Outsiders have been classic subjects of revered photographers from Walker Evans to Diane Arbus. Johannesburg, South Africa-based Justin Dingwall’s ALBUS photos of African people with albinism land squarely within the tradition of Evans and Arbus, and Dingwall’s pictures are infused with an intimacy that renders the otherness of his portraits all but universal.
The ALBUS series confronts the viewer with the nature of being alien in your own land, in your own skin, in your own family, and being at home within yourself among all that surface difference.
Take a look through Dingwall’s worldview at his online site, open for exploring.
The Skeeve: Did the persecution of people with albinism in Tanzania influence your ALBUS project?
Justin Dingwall: No, it didn’t. The project began when I was commissioned to photograph legal prosecutor Thando Hopa who has albinism.
As soon as I met her, I knew I wanted to create something with her. It was her inner strength, the poise that radiated from her. Her drive and tenacity are very inspiring. It made me want to get to know her better and try to understand more about albinism.
As I learned more about it, the more I felt it was important to share this work and create awareness about albinism through art. This project has opened me up to things that I was not fully aware of—which made me realize that awareness is the only way forward. I hope for my work to be a part of that step.
The Skeeve: How did you develop trust with the people you were photographing?
Justin Dingwall: The majority of projects that I create are mostly long-term processes that tend to focus on a certain topic. From our first meeting, we started to build up a rapport. I discussed the project with Thando who was very interested in participating, and trust was built up over the next two years. That was very important to me. I wanted this to reflect in the images. This body of work pushes cultural boundaries that challenge norms, or what people perceive to be the norm; so trust is very important in a project like this.
From there, I posted my earlier work with Thando on Facebook. Sanele saw the images and befriended me via the social media platform.
Sanele and I started communicating via Facebook and built up a friendship. At that moment, Sanele lived in Durban with plans to move to Joburg. I asked him to let me know when he was going to move up here. When he did we started to work together on ALBUS.
Sanele is a true professional who is up for anything! I have thrown many challenges his way. He has always stepped up to the plate. (He has a deep phobia of snakes, and snakes were a part of this body of work. He was truly brave in facing his fear to allow pythons to be draped across his head and shoulders.)
We have built a relationship based on trust and friendship, which is very important to me in all my projects. Not only does Sanele’s outer beauty reflect in the works, but his inner strength is also revealed.
The Skeeve: How does the approach to your personal projects differ from your approach to commissioned work?
Justin Dingwall: The biggest difference between commissioned work and personal projects is that I allow the personal projects to develop naturally over a longer period of time.
This allows me to get a better understanding on the subject, so that the images reflect a more personal perspective.
The Skeeve: Is there anything people get wrong about the ALBUS photos?
Justin Dingwall: The discourse about albinism is generally avoided as taboo in the South African context. When discussed, it is usually viewed as negative or as a sought after “oddity” in fashion and art trends.
In African countries, people with albinism are especially discriminated against and ostracized because of their skin tone (as well as in other parts of the world). Cultural traditions and beliefs play a part in this. One of the beliefs is that albinism brings bad luck, and this causes fear and distrust toward people with albinism.
In Africa especially, there is also a fear for their lives: There are beliefs that people with albinism possess mystical powers that can cure diseases and bring prosperity. This results in the death or mutilation of many. In Tanzania, for example, people with albinism are hunted by witch doctors.
One of the ways forward with these issues is awareness.
My main aim with this body of work is to portray and hopefully inspire a different perspective to diminish the myths surrounding albinism.
The Skeeve: Why photography?
Justin Dingwall: Photography gives me that ability to translate my thoughts into imagery. I have a passion to explore avenues less traveled, and the desire to create images that resonate with emotion. Photography gives me the ability to leave my mark on the world.
All photos copyright Justin Dingwall.