On completing high school and realizing there was more to this world than what was being presented to him, Damien Schumann declined a professional cycling contract and started traveling the world. He lived in the Middle East and Asia for two years before buying a camera and entering Burma in 2001. It was here, in an orphanage that he shot his first rolls of film, while hiding from immigration authorities.
In late 2003 he set out to put a face to emerging Africa and began his career as a documentary photographer. He hitchhiked from Cape Town to Palestine – eating, sleeping, travelling and simply existing as the average person does in the given area. Balala, his first exhibition, was launched on his return.
Recognition of this trip led to Schumann being awarded a scholarship at the Ruth Prowse School of Art. He completed his Diploma of Photography here with a distinction in 2006. Four artworks from his series Dialogues – Understanding Tuberculosis were purchased by the Irma Stern/UCT collection. Dialogues evolved into an ongoing project titled Retrospect, which follows the lives of 14 South Africans, documenting them visually and including a personal handwritten testimony from the participant once a year. This series was exhibited at Princeton University in 2011, and opened with a panel discussion between Joseph Amon, Director of Human Rights Watch, Brazillian filmamker, João Moreira Salles, Schumann, and an intent audience.
The image of Ncosibaca Thinga Thinga (2006) found its way to Bill Gates and motivated him to visit Mr Thinga Thinga in his home in Khayelitsha, South Africa. This visit occurred right before key national policy discussions regarding TB funding in South Africa. Mr Thinga Thinga had had TB four times.
The Shack (2006-2008) – was a lifesize recreation of an informal settlement home, and used as a mobile gallery space. This was Schumann’s first installation piece. It was used to contextualize the living conditions contributing to TB/HIV. The interior design incorporated photographs and stories of people who live in the exact conditions depicted. This exhibition traveled around the world advocating for change in policy regarding TB/HIV. After winning the praise of Archbishop Desmond Tutu at a public exhibition in Cape Town, the installation appeared at the World TB conference, in Paris; World AIDS Day, in Amsterdam; Parliament in De Hague (where it assisted in motivating government to increase their funding in HIV by 50% over three years); World AIDS conference, in Sydney; Parliament in Canberra (where it motivated US$37.5m to be placed into public health in Indonesia); and finally the World AIDS conference, inMexico City – where it was presented to the Deputy President of South Africa, Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka; the Executive Director of UNAIDS – Dr Peter Poit; and the Director General of World Health Organization, Dr Hiroshi Nakajima.
Schumann created a niche in the NGO world during this time and worked closely with health and human rights organizations such as the World Health Organization, International Federation of the Red Cross, Project Concern International, Stop TB Partnership, Desmond Tutu TB Center, Pan American Health Organization, TB Care, Centro de Salud, Mexico, AusAID, RESULTS international, KNCV, Open Society Institute, Treatment Action Campaign, Eli Lilly and the USA/Mexico Border Health Association.
Struck by the immense destruction caused by stigmatization surrounding HIV and TB, Schumann set out to expose how this mental condition affects other social issues. Face It (2008) became an eighteen month assignment documenting the untold secrets of stigmatized victims in every race, class, gender and age demographic he could find. This installation incorporating audio recordings of interviews and environmental portraits in untitled, faceless books launched at the South African National Arts Festival in 2008, and ended up travelling the country with Not Alone, a group show about HIV, curated by Carol Brown and David Gere of Make Art/Stop AIDS.
While The Shack won the praise of the international community in Mexico City and placed co-infection of TB/HIV as a central discussion point at the conference, members of South African government threatened a court case against Schumann claiming it was a ‘misrepresentation of the country’ which eventually led to its dismantling. Fortunately Mexican activists had seen the potential in the concept and commissioned Schumann to produce another shack true to the conditions in Mexico. Nuestra Casa (2009 – 2011) was born on the USA/Mexico border, and spent all of 2010/2011 travelling the length of Mexico advocating for better health care and social reform, and educating about best practice and preventative measures related to health care. It was a central point in the World TB conference, in Cancun, appeared in the El Cecut Museum, in Tijuana, and closed at the Smithsonian Odyssey Museum in Atlanta where it attracted over 17000 visitors. Its success led to the creation of the Nuestra Casa Initiative (NCI) (2012) – an interactive installation piece that engaged its audience in social change and doing what is within ones power to create change. NCI was exhibited throughout 2012 at the Centennial Museum, El Paso with monthly campaigns highlighting the various issues exposed in the exhibition.
Interest in Nuestra Casa drew attention to Schumann’s work amongst academic circles in the USA. This interest prompted a lecture series in 2009 at which he spoke about his work and methodology at Princeton University, Duke University’s Centre of Documentary Studies, Johns Hopkins University, and the University of Texas at El Paso.
Spending time on the USA/Mexico Border, Schumann became aware of the similarities between this region and South Africa. Frustrated with how the South African audience was ignoring the serious realities within their own country, he set out to relate a story about South Africa through a foreign entity. Using his style of incorporating stories into his work, he included himself as the protagonist and used his presence as a foreigner to explain his findings and understandings. Borderline (2010) received funding from the SA National Arts Council and was a primary exhibition at the 2010 National Arts festival, and later travelled to the AVA Gallery, in Cape Town. Incorporating himself into this work drew the attention of anthropologists and art theorists who commenced studies on him and his work. This was also a contributing factor that led to the Retrospect series being shown at Princeton University, and was the root of the intimate installation piece, Process curated by Chantal Louw in 2010, that examined at the photographer and how his work and life are integrated.
In 2011 Schumann was recognized as one of Mail & Guardian’s top 200 Young South Africans. That year he also won an artist residency at the Instituto Sacatar, in Brazil, during which time he produced the series Off Season (2011) that looks at the effects of tourism on the island of Itaparica.
Schumann commenced a Masters degree in Documentary Arts at the University of Cape Town in 2012. He entered the course through a Recognition of Prior Learning program (RPL) having not completed a degree before. His thesis is focuses on the social construct of masculinity, and how it is learned and passed on from one generation to the next. Hyper masculinity is a driving force of rape, violence and murder in South Africa. The objective of this work is to start shaping a new construct of masculinity – one that creates opportunity to attain masculine success that can contribute positively to society. This is to be launched in 2014.
In 2013, based on the impact of the story of Floyd in the Shack exhibition, and the success it had in Dutch Parliament, a short film titled I am Floyd was produced to show the remarkable development that has been made with regard to HIV since the 1990’s, but emphasizing that if we cut funding all of our efforts to overcome HIV will be lost. This was shown in Dutch parliament to motivate the government to continue directing funding towards HIV. An agreement is currently being negotiated.
Currently Schumann is working on assignments that tackle masculinity, brain awareness, and the forensic and justice systems that handle violent crime. Although separate, and very different projects, they hold intricate ties that contribute to each other. He was made a Good 100 change maker in 2014, and graduated from his Documentary Arts Degree.