Upon completing high school and realizing that there was more to this world than what was presented to him, Damien Schumann declined a career as a professional cyclist and started traveling the world. He lived in the Middle East and Asia for two years, and before entering Burma purchased a camera.. His first rolls of film were shot in 2001, in an orphanage while in hiding from immigration authorities. On returning to Thailand, these images became his first published work.
In late 2003 he set out to put a face to emerging Africa and start his career as a documentary photographer. Schumann hitchhiked from Cape Town to Palestine – eating, sleeping, traveling and simply existing as the average person does in the given place. Balala, his first exhibition was launched upon his return.
Recognition of this trip won him a scholarship to the Ruth Prowse School of Art. He completed his Diploma of Photography here with a distinction in 2006.
Four artworks from this series titled 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 annually, both visually and with a handwritten testimony. This series was exhibited at Princeton University in 2011, and opened with a panel discussion involving Joseph Amon, Director of Human Rights Watch and Brazilian film maker, João Moreira Salles.
The image of Ncosibaca Thinga Thinga 2006 from this series caught the attention of Bill Gates and motivated him to visit the participant in his home in Khayelitsha, South Africa. This meeting occurred right before national policy discussions were to take place, regarding tuberculosis funding in South Africa. Mr Thinga Thinga had contracted TB four times.
The Shack (2006-2008) – a lifesize recreation of an informal home, and used as a mobile gallery space- was Schumann’s first installation piece. It was used to contextualize the living conditions contributing to TB/HIV within South Africa. The interior design incorporated photographs and stories of people who live in the exact living conditions depicted. This exhibition traveled around the world, to international conferences and parliaments, advocating for change in policy regarding TB/HIV. After winning the praise of Archbishop Desmond Tutu at a public exhibition in Cape Town, it appeared at the World TB conference in Paris, World AIDS Day in Amsterdam, Parliament in De Hague, the World AIDS conference in Sydney, Parliament in Canberra (where it motivated US$37.5m to be placed into public health in Indonesia), and the World AIDS conference in Mexico 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 stigmatization causes amongst HIV and TB sufferers, Schumann set out to expose how this condition affects other social issues. Face It (2008) became an 18month assignment documenting the untold secrets of stigmatized individuals in every race, class, gender and age demographic he could find. This installation incorporated audio recordings of interviews and environmental portraits in titleless, faceless books, and was launched at the South African National Arts Festival 2008. It ended up traveling the country with the group show about HIV, Not Alone, 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 Schumann with a court case, claiming it was a ‘misrepresentation of the country’ which eventually led to the dismantling of the installation. Fortunately Mexican activists saw 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 traveling 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 aims to engage its audience in social change and encourage doing what is within one’s power to make 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 within academic circles in the USA, and prompted a lecture series in 2009 for 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 traveled to the AVA Gallery in Cape Town. Schumann’s way of incorporating himself into his work drew the attention of anthropologists and art theorists who commenced studies on him and his work. This was also a contributing factor to the Retrospect series being shown in Princeton, and was the root of the intimate installation piece curated by Chantal Louw, Process (2010), that looked at the photographer and how his work and life are integrated into one entity.
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, Brazil. In this time he produced the series Off Season (2011) that looks at the effects of tourism on the island of Itaparica.
After being nominated as Artist of the Year in the Ikusasa Awards 2012, he commenced a Masters degree in Media Theory and Practice at the University of Cape Town. This was prompted by his realization of the strength of media but also the frustration with how it is utilized and regulated. He entered the course through a Recognition of Prior Learning program (RPL), having not completed a degree before. In his first year of study he researched masculinity in South Africa, and produced his first short film set in the only homeless shelter in Africa catering specifically for homosexuals.
Damien Schumann is currently based in Cape Town, South Africa and works on local and international assignments. He is obsessed with gaining an understanding of the unknown, and sees photography as his opportunity to question, post-production as a means of concluding answers, and exhibiting as a way to formulate change.