A solitary man stands between sea and sky, his face framed by a complex head ornament of deconstructed plastic, startlingly vibrant against the washed out background tones. He stares into the camera.
The image is immediately recognisable as a work by Kristin-Lee Moolman, the South African photographer whose sculptural imagery has made her an up-and-coming favourite for fashion’s biggest magazines. She has shot editorials for British Vogue, Dazed, i-D and T Magazine, worked closely with brands including Burberry and Nike, as well as celebrated creatives such as designer Thebe Magugu, musician Baloji and stylist Ibrahim Kamara.
Her subjects have varied from a high fashion take on hazy summer days for Nike, to a short film focused on female spies who worked for and against South Africa’s Apartheid regime for Magugu. But her sun-bleached scenes of scorched landscapes are all populated by bold and unapologetic individuals who stare straight into the camera and hold the viewer’s gaze.
In a social media world where brands and magazines are producing more and more content, developing a distinct, standout style is rare. Moolman’s, however, is unmistakable.
“I’ll be scrolling on Instagram, and I’ll come across one of her images and I’ll know exactly it’s a Kristin-Lee Moolman picture,” said designer Gareth Wrighton, who has worked on multiple projects with Moolman. “She has such a stamp, such a signature, that you can see a photograph on the other side of the room and know she shot it.”
The photographer grew up in the Karoo on the outskirts of Graaff-Reinet in South Africa, a white girl born “on the cusp” of apartheid and acutely aware of the regime’s brutality and ongoing racist legacy. That context is visible throughout her work, which has been noted for centring and celebrating people from across the African continent. But it took Moolman years to develop her aesthetic, both visually and conceptually. Her early career was spent in New York shooting generic editorials with little reference to the world she came from and — in her words — little success.
“I just felt like I was hammering a brick wall,” Moolman said. “The images just felt hollow to me.”
Moolman was particularly frustrated by depictions of South Africa, which she found colonial or euro-centric with little bearing on the place as she knew it. After years spent travelling abroad, she moved to Johannesburg in 2014 and started looking closer to home for inspiration, turning her lens on friends and family and focusing on the people and places that had shaped her youth.
“I had to figure out who I was and what I actually wanted to say,” she said. “And I think that’s when I started shooting really intimate footage of my friends.”
The shift would launch her career. In 2015, Moolman shot a lookbook for Rich Mnisi’s brand Oath Studio. The portraiture series featured young South Africans dressed in 80′s and 90′s-inspired ensembles, posing in Mnisi’s grandmother’s home in Soweto. The cast wear little makeup and the set is minimal, but Moolman’s pictures place emphasis on the unapologetic confidence and beauty of the South African youth she turns her lens on.
The project was picked up by fashion news outlets like Dazed, creating international interest in Moolman’s work. Editorial and commercial projects soon followed, and in 2017 the Fondation Louis Vuitton exhibited the images as part of the group show, Art/Afrique. Last March, she was awarded the Norton Museum of Art’s biennial Rudin Prize for Emerging Photographers.
“I remember receiving the photographs in my inbox,” said Ted Stansfield, the deputy editor of AnOther magazine who wrote about the photographs for Dazed in 2015. “It was one of the few times in my career where I looked at the images and thought we need to do this right now.”
“The images are sexy, but not in a passive way. The people in [Moolman’s] photographs show a real strength and a real agency over their bodies and sexualities,” he added.
I’ve made it my mission to portray the South Africa that I know, which is beautiful, colourful, creative and joyous.
Her imagery, which aims to depict a real-life utopia that celebrates and uplifts people from across the African continent, feels particularly relevant amid the cultural shifts currently disrupting fashion’s traditional hierarchies and beauty ideals. It’s part of a broader wave of imagery from acclaimed African photographers creating a counter-narrative to long-standing stereotypes about the continent. Moolman herself is acutely aware of the privilege she experiences on account of her race, and it is in part South Africa’s troubled history of colonialism that informs many of her narratives.
“The people that I photograph have become these pedestals, these shrines to themselves, within a natural world,” said Moolman. “I’ve made it my mission to portray the South Africa that I know, which is beautiful, colourful, creative and joyous.”
Moolman’s creative process starts with mood boards and written treatments, but — whether it’s a personal, editorial or commercial project — the key is location and casting.
“I’m very influenced by the landscape and the people,” she said. “I generally seek out a group of people and build the story and strategy around them.”
That way of working has been challenging over the last year, as the pandemic curtailed access to new locations and people. Moolman has spent the time thinking about how to evolve the expression of her visual stories. Increasingly, she’s drawn to film-making. A large chunk of her time in isolation was spent writing screenplays, developing narratives and preparing shot lists for future short film projects, one of which is set to air in February 2021.
“Moving image is giving me an opportunity to delve deeper into my own storytelling,” said Moolman. “Everything’s on a screen now... but still images can only take me so far. Filmmaking allows me to expand on my existing body of work, it allows the people in the frame to have a narrative and a voice.”