Photographers Zanele Muholi And Catherine Opie On Capturing The Harsh Realities Of Queer Life

Zanele Muholi

Thatha konke I, Sheraton Hotel, Brooklyn, 2019. Baryta print. Image and paper size: 27.13 x 21.25 in. | 69 x 54 cm.

Late last month, photographers Catherine Opie and Zanele Muholi joined a panel at Southern Guild upon the opening of Muholi’s eponymous solo exhibition. Over the years, both artists have made pivotal contributions to LGBTQIA+ representation in media and art, within their practice and institutional roles. Moderated by LACMA curator Britt Salvesen, they delved deep into what the medium now represents in a world of image overload, being sued for exhibiting portraits of figures from their pasts, and getting advice from former first lady Michelle Obama.


BRITT SALVESEN: Thank you so much. It’s a pleasure to be here and be talking with these two amazing artists in the context of the artwork, so welcome. I would call both of these shows autobiographical gallery shows, and I was wondering if you could each say a little bit about that decision to approach a gallery show as an autobiography, and how you made the decisions of the works that would appear?

ZANELE MUHOLI: After photographing for so many years and capturing the lives of so many people, it’s very important to come back to yourself. To remember who you are, and to remember that the people have photographed over a period of time, they also wish to know who you are in depth. For me, it was a conscious decision to make sure that I share a piece of me with some people who might not know who I am. 

Zanele Muholi

Being (T)here, Amsterdam I (Revised), 2009 – 2023. Lightbox. 2.13 x 28.38 x 3.5 in.

CATHERINE OPIE: The last show that was up at Regen Project, harmony is fraught, went back into an archive of 30 years. It was a way of reminding the people of Los Angeles that the queer body is also part of the infrastructure in a certain way. I’ve always gone back and forth between the notion of architecture and body, but the show is really a moment for me to remind myself that while we progress so much with laws in relation to LGBTQI communities, we have also now regressed all throughout the globe. It’s a way to connote that here we are in 2024, and I’m still fighting the same battles that I was fighting in the eighties. Even though I have the right to marriage, these battles are not over with whatsoever.

SALVESEN: To pick up on the powerful presence of portraiture in both of your bodies of work is a given. But we’re now in a photographic visual culture where with selfies and portraits are common currency. So how has your perspective on portraiture evolved? You’re both able to make it so urgent and relevant and imbued with your own ideas. How do you make it yours year after year?

OPIE: I mean, I rely on history an enormous amount to make it mine. I’m really interested in the idea of isolating the portrait in terms of a field of color, that the body is the site of architecture.  I try to not get all caught up in my head that this is essentially the representation of the person that I’m sitting with. It’s really important that the idea of essentialism around portraiture gets knocked down a little bit, because it is just a shared moment. It’s also about the extension of representation of one’s community. It’s really important for me to not get too caught up on, “Oh, that’s the definitive portrait of this person,” but more of that life just flows. I love that there’s friends that I have photographed for over 30 years and you watch how their bodies change through my portraits. That’s really meaningful in relation to creating a continuous history of one’s community as well.

MUHOLI: In my case, it’s more about experience, my personal experiences and experience of the people that I share the space with and the community that we serve as LGBTQIA+ community. And also the memory that one needs to preserve, because you never know. Today is now, tomorrow it might be something else.

SALVESEN: That balance of the moment and the duration, that encounter is one of the things that fascinates us all about photography.

OPIE: Well, and portraits. Why do we look at portraits? Why are portraits important to us?

MUHOLI: Yeah. The challenge is when you wish to photograph someone and somebody says, “No, you cannot photograph me.”

OPIE: Who was yours? Who said no to you? Because mine was Joan Didion. For 15 years I tried to get a portrait of her, and it was always a no.

Zanele Muholi

Installation view of Zanele Muholi.

MUHOLI: There’s quite a number of people I can’t even mention. Sometimes we speak of portraits and also to say why we end up coming back to selves, because we have been let down as well. I like to photograph celebrities, but it’s scary. You always worry that if somebody says you cannot.

SALVESEN: Yes, of course.

MUHOLI: There’s quite a number of people that I wish to photograph who paved the way for many of us to be where we are, because they’re becoming a reference point for us. 

OPIE: Yeah, it’s interesting. Different people that are your own heroes that are important for you to be able to capture as a photographer that maybe doesn’t fit within a body of work, but they’re also your own personal hero.  I’m always interested in trying to work that through.

SALVESEN: One of the things I learned from artists again and again is, where no archive exists, one must build one and shape it. Not in emulation necessarily of an institutional or a traditional archive, but in a way that lives with and through and in the community.

OPIE: I think that’s the hardest thing with the proliferation of photography through Instagram and social media. I don’t know if you ever have this experience with younger photographers where they’re like, “Well, what’s the point? Everything already exists.” I’m like, “But your picture doesn’t exist.” It’s all within collectivity. People question the medium because they feel like everything has been done. And I feel like everything hasn’t been done whatsoever. To me, it’s so exciting every day to try and make a picture.

MUHOLI: In my case, a lot of people are transitioning, so some people would say, “I don’t want people to see the other side of me, because that was me back then and you can’t show these images of me as a feminine person becoming. I have transformed and I’m a new person. I have changed my name and I don’t like to be seen in that way.” So what do you say? You have to respect the person who is in the picture. 

OPIE: How does that work for you in relation to your publications? I had a moment where I had to actually remove a piece from a big show, where two people who identified themselves in the photograph ended up not wanting to be identified. I had to remove it from the museum, and then they actually sued me. They wanted every catalog of that image destroyed. Have you gotten to the place where the work can exist within the archive, but maybe not exhibited? How do you negotiate that as an artist?

Installation view of Zanele Muholi.

MUHOLI: Sometimes it’s not even about negotiating, it’s just a painful moment right now, because there are these beautiful images that need to be seen and shown. Do we just remove the identity of a person altogether and say, “This is just a group of human beings who exist in the world.” I photographed people when I was at photo school. I didn’t know what would happen 10 or 20 years later.

OPIE: Oh, okay.

MUHOLI: But I was a student back then. We didn’t know what was going to happen. I didn’t know that the images would end up at museums, at big galleries. 

SALVESEN: I’m going to ask you each to talk a little bit about something I know you’ve both articulated over the course of time: Zanele, you speak about the unflinching gaze, and Cathy, you talk about witnessing. Those are really powerful articulations of an artist’s purpose. I would love to hear what that means to you both right now.

OPIE: I think that I realized that with the high school football players. I don’t think I ever said it before we worked on that show together at LACMA of that work [Figure and Landscape, 2010]. I think that was because I never thought I bore witness to my own community. They were just my friends. But I realized that these high school football players that we assume with all our own cliches and ideas, especially as a queer person, we all know that high school football players are going to beat the shit out of us, quite honestly. So what is it for me to stand with this youth, thinking about the fact that these young men were going off to war in Afghanistan and Iraq at that moment within American history? The vulnerability, and the idea that they will disappear like many of my friends disappeared from AIDS, was a way for me to reach out beyond my own community. 

MUHOLI: On bearing witness, I’ve done that with other people. Bearing witness with those who belong to that community. So young people are trained to become photographers in order for them to document their own communities and they continue. There’s no linear way or just one person who’s known for doing that. So all of these movements from pride, to parties, to protest, one has been doing it with members of the community.

SALVESEN: Do the two of you have any other questions for each other?

OPIE: Can I ask one more?


Zanele Muholi

Nkamisa, Brooklyn, New York, 2019. Baryta print. Image and paper size: 35.38 x 27.5 in.

OPIE: One of the things I think is fascinating about your work is that your images are packed with notions of performance that also include humor, but your gaze in itself and how it operates within the picture is humorless. There are moments where the elements are hilarious that you’re using, but the way that you confront the camera or doesn’t allow you to actually laugh. I think that’s a superpower you have.

MUHOLI: Life is hard. Sometimes you want to be fun, but sometimes you are forced to confront. With most images for Somnyama Ngonyama, I just use the material. It might look fun, but it has its own history and a complex life of its own. And a person who’s looking from outside will think that it’s so funny to use wood, because they do not have that historical information around that particular prop or material used in them.

OPIE: What’s interesting too is that you’ve adopted a persona, but they’re still self-portraits. And usually people separate the relationship of persona to self-portrait.

MUHOLI: Yeah, I get it. Maybe it’s that other side of me wanting to be on Netflix. Where you are yourself, but then the other side of you, you act these things out. But also you go back to the real story. Because these are experiences which most of them were hard moments that I went through. I’ll go to a hotel and just experience some blow of racism or being racially profiled in that space. Then I’ll go to that hotel room and create an image. I don’t work in a studio. Most of these images are either taken in a bedroom without any extra light, or are taken in any space as I move along. In some, you won’t tell where exactly the images were taken. The images that I’ve taken in New York and Philadelphia and so on, you won’t sense the place, because you’re only seeing this African in this picture. People would say, “There are so many models. How do you find them?” Then I have to explain that there are not many models, it’s one person. And other people will ask if I paint my face black. So there’s a lot of explaining saying, “There’s no black paint, I don’t want to mimic.” It’s like coming out every time you present this work. Otherwise I’m never myself. No image will look the same, because I have to switch onto another mode and I’ll be in it. And most of the images that I feature in, I never laugh or smile, because then it becomes pretentious for me to laugh at nothing.

OPIE: But that’s what I like about them, because you unseat the viewer at the same time that you draw the viewer in this very precise, interesting way. You play with the viewer’s emotions in incredibly complex ways of how portraits are supposed to operate. That is an incredible feat that you’ve accomplished.

Zanele Muholi

Installation view of Zanele Muholi.

MUHOLI: Yeah. No, I try. Most of the images from that time, I was going through some moments… It wasn’t going to be possible for me to be nice, or to look in any way that people have expected me to look. I was in pain, I was sick, I was overdue for an operation. Every time I’d wake up and make time to have that image taken, it was from that deep pain. Then images that I’m making now, they’re kind of easier, because you have some flowers.

OPIE: Is there a little bit of optimism there, maybe? You just sprinkle that on every once in a while.


OPIE: That’s amazing.

MUHOLI: For you, I see you have quite a number of different people, different bodies. Do people ask you why you photograph black people specifically as a white person?

OPIE: No, I think that I’ve always been within the community and it never really came up. There was one photograph that I did that was really personal of my trainer. As somebody who has a history of sexual abuse with men and other things, this was the first time that I allowed an intimate relationship with a man to push and move my body and do things with my body that I would only allow a woman trainer to do normally. I did this very beautiful, vulnerable nude of him, and then I got called out on it like, “What does that mean for you to do that image of him?” I explained that it was very personal for me, because I trained with him for five years, five days a week. I decided not to show that picture anymore, because nobody read it in the way that it was intended. That was the first time I felt like, “Okay, that is a problem in terms of how it’s being read.” In other situations, no, I’ve never had anybody ask why. Because for me, it’s all within my friends and my community and it’s all personally linked. Even if it was football players, it was representational of the kids on the field or surfers or it was about inclusion. And that’s where I want humanity to get to. That’s my hope, in terms of even my ability as a white woman to create representations that at least we are able to create those conversations that don’t shut it down.

MUHOLI: [To Britt] We are talking about queer existence and also politics of visibility or invisibility, and maybe it’s only up until now that you get a lot of images at the museums that showcase work of the LGBTQIA+ of hundreds of exhibitions that you have heard at LACMA. How much of this content have you exhibited, including black queer existence?

SALVESEN: In the time I’ve been at LACMA, I’ve worked with Cathy, and we have an archive of Robert Mapplethorpe together with the Getty [Museum]. Several of my colleagues put together a really wonderful show about black American portraiture a couple of years ago. So it is a conversation we’re very much having. 

Zanele Muholi

Manzi IV, Waterfront, Cape Town, 2022. Baryta print. Image and paper size: 23.63 x 35.38 in. | 60 x 90 cm.

OPIE: I am so happy that things have changed and it’s something that I worked on over four years at UCLA. It is our job to create inclusion. And if we do not do it through our institutions, then we’re not moving humanity forward. And I’m name-dropping but I had a really long talk with Michelle Obama about this, because I’ve photographed her daughters and they had my work in the White House all eight years that they were there. So we have these really interesting conversations. And Michelle was straight up, real straight with me. She’s like, “Girl, it’s your job. It’s not my job anymore. It’s your job.” And I was like, “Great, I’ll take that on as my job. I love that. Thank you.” Because it is our job. It’s all of our jobs. But it’s white people’s job more than anybody else, period.