I am not a stereotype. The photographer reframing South African identity


Gemma Shepherd grew up with a disposable camera in her hands. She didn’t know it then, but the hobby would take her far. Her creative inclinations range from art to writing, but when she attended a Vogue exhibition, she realised the place she belonged was fashion photography. As Shepherd pursued a career in capturing style, she relished her role behind the camera. Yet she recognised there was something missing from much of fashion: people who looked like her.

“Fashion was where I saw a lack of representation the most,” Shepherd says. “Coloured women and coloured men are actually at the forefront of trends, but it’s not seen as a trend.” Only in her 20s, Shepherd got her start as an intern at Cosmopolitan magazine after studying at the University of Cape Town. She already has an extensive body of editorial work, but when a friend approached her about doing a project that focused specifically on coloured women, she jumped at the chance. Shepherd knew she could use her photography to add nuance to existing narratives surrounding her identity. By placing coloured women in front and behind of the camera, the endeavour, HER, positions them to tell their stories on their own terms. The collaboration provided Shepherd and others to take their identities into their own hands, and reflect their lives as they see it.

With a minimal aesthetic, Shepherd’s imagery allows each woman she photographs to express their own personal complexities. As she leads change in fashion, Shepherd hopes to see a ripple effect. “This is something that needs to go a lot further than the creative industry,” she says. “I think it’s important to build an inclusive country and celebrate the differences.”