Alice Mann created a storm when she photographed her own wealthy suburban community in Cape Town and revealed the black domestic workers who enable their lives of luxury.

Alice Mann created a storm when she photographed her own wealthy suburban community in Cape Town and revealed the black domestic workers who enable their lives of luxury.

“Growing up as a white person in South Africa, your privilege is so inherent that it can be hard to see it,” explains photographer Alice Mann. “Sometimes it takes stepping away from the situation to realise it’s there. I think a lot of people are struggling to acknowledge how much white privilege still influences their lives.”

Alice is a young South African photographer who turned her lens on the community she grew up in: the wealthy, white suburbs of Cape Town. Her portrait series Southern Suburbs shone a spotlight on the upper middle class whites and the black domestic workers who keep the rich whites’ often palatial homes clean and tidy. She followed it up with Domestic Bliss(?), in which she photographed only the area’s black maids and housekeepers. Taken together, the two projects are a powerful exploration of race and identity politics in South Africa today and the power dynamics that still shape the relationships between blacks and whites.Untitled1

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Two decades after the fall of the apartheid system that enforced division between South Africa’s many racial groups, it remains one of the most unequal societies in the world, where the haves and have-nots are predominantly split along colour lines. Centuries of colonialism, followed by apartheid have left a legacy that democratic South Africa has yet to confront in any meaningful sense.

Ironically, it has been the ‘Born Free’ generation – the first to grow up under democracy and who were expected to reap the greatest fruit from the new South Africa – who have been most critical of the country’s failure to live up to the promise of the ‘Rainbow Nation’.

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“There’s this increasing sense of disillusionment with the idea of the Rainbow Nation,” Alice explains. “It really annoys me when people say, ‘Oh, everything is equal now since apartheid ended, black and white are all friends.’ But the playing field is not even. Someone my age, but growing up as a black South African, will have to contemplate generations of disadvantage; their parents, grandparents and beyond. It goes back so far that people need to look much, much deeper than this short period of our recent history.”

Young ‘Born Free’ photographers, both black and white, like Alice, have often driven this charge, using their cameras to make visible the many shortcomings and fault lines that others would prefer to ignore. Like many others around her, Alice grew up in Cape Town’s Southern Suburbs, made up of the affluent neighbourhoods of Constantia, Rondebosch, Bishopscourt and Upper Kenilworth, without any real sense of life outside their rich white bubble.

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While there are no longer ‘Whites Only’ signs, South Africa’s cities are still segregated geographically by race, and life in the white suburbs exists almost totally separate from the often harsh existence in the black townships or other poorer areas. The Southern Suburbs are places where big houses, cars for 18th birthdays and private schooling are the norm, whereas elsewhere unemployment is rife, housing is basic and many lack access to quality education.

The power imbalance is obvious, yet it’s something few whites are comfortable acknowledging. “[These projects] are an attempt to talk about this and broach these topics,” Alice explains. “Nobody talks about these things but I’m asking people to listen – this is happening. [Racial politics and white privilege] aren’t things people are comfortable talking about – it’s very sensitive and debates can become explosive.”

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Alice felt the fire from both sides when the projects made their way into the world: from whites who objected to the notion of white privilege and others who criticised Alice, as a privileged white photographer, for choosing to “speak for” the black domestic workers she photographed.

“There’s a complex history around white photographers representing black people,” Alice explains. “I never wanted to speak for anyone, I just wanted to represent what was happening in the space I grew up in. People got upset, but in my work and in my life, I aim to be as informed and as empathetic as I can be.”

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Alice is proud of the debate generated by her work, but was taken aback by the intense scrutiny and criticism of her work from all sides – the consequence of setting foot in to the burning cauldron of South African racial politics. But ultimately, the controversy has taken the conversation forward. Even among her white subjects who chose to withdraw their images from the project to avoid being associated with the idea of white privilege, it’s much harder to ignore the fact that it is real.

So, would she like to see white privilege dismantled? “Yes, that’s important, but I don’t know if it will happen in my lifetime,” Alice says. “Debate is a step towards deconstructing it. There are so many elements tied into to it, but I think people need to start breaking down a lot of the ideology that is behind white privilege. I hope that more and more people begin to realise the way they have viewed the world their whole lives is through a very white-centric lens.”

Find out more about Alice Mann’s work.

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