The Couple (2020) South Africa
“Fantasy is not the object of desire, but its setting.” - Laplanche and Pontalis
“It is precisely the moment in which the phantasmatic assumes the status of the real, that is, when the two become compellingly conflated, that the phantasmatic exercises its power most effectively.~ - Judith Butler
The Couple series is part of No Man’s Lands - a five-year project that documents being in a state of limbo. Developing socially engaged photographic practices, whereby the photoshoot ‘s aspects were determined in conversations with the participants, the process became collaborative from the outset. While addressing certain realities these photoshoots produce what Butler calls a ‘phantasmic’ space that go further than mere representation. This is due to the subject’s projection of their (imagined) selves, or in other words, the creation of their self re-presentation, in the photographic process.
This series aims to represent the "in-limbo" conditions of Mihlali (a closeted gay man) and his best friend Lelethu (who’s lover is engaged to a woman). Mihlali contemplated how his best friend Lelethu (who’s lover is engaged to a woman). Mihlali contemplated how his position as a closeted gay man could be depicted photographically as the tensions between his position - of invisibility and/or charade - clashed with the medium of photography which, allegedly, revolves around truth-telling and visibility. In Lelethu's case, the challenge was to represent the absence of his lover or the absence of a kind of relationship he was seeking.
In both cases, we wanted to represent something that cannot be made visible, at least not straightforwardly. After a long conversation, looking at various possibilities, rather than trying to depict their real situations, the two decided to play a ‘real gay couple’ for the photoshoot.
We spent a day at Greatmore Studios residency’s house, chatting, cooking, eating, hanging laundry, sleeping, reading - imagining what “a normal” gay couple might do over the weekend. The reality that was played in that house was a fantasy for them and for many other LGBTQ+ people in their position. It was agreed from the start that Mihlali's face will be blurred in the edited photos. Coming out was out of the question.
A few weeks after, when the photos were sent (before blurring his face), Mihlali sent me a message saying that he was in tears and that there was no need to blur the photos anymore. He said: “I look so happy in these photos, in such a relationship, it looks so real. I don’t want to lie anymore”. Curiously, it was the lie, the acting or in Butler’s words the ‘phantasmatic’ setting that marked the boundaries between reality and fiction that brought Mihlali to traverse the closet’s boundaries and finally come out.