Drawn to the way photographs shape our ideas about the world, artist Alice Mann understands the responsibility behind the camera. “As a young, white, South-African photographer, I’m very aware of my position and I always try to let this awareness affect my process,” she says.
“The ways that images have been used in South Africa as a tool of colonialism and apartheid is a very violent history. It’s important that I empower and elevate the people I work with. As I’m often working with women, and with younger people, I want to express their strength, pride and power.”
In a new exhibition and book, Drummies, the Cape Town-born, London-based photographer captures the vibrant, energetic scenes of drum-majorettes teams (also known as ‘drummies’) from various primary schools across South Africa.
Growing up, Mann remembers seeing drummies perform at sporting events and New Year’s carnivals, but it wasn’t something she began exploring in earnest until 2017 after reading a newspaper story about a Capetown-based team. “I asked to meet them and made some portraits with the girls, but my approach was very formulaic and I didn’t feel I had done them justice,” Mann recalls.
Later that year, she revisited the idea, adopting a more fluid approach to the collaboration. “I tried to step back and create space for the girls to show me what they wanted,” she says. “They were so confident and assured. They ended up directing me about how they wanted the images to look.”
Using a medium-format camera, Mann would go on to shoot some 600 rolls of film, capturing the compelling blend of energy, camaraderie, and discipline it takes to succeed in this highly-competitive sport.
“Being a drum majorette requires hard work,” she says. “The practice schedules are crazy. In order for a group of 20 to 40 girls to be perfectly coordinated while performing a routine and execute complicated tricks with props, they have to train almost every day after school – on weekends and holidays.”
For girls coming from underprivileged areas, being a drum majorette opens a lot of doors. “It gives them a positive outlet, and a space where they are encouraged to excel,” Mann says.
“I was always hearing about how drum majorettes also tend to do very well academically because they are so disciplined, used to working hard, and applying themselves. They have learnt to trust in their ability and to persist. It’s truly been really amazing to witness how some of the girls who were initially so shy, have become so confident and self-assured over the time.”
For Mann, photography is a space for creation, unbound by traditional pedagogy, dogma, and rhetoric. “I don’t believe in ‘documentary’ photography, and the idea of the image being representative of any truth,” she says.
“I like that images can represent a fantasy, or suggest an alternate reality. I’m interested in the way people project themselves in images. I’m drawn to how photography can be utilised to reveal aspirations, and reveal what people want to see.”
Alice Mann: Drummies is on view at Kunsthal Rotterdam through January 23, 2022.