Sabelo Mlangeni's Men Only series focuses on the George Goch hostel on the East Rand of Johannesburg. Built in 1961 to house migrant mineworkers, today the hostel is home to taxi drivers and security guards, among the many who move to Jozi to better their lives. Only men are allowed in such hostels, and in the collective imaginary they are places of violence, sexual abuse and illegal trafficking. They are also places where the legacy of apartheid is still clearly evident, despite the gains of the past 15 years of democracy.
Mlangeni says: 'It is these imaginings that led me to photograph life in these buildings, going beyond the stereotypes and trying to capture the normality that exists in an abnormal, unnatural situation.' Men's hostels are not easily approachable places, both practically and visually, and, Mlangeni says, 'my curiosity and maleness weren't enough to gain me access to this private world'. It took him two years to develop the trust and familiarity needed to show the residents' lives with honesty and clarity.
He spent several weeks in the hostel, sharing the daily routines of the tenants as he worked. 'I did not choose to be invisible, but ended up blending with the people in the hostel. I became one of them. I spent so long there that they never really cared what I was doing. I tried not to be influenced by preconceived ideas, not to take a predetermined perspective towards the presence of violence, homosexuality or sexual abuse. All these issues blend into the pace of life, sometimes in very subtle ways, other times in outbursts.' An immigrant to the city himself, Mlangeni found the lives that are revealed through his lens to be 'as complex as I imagined and at times as familiar as my own skin'.
Some of the photographs allude to harsh living conditions and the ways in which men are forced to adapt in the absence of sisters, mothers and wives. Images that capture daily chores such as cooking and ironing are quiet, even tender. The grade is soft; gestures and shapes are often not in focus and this contributes to the feeling of a place of transit, where boundaries are not sharply defined. Some photographs show only details of arms, hands, feet: they give clues to relationships and dynamics among the residents, but they do not explain them. Most of the men don't know each other and yet share their private daily routines, becoming intimate to various degrees. Other portraits reflect the special connections that are part of daily life within African cultures, whether the men are ekhaya (at home) or in the big city.
In Mlangeni's images the hostel reveals itself as a transitional space. Segregation is a defining characteristic of the institution, yet it is not impermeable and the pressures and dynamics of the outside world inevitably filter in. The hostel is a fragile shell in which elements of the public and private realms temporarily coexist.
- Federica Angelucci
© 2009 Michael Stevenson. All rights reserved.