As we celebrate the month of August, it is important to reflect on the achievements of women, and the imperative role that women of all races and religions have played and continue to play in South African society.
It is said that through thoughtful intention and design, God made women to be tender and nurturing. And that great women of faith have courageously pursued lives to glorify God, even through tragedy and trial.
In this feature, we shine a spotlight on Seopedi Ruth Motau, a veteran photographer and visual storyteller whose career spans over three decades. This piece is a recognition and appreciation of her work which illuminates the everyday battles women are fighting for mere survival. It pays particular attention to the narrative she immaculately illustrates through images, of women in their different places of worship.
Seemingly, Ruth has found that her work resonates with women as they commit more time to the kinds of activities portrayed in her photos. She also addresses the complicated relationships that women face in their domestic spaces. She has ventured into the remotest corners of South Africa and her photographs are nothing less than powerful expressions and depiction of women as prayer warriors. Her pictures also display the extremes of a woman’s life, the struggle to live their life on their own terms, starting from within their families, and permeating to every aspect of their existence in our society. While women play such an important role in the whole structure of our society, many still do not have equal opportunities.
Captured in black and white, for stronger textures and contrast, Ruth’s photographs bring out emotions more strongly, removing distractions from the images. Ruth creates and photographs imaginary worlds that debunk, critique, and despise claustrophobic expectations of domestic perfection. Her work is a critical look at how women continue to strive for perfection in their homes and selves, an unending, frustrating, and fruitless endeavour, in spite of modern-day life.
“I prefer black and white photographs because they bring out the richness and special tones. Even though the world is in colour, I love to interpret what I see in black and white. It is intimate! In my early years of photography, I was influenced by many photographers who worked in black and white and who captured images that will stay in my subconscious mind forever,” she says.
What is prevalent in these narratives, is the role of women in all societies. Ruth’s work speaks volumes about the reality of how home life can be overwhelming and complicated. Not only about the struggle to survive, but also of the celebration of life and culture. “I consider myself a social documentary photographer who records or documents social issues without prejudice or judgement around my surroundings,” she says.
Ruth was the first black female photographer who was employed by a South African newspaper as a photo editor and played a pivotal role as a photographer during the 90s. She worked as a photojournalist for newspapers and that shaped and gave her an opportunity to discover what she really wanted to do as a photographer.
“The stories I covered for the newspaper pictorially did not do justice, so I will go back and do some of the stories in a picture form. I cannot remember the first time I picked up the camera, but the first time when I put the photographic paper in the developer in the darkroom and saw an image coming from the paper, something in my spirit was ignited, and I knew then that photography was what I wanted to do,” she says.
“I am a creative person. I paint with light and that simply means that without light, I cannot create or make images. In photography, light is my biggest deal. I started photography at Alex art Centre and spent most of my three years at the Market Photo Workshop. With David Goldblatt as my mentor and teacher, his teaching was taking photographs without a flash. We used available light. I was influenced by the likes of Sebastiao Salgado, Yousuf Karsh, John Loengard, Brian Lanker, Don McCullin, Roy DeCarava, Santu Mofokeng, Guy Tillim, and Ernest Cole to mention a few. Sometimes I would point a camera to myself and the results would always amaze me,” she says.
Her impressive body of work includes the ‘Hostel and Shebeen Series’ which portray the general everyday hostel and shebeen life. “As a social documentary photographer from Meadowlands in Soweto, I grew up around hostels. When my father came to Johannesburg, he lived in Jeppe hostel. So, I was curious about the everyday activities and lives of the hostel dwellers. Shebeens were popular in the hostels and the images show most activities that transpire almost every day. Shebeens are a part of life to those who make a living from the income generated from selling alcohol to feed their families and they are mostly run by women,” she says.
Over the years, Ruth has captured many images that tell different stories and some of her work has been recognised and displayed at the National Museum of African Art. She proudly mentions this as a huge milestone and highlight of her career. “The National Museum of African Art bought my work as a collection and they are the only museum dedicated to the collection, exhibition, conservation, and study of the arts of Africa in the United States.
Even good photographers take bad pictures sometimes and Ruth is quick to admit this. “I have taken a lot of horrible pictures, but my worst experience was when I went on a student assignment to photograph the late Mr Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela for the first time and realised afterwards that I did not have a film in my camera. I never told anyone until later years,” she says.