[There were] examples of women who had suffered in some way, yet who remained proud of who they were…I decided to try and capture…this.
If you’ve been online in the past few years, you may have seen Julia Gunther’s iconic pictures and not even know it. The German born, Dutch based photographer has an expansive portfolio of work, featuring subjects from multiple countries and locations. Gunther is known for her portraiture. Her continuing magnum opus, Proud Women of Africa, has been featured everywhere from Al-Jazeera and TIME Magazine to Refinery29. We sat down with the legendary photographer, to talk about her most famous project, her influences, and what she plans to do next.
Tell us about yourself.
Born & raised in Berlin, Germany, studied Film & Video at the University of the Arts in London, UK, and worked in Berlin & Amsterdam, in film as a spark (lighting technician) for eight years, which was a great way to learn about the power of light.
What got you into photography?
I’d been interested in photography since high school but it was never in the foreground. At some point I managed to get hold of a portable photo lab to develop my own prints, which kept me busy for a significant part of my teenage years. I used these photographs to apply to film school in London a few years later, where I graduated in cinematography.
Following film school, I worked in film as a spark for eight years, which was a great way to learn about the power of light. But after 8 years I was getting frustrated that I could not tell my own stories. Then, in 2008, I moved for a year to Cape Town—a place I didn't know and for a job I had never done before. I started working in production, at an office in the middle of Cape Town, assisting on commercial shoots for international clients on beautiful locations in and around Cape Town and Johannesburg. That's when I bought my first camera and began taking pictures for real.
What or who gives you inspiration in your photography?
I always liked the idea of being able to tell stories through images. A true story, something that matters to me and hopefully also to others. Documentary photography gives me the chance to dive into people’s lives, to explore these lives and find things that have not been told before, at least not how I want to tell them.
What experiences in your life influence your photography?
My encounters with people whose stories fascinate me.
What inspired your most famous project to date, Proud Women of Africa?
Proud Women of Africa began with my friend Philipa being diagnosed with cancer. I was working at a production company in Cape Town in 2008 and met Philipa on my first job and we immediately became friends. Shortly after that she was diagnosed with breast cancer. We decided to document her illness, with the idea of showing the world what she had gone through. Sadly, Philipa died in February of 2012, after the cancer spread to her brain.
Philipa was proud of who she was and never let her illness define her. I saw a kind of theme in her pride, something that I began seeing all around me. [I saw] other examples of women who had suffered in some way, yet who remained proud of who they were. So I decided to try and capture more examples of this. During my frequent trips to Cape Town to be at Philipa's side and to document her fight against cancer, I also started documenting another friend of mine called Ruthy. The first part of Proud Women of Africa, at least stylistically, ‘Ruthy Goes to Church,’ was born. The second part, ‘Rainbow Girls,’ [was followed by] ‘Maternity Ward,’ ‘Chedino,’ ‘The Black Mambas,’ and ‘Malawi Eleven.’
What did you want to convey through Proud Women of Africa (PWOA)?
I hope that the PWOA and their stories will help paint a different, more positive picture of women in Africa. But more importantly, I hope to positively impact the lives of the women I have photographed and to help them in their struggle for acceptance. The more people read about PWOA, the more recognition they get. More than anything, that is what these women deserve. Recognition for who they are and what they’ve gone through to get there.
What are your opinions on gender, race, and intersectionality and how do they show up in your project?
I think that a large part of one's identity is built around their self-image. For far too long, many groups have been marginalized and have had their opportunity at creating a positive self-image destroyed. Thankfully, this is starting to change, and people are being heard when it comes to gender, race and intersectionality. I hope that my pictures are able to contribute to this change in some small way.
What were your favorite moments in creating PWOA?
I think this was when I saw the printed pictures I took of Ruthy, my first Proud Woman of Africa. I knew then that this was something that I wanted to explore in depth. There is something about her stoic eyes that really was the birth of this project and that made me want to find other eyes like it.
You also traveled all over the continent for the project. Do you have an interesting story you'd like to share with our readers?
Balule Nature Reserve, South Africa, 2015: After one week documenting the Black Mambas, an almost all female anti- poaching unit, on their day and night patrols, I was exhausted, tired and ready to go home. We were being driven by Leitah and two more Mambas back to our car to pack up our stuff and leave. It was my last day with the Mambas. While sitting in the open vehicle, wind and sand blowing around my face, holding on to my camera and backpack while driving down a bumpy road, Leitah answered few last questions about her job as a Mamba. She said: “I’m strong, I’m a woman and I bite like a Mamba!” I just looked at her, and then stopped the car. I knew I had to take a picture of her while that statement was still fresh in her face.
What's the future of PWOA and your photography projects?
I plan to continue photographing proud African women as long as they will have me. :-)
I would love to explore other parts of Africa and find PWOA there to document.
Photo Credits: Julia Gunther
Black Mamba Nomsa. ‘The Black Mambas,’ PWOA. Balule Nature Reserve, South Africa, 2017. Courtesy: Mirko Mayer Gallery; Cologne, Germany
Black Mamba Leitah. ‘The Black Mambas,’ PWOA. Balule Nature Reserve, South Africa, 2015. Courtesy: Mirko Mayer Gallery; Cologne, Germany
Black Mambas Felicia & Joy. ‘The Black Mambas,’ PWOA. Balule Nature Reserve, South Africa, 2015. Courtesy: Mirko Mayer Gallery; Cologne, Germany
Black Mambas on patrol. ‘The Black Mambas,’ PWOA. Balule Nature Reserve, South Africa, 2015. Courtesy: Mirko Mayer Gallery; Cologne, Germany
Chedino at home. ‘Chedino,’ PWOA. Heideveld, South Africa, 2014. Courtesy: Mirko Mayer Gallery; Cologne, Germany
Chedino cuts hair. ‘Chedino,’ PWOA. Heideveld, South Africa, 2014. Courtesy: Mirko Mayer Gallery; Cologne, Germany
Chedino smokes. ‘Chedino,’ PWOA. Westlake, South Africa, 2017. Courtesy: Mirko Mayer Gallery; Cologne, Germany
Brenda. ‘Malawi Eleven,’ PWOA. Blantyre, Malawi, 2016. Courtesy: Mirko Mayer Gallery; Cologne, Germany
Dalitso. ‘Malawi Eleven,’ PWOA. Blantyre, Malawi, 2016. Courtesy: Mirko Mayer Gallery; Cologne, Germany
Shalani. ‘Malawi Eleven,’ PWOA. Blantyre, Malawi, 2016. Courtesy: Mirko Mayer Gallery; Cologne, Germany
Sino. ‘Rainbow Girls,’ PWOA. Khayelitsha, Cape Town, South Africa, 2013. Courtesy: Mirko Mayer Gallery; Cologne, Germany
Terra at home. ‘Rainbow Girls,’ PWOA. Gugulethu, Cape Town, South Africa, 2013. Courtesy: Mirko Mayer Gallery; Cologne, Germany
Vee. ‘Rainbow Girls,’ PWOA. Khayelitsha, Cape Town, South Africa, 2013. Courtesy: Mirko Mayer Gallery; Cologne, Germany
Ruthy. ‘Ruthy Goes to Church,’ PWOA. Manenberg, Cape Town, South Africa, 2012. Courtesy: Mirko Mayer Gallery; Cologne, Germany
Marina Ali is a student, writer, poet, and blue lipstick enthusiast. She is a staff writer for Brown Girl Magazine, the features editor for Drunk Magazine, and the social media manager for TMO Media. When she’s not writing or studying for classes, you can find her picnicking in pastoral East Texas, crafting for her sorority sisters, or making food.