contemporary art Elizabeth Koetje portrait photography South Africa



// Elizabeth is a South African artist based in Amsterdam, The Netherlands. Her photography ranges from portraiture to still life, conceptual, and documentary photography. For International Women´s Day 2023, we are very pleased to share a set of portraits of South African women from her book “Born Free in South Africa – Nelson Mandela’s Legacy.”

Elizabeth actually spent ten years in theatre writing plays, directing and performing. This eventually led her to photography. “As a performer one is always thinking of the finest nuances to bring your character to life and when directing one thinks of the play as a whole – thus my thinking was both microscopic and telescopic,” she explains. “After completing my diploma in photography I ran a studio in Johannesburg and had wonderful opportunities creating portraits and portfolios for people from all walks of life. “I draw inspiration from many great artists – but more specifically from Caravaggio for his use of light, Magritte for his magic realism and Chagall for his extraordinary understanding of colour.”

After receiving a diploma in photography, Elizabeth opened a photographic studio and developed a deep love for portraiture. In the past few years she has come to prefer ambient light and hardly ever uses studio lights.

She told us that “to capture a face one should have a profound love for people, which I do. My main objective has always been to maintain the dignity of the people I photograph and I’ll always consider it a great honour to be able to capture the vast beauty and complexity of the human species.”

“The direct gaze helps to neutralise the ‘predatory voyeurism’ inherent in photography.”

Kristen-Lee Moolman

What draws you to the arts?

“I grew up surrounded by art and artists. It’s in my DNA to seek art and express myself creatively. Art is not about looking, but truly seeing, and for this reason I can be inspired by a mere moment in a theatre production or even by a specific colour in an art work. But one can’t wait for inspiration. Artists have a profound need to create, and often by simply starting with an idea, one becomes inspired.”

What do you like best about your South African portrait series?

“It’s a personal love letter to my country and her beautiful people.”

8 March is International Women´s Day – IWD. On this day, many organizations and artists try to draw attention to the continuing need to stand up for women´s and girls´ rights, i.e. the rights of half of the world´s population. This year´s IWD motto is #EmbraceEquity.

To celebrate International Women’s Day, this year we asked photographer Elizabeth Koetje to share some of her female portraits from her book “Born Free in South Africa”.

Nelson Mandela’s legacy of peace, tolerance and forgiveness is admired throughout the world. Soon after becoming South Africa’s first democratically elected president in 1994, Mandela made it his priority to give women a voice. He legalised abortion and female representation in Parliament jumped from 2.7 percent to 27 percent. Mandela recognized that true freedom could not be achieved while women suffer from oppression.

In 1996, Mandela said in his Women’s Day speech, “The legacy of oppression weighs heavily on women. As long as women are bound by poverty and as long as they are looked down upon, human rights will lack substance. As long as outmoded ways of thinking prevent women from making a meaningful contribution to society, progress will be slow. As long as the nation refuses to acknowledge the equal role of more than half of itself, it is doomed to failure.”

The photos Elizabeth shared are from her second photography book “Born Free in South Africa” which invites you to meet some of the people whom Nelson Mandela fought so hard to liberate. For this book, Elizabeth photographed fifty South Africans born during the momentous year of 1994 with the aim of ‘putting a face’ – quite literally – to Nelson Mandela’s legacy of peace, tolerance and forgiveness. The result is a series of monochrome portraiture of the South African, post-apartheid generation known as the Born Frees. All portraits were shot using ambient light only. “It was also important for me that each person looked directly into the lens; I wanted to convey the wonderful exuberance and sense of self that I see in the South African youth,” Elizabeth adds.

While in the book there are portraits of both male and female South Africans, for this day we have asked Elizabeth to send us only portraits of women.

Nelson Mandela’s speech is still very relevant today, as women in South Africa and in many countries across the globe still face many challenges and injustices.

Click on the photos to see the original larger version and the model´s name.


Please visit Elizabeth´s website to see more of this series and also her other work. You can also find this and another photo book there.

Also check out Elizabeth´s Instagram page.

2 replies on “BORN FREE”

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