LL: Your work as a whole addresses the economic and political reality of marginalized communities primarily in South Africa. Can you talk about your personal interest in these communities and professions (miners, sugarcane workers, etc.). Are you personally an outsider or is there more of a connection to these people and circumstances -politically, economically, culturally?
ZM: The work is about my personal history and personal observation. I grew up in contact with these different communities all the time. I was always interested in how the migrant workers would be ostracized from the main community, which was the community that I came from. The migrant workers were always seen as “the other” – they looked different, talked different, dressed different – they were just so different. As a kid I was curious to understand the dynamics of these differences, mainly because we were all black, I assumed we were all the same. Growing up as an artist I came to realize that I was also an outsider because with my views on life I probably didn’t belong to any of the communities, even the mainstream community.
My first attraction to the sugar cane workers was that they were wearing skirts, and that they looked to me like Samurai warriors. I then found out that, not only were they wearing skirts, but also many other layers of clothing. This was odd to me because Durban is an incredibly hot and humid area. I thought they must be crazy to be wearing so many clothes and still doing manual labor. I discovered, through speaking with them, that the reason was to protect themselves from the burning ground and soot (sugar cane is burnt before harvested); from the very sharp leaves of the cane; and also from the many snakes that like to live in sugar cane fields. The most difficult part of taking these photographs was stopping them from working. These guys are paid according to the weight of sugar cane that they harvest; there is no hourly rate. I felt guilty that I was interrupting and taking their money away from them by asking them to pose for me. So this forced me to move in and out as quickly as possible, interrupting their flow of production as little as possible.