Visualising ‘Africa’: moving beyond ‘positive versus negative’ photographs

A disaster. A lone child. Barefoot. In a barren landscape. The apparent absence of social structures.

This photograph recycles all the main elements in the dominant representation of ‘Africa’. As James Ferguson writes in his important book Global Shadows, “for all that has changed, ‘Africa’ continues to be described through a series of lacks and absences, failings and problems, plagues and catastrophes.”

Caption: Bududa, Eastern Uganda. A boy walks over the churned mud after heavy rains caused landslides on Mount Elgon on Tuesday. Three villages were engulfed, at least 80 people were killed and around 250 are missing. The Guardian, 6 March 2010, p. 23. Credit: James Akena/Reuters

The recent mudslides in Uganda that James Akena’s photo for Reuters symbolises are certainly worthy of reporting. The question is: regardless of the intentions of the individual photographer – a Ugandan who is an accomplished stringer – why did he choose this particular composition? And, equally important, given that he will have taken a number of images on site, how did this particular photo come to be selected by The Guardian to represent the story?

The choices that Akena made in taking the photograph, and The Guardian made in making it the largest picture in its ‘Eyewitnessed’ double page spread for the first week in March, are evident when compared to other pictures from the same event. On The New York Times Lens blog Stephen Wandera’s photograph for AP (see slide 2) shows a large crowd at the scene searching for survivors, while a Ugandan TV report also shows the community at large. These demonstrate that the photography of the lone boy is a specific choice with particular effects that tap into a long history of visual representation.

It is time for the photographic visualization of ‘Africa’ to offer something different. In this context, it is worth noting that only two days prior to the publication of the Bududa photograph, The Guardian ran a story in its business section headlined “Africa begins to make poverty history.” It opened with claim that:

For decades, it has been seen as the world’s lost continent. Now, a new study says that the view of Africa as a basket case is wrong.

As the continent prepares to welcome thousands of international football fans for the World Cup in June, it seems the image of an economically vibrant region the hosts are keen to project is closer to the truth than tired stereotypes suggest.

It’s an important — though contested — account of recent economic trends should give pause to those who simply recycle the old stereotypes, and some photographers are producing different perspectives that challenge those stereotypes.

One significant project doing this is Joan Bardeletti’s “Middle Classes in Africa,” a twenty-month project in six countries documenting the rise of this group and their potential role in the development of the continent. Three of the stories – from Mozambique, Kenya and the Ivory Coast – are on-line now. One of the pictures from the Mozambique story won a World Press Photo award this year for the “Daily Life/singles” category.

Caption: Un dimanche après midi en famille sur la plage près de Maputo. Joan Bardeletti/Picturetank

Bardeletti’s photographs show people, places, institutions and cultural events that are modern, well-resourced and more than a little familiar to the European eye. They reveal a complexity to ‘African’ life that belies the stereotypes. However, we have to refrain from seeing Akena’s photograph as ‘negative/wrong/false’ while Bardeletti’s are ‘positive/right/true’. These are tired forms of critique that overlook the fact that all photographers make aesthetic choices in the construction of imagery. In terms of what ‘we’ outside of ‘Africa’ see, the overriding concern needs to be less the presence of particular pictures than the absence of all the alternative possibilities.

This chimes with an interview Guy Tillim, the renowned South African photographer, gave to Daniel Cuthbert’s Verbal blog in July last year. Tillim observed:

The thing is, there are serious problems in Africa which did require our attention. One has to be careful with the positive/negative thing. Just because one takes images of dance halls in Lagos, and people being happy, it might end up being as much as a cliché as the suffering image.

Positives images are one that are self-aware or are interesting, penetrating and original no matter what they look at. Negatives images are ones that perpetuate the issue. Let’s face it, Stereotypes are currency in this industry and actively traded by western media.

The problem with images is that we are so visually driven, clichés are bound to be strong. There is a lack of context. If we see a crumbling wall, we think this is a metaphor for the human issue. It’s not, it’s often just a crumbling wall. What is positive and negative depends on your view.

Tillim’s recasting of what positive/negative mean is very important. Instead of it being a simple contrast of picture content — graphic images of famine versus smiling villagers, for example — he sees it as embodying an understanding of the purpose and function of photographs: “positives images are one that are self-aware or are interesting, penetrating and original no matter what they look at. Negatives images are ones that perpetuate the issue [the cliché].”

This is the position from which we should judge Bardeletti’s photographs. It will be interesting to see how many media outlets use Bardeletti’s photographs and stories once the project is completed in the summer of this year. Of course, there are many economic problems still facing the continent – such as the “land grab” of agricultural resources revealed recently by John Vidal – but a more comprehensive visual account of ‘Africa’ must include photographs like Joan Bardeletti’s.


UPDATE 18 March 2010:

Asim Rafiqui has an excellent post — How to Take Photos of Africa Or Where Intent and Ideas Collide — that was serendipitously published on the same day as this one. It shares concerns similar to mine, and has a range of additional examples. It is a ‘must read’.

8 replies on “Visualising ‘Africa’: moving beyond ‘positive versus negative’ photographs”

Hello David Campbell,
I just found your blog and it’s very interesting to me. I’m doing my PhD in the representation of refugees through alternative media, with my background literature having developed from their dominant representations. Indeed I’ve quoted you severally in my work and thanks for this blog, it brings your work closer to us (me) as upcoming scholars. this article has a similarity with a paper I’m working on at the moment.

David, I’ve just found your blog and I’m very impressed with your detailed and succinct thoughts.

I’m just completing a research MA with the University of Cape Town on South African representation in television news, looking at a sample of the World Cup’s closing few days. The semiotics of the imagery / discourse of the news is highly interesting, and I’m finding a lot of my own conclusions are echoed in your blog. Thank you for a well-written and insightful argument that spans multiple blog posts. I hope you don’t mind but I’ve cited you a couple of times in my draft, as your discussion is pertinent to my findings.

Contact me if you have any concerns, suggestions, or advice.

I am very gratified by this post – making the compelling case for presenting Africa in a different light than the usual doom and gloom. That is what we are looking to accomplish with the upcoming launch of Presenting all facets of Africa and not through just one lens. I started the project out of a nagging feeling to present Africa the way Africans see it and live it. Thanks David.

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