Whether he’s creating beautifully framed portraits that celebrate the strength and joy of the people he photographs or filming stories that center the experience of trans Black South Africans, Baz Bailey’s work reveals the deep sense of wonder and connection he feels to each of his subjects.
After Prayers for Sweet Waters, a documentary Baz worked on, won the Emerging Black LGBTQ+ Filmmaker Award at the NewFest film festival this year, I had a chance to talk with the photographer and cinematographer about the projects he’s worked on, the themes and issues they explore, and what we can look forward to next from the photographer.
When did you first start taking an interest in photography and film? What sparked your initial interest?
Since I was a kid, I’ve always had an interest in how things looked on TV and in family photo albums — the way objects and people appeared, that kind of thing. I just didn’t know yet that there was a whole career dedicated to it.
Growing up, I did a lot of extracurricular activities. I tried fencing, long-distance running, archery, and other sports. They were all really fun, but it wasn’t until I got my first camera that I really got a kick out of something.
I had no idea how it worked, but I taught myself about different exposures, speeds, and all that stuff in my mom’s backyard by taking photos of birds, flowers, and my baby cousin.
Later, I saved enough money to buy my first semi-pro camera from a second-hand website. My mom drove me to pick it up after school at the old SAB offices in Jozi [Johannesburg]. Some old white guy in a suit and shiny shoes sold me the kit. He looked surprised when we showed up, probably because I went under a pseudonym for safety reasons, but most likely because I was young and Black.
We ended up chatting in the parking lot for about an hour while my mom listened to her usual afternoon drive show (I think it was Redi Tlhabi). He gave me some advice on how to film wildlife, which was his hobby. I told him my story and how I wanted to become a photographer one day. I think he liked my story because he threw in an extra tripod and lens with the kit I bought. That day was a really great day for me.
What made you realize that this would be a lifelong passion and career? Was there a specific project or moment?
Yes, there was definitely a moment.
For some reason, I’d convinced myself that photography wasn’t a viable career. Instead, I studied and got my Honors in an unrelated field and ending up in a blue suit in some Sandton Highrise. I was surrounded by people who ate and slept management consulting. They were the kind of people who got excited about data sets and dreamt about PowerPoint slides.
It was awesome, witnessing that level of passion and dedication. Honestly, I kind of felt jealous that people could feel that way about something and be lucky enough to do it every day.
That was the moment for me. I thought I owed myself that, too: to throw myself completely into what I love. And I did just that. And now I’m here and I’ve never looked back since.
In October, NewFest, the New York LGBTQ+ Film Festival, screened a short documentary you worked on, Prayers for Sweet Waters. Can you talk a bit about that documentary and your role in the project?
Wes, Flavi, and Aunty Gulam are good people. I think that’s what the film is about at its core. They’re soft, in a way that’s still and gentle. That’s what I sought to portray as the Director of Photography: to show the juxtaposition between their vivid realities and their dreamscapes.
I wanted to contrast the city and ruralscapes with their softness. So I used the city’s lines and lights and atmosphere to convey this softness in a way that worked against each other but in a good way, a kind of poetic way.
Sometimes I’d only have a couple of minutes to set up and shoot before the cops would show up. It would be the whole team cramped in the back seat, trying to keep a low profile or chucking a blue plastic bag over a car light for effects, or me keeping a whole camera setup with a matte box hidden under my hoodie.
Man, it was a great team we had. Everyone went the extra mile, I think because it’s all we have: each other. It’s tough being young and Black and queer in the industry. But it makes it all worth it when I see us make something like Prayers for Sweet Waters.
You know, Aunty Gulam loves talking. I remember we drove from Cape Town to Worcester for a part of the film. The drive is just under two hours, and she didn’t stop talking once. She talked about life, growing up queer under apartheid, finding love, that kind of stuff. I cherish moments like that because we have so few queer elders here. That was one of the things that made the experience was so worth it.
Earlier this year, you directed the film, Ander, about a young transgender girl coming to terms with her identity. It’s one of the first Afrikaans films to portray a transgender character. What has the reception been like? How are audiences reacting to the film?
It’s not the first, but there could definitely be a lot more. The reception we’ve received has been really heart-warming. I still get emails and DMs about the film.
Caitlin Wiggill wrote the script beautifully and I’m just happy that she wrote something for South Africans that I never had growing up. I wanted to pay homage to the typical matriarchal South African household and also reinforce positive queer and Colored representation.
Even when there is conflict between Dre and her mother, Lee-Ann van Rooi and I made sure that it was delivered with love and gentleness. That’s possible, you know. We wanted to do the same with the character Ma (Vinette Ebrahim) too. She unreservedly loves Dre, holds her, and affirms her in their mother tongue, Kaaps. That’s all deliberate. The portrayal of the Colored experience and the trans experience can be soft, too. I made sure to portray that in Ander.
The main character, Dre, is largely surrounded by love and support. Though her mom is reluctant to accept Dre’s identity, her friend and grandmother provide encouragement and love. How does Dre’s experience in the film compare with the general experience of transgender people in South Africa?
Many truths can exist at once. It’s true that many households like Dre’s exist in South Africa where LGBT+ people are met with love and [spoiler] eventually acceptance. It’s also true that queer people are faced with hate and danger.
I think a lot of African cultures are ahead of Western ones when it comes to trans people in many regards. For one, as a Xhosa person, pronouns don’t exist. Beyond that, transness is explained and legitimized through cultural avenues.
Do we also face transphobia even within the very Xhosa culture that sees us? Yes, absolutely. Again, many truths can exist at once. So, it’s a complicated experience, as it is for most trans people in South Africa.
Being a Xhosa trans man, I shuffle between these different realities. Ultimately, that’s why I want Ander to reflect a positive image of the kid sitting at home about who they are, so they understand and love themselves. I want to validate them and let them know that Black trans people exist and most importantly, that they are deeply loved.
Is Ander available for streaming anywhere?
Yes. The film can be found on DStv. You’ll probably need a VPN to access it out of South Africa, though.
The video you made during the BODYLAND residency has some stunning and provocative visuals (along with an incredible instrumental track by Sky Dladla). Could you talk a bit about some of the symbolism used — like the white bandages, the sheets, and the clothing and accessories worn?
Thank you. We were just out and about, enjoying our ancestral Xhosa land and just being ourselves. What you see painted on our faces is imbola (ochre), a sacred ointment that we use for a number of things as amaXhosa.
Some of us are wearing the yellow imbola for protection against the sun as our ancestors have been doing for generations. Others are wearing the white and red imbola to indicate their journey or status in society.
Sky Dladla is seen playing Uhadi (Xhosa bow), while wearing ukhetshemiya — a black headwrap worn to show respect. Amakrwala (a graduated Xhosa adolescent male initiate) and new brides usually wear ukhetshemiya.
Some of us are also wearing umbhaco, which is a traditional cloth that comes in different colors, with different stripes and detail work. It can mean a number of things across Xhosa clans. I could go on and on.
In the Body of Evidence campaign you’re worked on, you mention Cape Town’s “red zones.” What are red zones? Could you give some background on what this campaign is about?
It’s hard to live in South Africa and ignore that we have some of the highest rates of gender-based violence and femicide (GBVF) in the world. Every day a woman, a child, a queer person is taken away from us. It’s hard to keep ahead of the list, that’s how rampant it is.
Mandla Mbothwe and Qondiswa James allowed us the artistic freedom to use the campaign to bring awareness to this issue. We decided to map-out GBVF hot spots. When you see it visually, it really blows your mind.
I ended up photographing movement artists performing juxtaposed to these areas as an act of reclamation. We can’t let violence be the only narrative of those areas. So we took it back, even if it’s just one frame.
What’s next for you? Are there any upcoming projects you can tell us about?
I’m working on a series of self-portraits exploring ulwaluko as a Xhosa trans man. No matter what people say, as Xhosa trans people, we have a blood right to exist with full agency and dignity in our culture. They can’t take that away from us.
ISILIMELA (PLANTING of A NEW MAN) is commissioned by the BODYLAND Residency and will be launching at the “Everything was beautiful and nothing hurt” exhibition in January 2021.
You can access the virtual studio here if you can’t make it in person.
Where can readers go to find your work?