Albinism is a condition that affects melanin production, resulting in little or no pigmentation in the skin, hair and eyes. The Albinism Society of South Africa estimates that one in 4000 people in the country has the condition and yet, as local photographer Justin Dingwall explains to SBS, “in South Africa albinism is rarely discussed, and has only recently become part of the discourse about our country.”
In other parts of Africa, such as Tanzania and Burundi, being albino can mean dealing not only with prejudices but it could possibly get you killed.
“In African countries, people with albinism are especially discriminated against and ostracised because of their skin tone (as well as in other parts of the world),” explains Dingwall.
“Cultural traditions and beliefs play a part in this. One of the beliefs is that albinism brings bad luck, and this causes fear and distrust towards people with albinism.”
“In Africa especially, there is also a fear for their lives, as there are some beliefs that people with albinism possess mystical powers that can cure diseases and bring prosperity, and this results in the death or mutilation of many. In Tanzania, for example, it occurs that people with albinism are hunted by witch doctors.”
For Dingwall though, it’s this very distinctiveness that has inspired him to create his new exhibition, Albus, exploring the beauty of his albino subjects in a collection of striking photographs.
“I have always been interested in the unique or what is conventionally viewed as different” he explains.
Dingwall is referring to one of the two subjects of the exhibition, South African model Thando Hopa (pictured below). Hopa has become a muse to Dingwall, after he first crossed paths with her when commissioned by Hopa’s publicist to create a portfolio of images for the model.
“I find difference very inspiring. When I met Thando, I immediately felt inspired. She embodies the idea of unconventional beauty.”
You might recognise Hopa from her various catwalk appearances or high profile beauty campaigns. A lawyer by profession, she turned to part-time modeling to campaign against the prejudice that people with albinism face.
“As soon as I met her I knew I wanted to create something with her,” says Dingwall.
“I grabbed this opportunity with both hands and aimed to create a body of work that would reflect her beauty and show people what I had seen.”
It was actually this first encounter with Hopa that kick-started Dingwall’s passion for spreading awareness of albinism through his powerful photography.
“Thando's inner strength and poise radiates from her, her drive and tenacity are very inspiring and it made me want to get to know her better and try to understand more about albinism.”
“As I learned more about it, the more I felt it was important to share this work and create awareness about albinism through art.”
It’s not just in Africa that people with albinism find themselves being alienated.
“In the fashion industry albinism is usually viewed as negative (not fitting into the ideals of conventional beauty) or as a sought after ‘oddity’ or trend,” says Dingwall.
Dingwall’s hope for his work is that it will help achieve something beyond the purely superficial.
“My intention is for the images to become a celebration of beauty in difference,” he says.
“The images are not about race or fashion, but about perception, and what we subjectively perceive as beautiful. I wanted to create a series of images that resonate with humanity and make people question what is beautiful.”
NSW Liberal MP Gareth Ward is the only member of Parliament in Australia with albinism and due to the affect that the condition is also one of the highest profile campaigners for people with the condition.
He tells SBS that the exhibition “sends a powerful and important message that’s it okay to be proud of who you are and to celebrate and embrace our human diversity.”
Reflecting on his own experience growing up with albinism, Mr Ward says, “for a kid who was told I’d never amount to anything much, I’m proud to have lived life to its fullest and used my time to make a difference in other people’s lives as a local Member of Parliament.”
It’s exactly this sort of defiance that Dingwall hopes to portray in his work.
“My main aim with this body of work was to portray and hopefully inspire a different perspective to foreground the myths surrounding albinism.
“There is a beauty in difference, and I hope through my work to inspire people to embrace this difference and reinterpret their ideals of beauty.”