South African Photographer Alice Mann is the latest recipient of the prestigious Taylor Wessing Portrait Prize at the National Portrait Gallery in London. As one of the youngest winners to receive the award, the accolade has cemented her place as a one to watch and one of photography’s most exciting new voices.
From an early age, Mann had a passion for the arts; she enrolled in school with a goal to become a painter, until, “my teacher pointed out that I had the lowest marks in painting and the highest in photography. I was disappointed for a while until I saw one of the older students making prints in the darkroom and that was my moment. From then on, I was hooked.”
There is no tidy way to manage the responsibility of representation, yet this is something Mann is fully conscious off, “For me, photography in Africa has a loaded history, and being a white SA photographer in Africa is complicated. There is a lot of understanding and negotiating my upbringing and my relationship with the country. Being based in London also puts me in an interesting position. I understand what it means to be South African as I grew up there and have an intimate relationship with the place, while I also experience how it is viewed through a western lens. I am aware of my privilege, and I am fortunate to have to tools and education and ability to live in two places; I believe I should use what I know to break down these stereotypes.”
It was her project Drummies which caught the attention of the judges of the Taylor Wessing Portrait Prize. Drum Majorettes or ‘drummies’ first appeared in the 1970’s with performances in street parades. Today, it’s a competitive sport in many South African schools and a pathway for self-development and confidence. After seeing a news article about them, Mann contacted Dr Van Der Ross primary school and began exploring the subject with the support of coach Morisha Prince. “Drummies is a very aspirational culture, a lot of the girls are in really challenging situations, and many of them come from areas with social or economic issues including gang violence and absent parents. The sport offers hope, positivity and a self-development.”
Mann has spent the last two years working on the project, pushing deeper into the individual stories in the community and expanding her project into six schools. Her images show a playful bond between photographer and subjects as they perform for the camera. The young girl’s individual personalities fill up the frame, especially true in the portrait of nine-year-old Keisha Ncube which encapsulates the power of uniform and community. The project illustrates how style provides a vehicle for expression, identity and personal freedom. “My interest in clothing and costume comes from the control it gives people in asserting their individuality. In a sense, in putting on a uniform and they feel empowered. It’s a transformative space.”
Joan Didion once remarked on how we are formed by the landscape we grew up in – and that certainly rings true for Mann. Although she is now based in London, the stories from her South Africa upbringing keep drawing her back. “I’m interested in focusing on themes which I can directly relate to. I like having a sensitivity and softness to things and working with women and girls are really inspiring to me. I think there is a lot of objectification or victimising of females, especially South African women. I’m interested in representing a counter-narrative.”
As a photographer, Mann’s interests lie in the disparity between perception and reality; she explores nuanced stories that bring hidden or marginalised communities into public view. Her work is uplifting, celebrating dreams and desires in the face of adversity. Her images aim to reassert or reframe the perceptions of her audience, pushing deeper to reveal new perspectives and provide alternative narratives. In a relatively short period, Mann has established herself as a prominent new voice in photography, yet remains humble to the end, “I’ve had a lot of trying and failing, but I’ve learnt it’s all about consistency and just staying focused.”