Images play a powerful role in shaping how we think, says South African portrait photographer Alice Mann. That’s why representing her subjects in a positive way is central to her work.
“Women in South Africa, and particularly young women, are often shown in quite a disempowered way. And I think people can often be reduced to their context,” said Mann.
From 2017 to 2020, Mann traveled across South Africa creating images for a photoseries celebrating the aspiration and empowerment of the next generation of South African women. The series documents the dazzling subculture of school drum majorette corps – “something between a cheerleading squad and a marching band,” explained Mann.
The teams, fondly known as “drummies” and sometimes up to 50-strong, are made up of grinning girls in vaudevillian sequin-trimmed dresses, white cowboy boots, and hats reminiscent of ceremonial military bearskins. The “drummies” perform perfectly regimented dance routines, spinning batons and flags, and teams compete against one another in regional contests.
Mann now hopes to collect the images in a photobook.
“Holding a camera is a huge privilege”
Mann, 29, grew up in Cape Town, where she studied at Michaelis School of Fine Art; despite wanting to major in painting, her professors convinced her to enrol in the photography course. “I did really fall in love with photography over the next few years,” she said.
In her work she explores the concept of image-making as a collaboration between subject and artist and often works on projects for years. The result is thoughtful and nuanced representations of her subjects. “Holding a camera is a huge privilege,” said Mann.
“How people understand South Africa, and a lot of African countries in general, I think there’s a lot of very negative stereotypes, and especially the language of documentary photography can often be quite violent,” Mann said. “I think it was really important to me to create images that were very humanizing.”
Much of Mann’s work is focused on how a sense of community reinforces an individual sense of self. The emotional relationship between clothing and wearer is something she revisits often.
In 2017, Mann was working on a project exploring the power of attire to establish a sense of community when the front page of a local newspaper caught her eye. It showed an image of a beautifully costumed drum majorettes team.
Mann was so taken by the “drummies” that the images grew into a project of their own. “I quickly realized that as soon as they put the uniforms on there was this moment of transformation,” she said.
“The uniforms are a visual marker of their belonging to the team and being a drummie is a huge accolade,” Mann added.
The majorettes usually range from five to 18 years old, and very young girls train and perform with much older and more accomplished ones. Mann says they practice at least three times during the school week, and also on weekends – typically for three hours each time.
In the photoseries, the drum majorettes are a dynamic jolt of color in muted landscapes of concrete and shrubland. This contrast carries through to the lives of the young women; Mann believes that joining a drum majorette team is one of the ways that the girls can create autonomous space for themselves in the often-patriarchal systems still in place in South Africa.
“There’s a lot of emphasis on boys’ sports,” Mann said. “I absolutely love seeing this space that’s strictly for young women. I think that is very important in the context of South Africa, to see these young women being celebrated in the communities that had been created around them.”
“Some girls would start out quite shy at the beginning, and would just become these vivacious, very positive, charismatic and loud young women,” said Mann. “And it was really cool to see that – the sense of belonging.”
“Obviously, they want to win but they’re also very supportive of the other teams, there’s no nastiness,” said Mann. “It’s very much a sisterhood.”
Early in the project Mann attended a competition with one of the teams she was documenting. “The team leader was so nervous she was shaking. The coach was just telling her over and over ‘you can do this, you are amazing’,” remembered Mann. “It summed up all of it for me, the mindset that the coaches have – they want to imbue the girls with this ‘I can do anything’ kind of attitude. And she won.”
In 2018, Mann was awarded the Lensculture emerging photographer prize for “Drummies,” the PHMuseum Women’s “New Generation” prize for an emerging photographer, and first place in the Taylor Wessing portraiture prize.
She is now raising money to publish the “Drummies” photobook. “I felt like the book was a really important way to realize the project and also a testament to the people I’ve worked with,” she said.
“It’s very important for me to show people in a very empowered way,” she added. “Not showing young women as victims of their circumstance but actually amazing people with agency that can do anything.”