haul, but yes, I suppose it will someday come to an end.
I have a number of projects on the horizon. I've started shooting in Cherokee, North Carolina and plan to pursue that project for a few years. In the fall I'll begin a 10-month partnership with a nonprofit in New York called Exalt Youth for my work as a Lewis Hine Fellow. Exalt serves youth who are in the criminal justice system. I'll be creating documentary projects about their lives and will also teach them documentary tools and guide them through their own projects.
Residents live in shipping containers while the row houses are renovated.
JEM: Almost exactly twenty years ago, South Africa emerged from a deeply troubled history of racial oppression and held its first democratic elections. It's been something of a roller coaster ride ever since. How has working on Love from Manenberg shaped the way that you see the country's future?
SS: "Love From Manenberg" is a series that studies the present. Photographs do, of course, nod to the past and the future. As much as I wonder and care about what's in store for South Africa, I'll just have to wait and see.
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Sarah Stacke is a photographer based in Brooklyn, NY. She also spends a lot of time in North Carolina where she is making photographs of the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Nation. Also in North Carolina, Sarah teaches and generates projects that ask viewers to think critically about cross-cultural visual literacy at Duke’s Center for Documentary Studies. When she’s not in Brooklyn or NC she’s likely in Africa, shooting Love From Manenberg, a long-form documentary project in Cape Town, South Africa. Or, in the Democratic Republic of Congo where she’s developing an archival project in collaboration with photographers in Kinshasa.
In addition to making photographs, Sarah has written about photography for The New York Times Lens Blog and the Nasher Museum. She is the curator of "Keep All You Wish: The Photographs of Hugh Mangum," and exhibitions featuring imagery from sub-Saharan Africa.
In 2012 she received a Master of Arts from Duke University tailored to research photographic representations of sub-Saharan Africa and the diaspora.
Clients and publications include The New York Times, The Atlantic, Time Out New York, Minneapolis Star Tribune, Miami Herald, The Boston Globe, Marie Claire, YMCA, KARIBU Kinshasa, HOPE Cape Town, SONKE Gender Justice Network, the Moth, Live from the NYPL, WNYC and Yéle Haiti.
She began her career as an assistant to Burt Glinn of Magnum Photos.
Lastly, Sarah organizes a gathering for photographers called BYOP&V (bring your own photo & video).
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