Photographer Jodi Bieber has spent the past 20 years shooting some of South Africa's darkest corners. Through her work she's examined domestic violence, body image, and the lives of disaffected youths growing up in city slums. But she's also taken care to seek out other aspects of the country, and balance images of its harsh realities with moments of levity from the daily lives of regular people.
VICE: Your work deals with a lot of different subjects. Do you see it as having an overarching narrative?
Jodi Bieber: I started my career prior to South Africa's 1994 elections, so my photos move between darkness and light. It's sort of a history of South Africa and a history of my state of mind.
Photography was something that really let me to explore my country. People are actually good, we all have good and bad. Some of the people I photographed were rapists or murderers or women who had been abused. I didn't walk into an area with suspicion, I was just interested and people got that.
South Africa is often presented as a very extreme place. Were you conscious about breaking down that stereotype?
Definitely. If you look at my more recent work in Soweto it's taking away that stereotype. It's not just this dusty, crime-ridden, poverty-stricken place. This is a place where 3 million people live, and they're proud of their area.
So how did you try to present it?
The youth in Soweto, compared to their parents, have their own identity. There's fashion and music. If you look at my picture of a mother and daughter in Soweto you can see the old and the new generation. It's a place they feel proud of.
In pretty stark contrast to that, you've also shot a series on women who have killed their abusive husbands. How was that to shoot?
I could only do that in a day. I did some intensive interviews and photographed the women in prison. In a way, I understood it and it doesn't surprise me. These women go through major abuse and they feel they don't have any other way out. One woman is there for life, she paid someone to kill her husband, but her husband made her sleep with his best friend in front of him. I guess some people just don't know how to get out of it.
You focused on women in a different way in Real Beauty. There you explored how far we have to go from the media to define our notions of beauty.
I suppose, being in my 40s, I felt more comfortable with who I am. I had listened to a BBC interview about how more black women in South Africa were becoming anorexic, because they were taking on Western body shape views. Then I met a model on a plane to Paris. She opened up a Vogue and told me everyone had this and that wrong with them. All of these experiences inspired me to put out posters asking women to speak out on real beauty and to photograph them in their underwear.
I liked that you followed that by photographing men in their underwear too.
You can see how vulnerable men actually are, they're as bad as women. What is interesting is that you are so much more used to women being exposed, I think this exhibition was uncomfortable for many people. The project was about quietness and not showing men in a performative way—we always see them doing something or being something.
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