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'Mama Africa': Corinna Kern Photographs the Lives of Transgender South Africans

Kern spent six weeks in 2014 documenting the daily lives of transgender people in the Eastern Cape of South Africa, an area still prone to heteropatriarchal beliefs.

Corinna Kern / Getty Images Reportage. Wearing hair removal cream around her mouth, transgender woman Tulie Naomi Vili, 23, gossips with her cousin, showing her photos on her phone in Magenigeni Village, Tshabo, Berlin, South Africa.

Corinna Kern is a German-born photojournalist whose latest project captures the lives of transgender people in the Eastern Cape of South Africa. Working with an NGO called S.H.E. (Social, Health, and Empowerment Feminist Collective of Transgender and Intersex Women of Africa), Kern spent six weeks of 2014 documenting the daily lives of her subjects.

She found that, although the area is prone to heteropatriarchal beliefs and those who don't conform to traditional gender norms are sometimes considered "un-African," the transgender people she documented, for the most part, were able to live out their identities freely, lending her photos a celebratory and empowering feeling.

We talked to Kern about her experience shooting the portraits and the difficulties her subjects face outside of the frames.

VICE: How did the project "Mama Africa" come about? What was your personal interest?
Corinna Kern: I've been fascinated by non-conforming gender and gender expression for many years. Coming from a background in which people take their gender and sexual orientation for granted, I have been looking to explore the realities of LGBTI people subjected to discrimination and violence, which is particularly prevalent in communities of color.

Initially I was considering going to places like Uganda, where a new anti-gay bill was passed at the end of 2013, rendering repeated homosexual acts punishable by life imprisonment. However, when I learned about the challenges LGBTI people are facing in liberal South Africa, despite its constitution being one of the most progressive in the world, this topic became more interesting and relevant to me.

Corinna Kern / Getty Images Reportage. Transgender woman Lazola Canzibe, 24, lies on her bed wearing traditional Xhosa clothing on the 27th of August, 2014. Taken in Kwelera, East London, South Africa.

Who were some of the most interesting characters you met?
Everyone I met throughout my project was interesting in their own special way, with their own eye-opening stories so different from each other that it would be hard to choose. In terms of the background of my documentary, I was intrigued by Mama Africa, the person my project is named after. Coming from a rural area where traditional gender roles shape people's lives, Mama Africa fully complies to the role of a woman whose main duties are cleaning, cooking, fetching water, collecting firewood, and looking after the children. It was interesting to see how the ambiguity and fluidity of gender manifests in a very traditional African context based on binary genders.

How would you describe life for trans people in South Africa?
South Africa is a challenging and sometimes even dangerous place for transgender people. Especially in townships and rural communities, where homosexuality and transgenderism have strong social stigmas attached to them. The heteropatriarchal notions entrenched in African culture declare nonconforming gender expression "un-African," often forcing individuals to perform their gender according to society's standards.

Nevertheless, within the course of my project I came across many transgender people who were fully accepted within their families and communities. After having read so much about the issues surrounding transgenderism during my research, that was a positive and encouraging surprise, and will hopefully pave the way for transgender people's realities across South Africa.


Corinna Kern / Getty Images Reportage. Tired after playing rugby with a group of strangers on the beach, transgender women Tulie Naomi Vili (C), 24, and Adida Austin (R), 19, and their gay friend Anathi James (L), 18, walk back to the car on the 7th of October, 2014 in Nahoon, East London, South Africa.

What are some of the biggest challenges that transgender people still face in South Africa?
Gender-based violence, for example, is a prevalent phenomenon that not only affects transgender people, but LGBTI communities in general. Cases often remain unreported due to the victims' fears of disclosing their gender or sexual orientation to the police, which potentially renders them open to secondary victimization via institutionalized homophobia. Many transgender women I interviewed experienced discrimination at police stations, resulting in their cases not being taken on or pursued.

Similar barriers of stigma and abusive behavior apply to healthcare services, as well as access to education, employment, and housing. This often leads to a problematic socioeconomic situation for which sex work or transactional sex are common consequences, enabling transgender women to remain resilient in the context of poverty.

Last but not least, the rejection by their own family, friends, and communities is a big—if not the biggest—challenge for transgender people, especially within the context of a collectivist and family-oriented culture. It often places individuals with the decision of either complying to their culture or to their gender identity—two essential aspects that shape one's life and overall identity, yet often still incompatible in democratic South Africa.

How can photography help? What else needs to happen to make life easier for your subjects?
I believe that raising awareness forms the basis for social change. In this context photography can be used as a universal language and a cultural bridge with the potential of advancing an understanding of transgenderism. I hope that my project will inspire a shift toward a contemporary view on what African gender identity can be, as opposed to what society demands it to be. As a means of visual education I have been considering exhibitions that open up a dialogue and invite audience engagement by asking activists, as well as the photographed individuals, to come and talk about their experiences.

It is easy for people to discriminate against something that they don't understand or that they are unfamiliar with, so I believe that education about gender diversity can act as an important vehicle toward social change and should be implemented in communities, as well as public institutions, like police stations, health care services, and education systems. NGOs can play an essential part here.

Follow Corinna on Twitter.

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Corinna Kern / Getty Images Reportage. Transgender woman Lazola Canzibe (CL), 24, poses with the other "Miss Trans Diva" participants in front of the jurors and audience at the Miriam Makeba Centre for Performing Arts on the September 27, 2014 in East London, South Africa.