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photography politics Thinking Images

Thinking Images v.5: Picturing a protest and illustrating ‘Africa’

Thinking Images – an occasional series on a small selection of the week’s visuals and the thoughts they prompt…

The vast majority of news photographs are illustrative – designed to provide a visual punctuation point for the story they accompany. They can arise from an event the day before, as in Thursday’s Guardian front page image of a person kicking in a window during the student protests in London.

Photo: Ray Tang/Jonathan Hordle/REX

A Reuters executive once described news as “a disruption of the norm,” and a violent moment in an otherwise peaceful political event fits the bill perfectly. It is for this reason that news fails so often to provide the context of the main issue, something that a number of journalism analysts are trying to address in their “future of context” project. Note also the way such happenings become photo opportunities, with the phalanx of photographers to the right of the protestor lapping up the action.

Thursday’s Guardian ran two images of ‘Africa’ that provided a non-stereotypical account of their subject, showing how in the absence of the most recent news images newspapers draw upon well-known and long-running projects to provide their visual resources. In the Guardian’s double-page Eyewitness spread was Joan Bardeletti’s prize-winning still from his important “Middle Class in Africa” project (although the image of the Mozambican family is bizarrely entitled “it’s a dogs life”). A couple of page’s later was one of Ed Kashi’s great Niger Delta photographs, anchoring the print version of the story on Shell’s PR campaign in the wake of Ken Saro-Wiwa’s execution fifteen years ago (the online version has a portrait of Saro-Wiwa).

It’s great to see something from ‘Africa’ that is a little different. One wonders, though, how much the photographers were paid for the publication of their images. I’ll guess it wasn’t much.

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photography politics

The new visual stories of ‘Africa’

What is the visual story that needs to be told about Africa? Is there a pictorial strategy that can account for one billion people, living in 53 countries that occupy 12 million square miles, speaking two thousand languages, embodying multiple cultures and numerous ethnicities, with manifold intersections with our globalised world?

Would we even ask that question of the Americas, Asia or Europe? It is unlikely. Others are represented in ways designed to shore up the self and  ‘Africa’ is central to the formation of European and North American identity. This process embodies colonial relations of power that distill a complex, hybrid place into visual stereotypes that cast people and their place as superior/inferior, civilized/barbaric, modern/traditional, developed/underdeveloped and so on.

These stereotypes construct both conventional wisdom and its possible alternatives. Others can be reviled for their barbarity or exalted for the closeness to nature, but these options are no more than two sides of the same coin, and each distances ‘us’ from ‘them’. Binyavanga Wainaina’s satirical account of how (not) to represent Africa captures this dual operation, and news coverage often sees ‘Africa’ as a place of either human misery or natural exoticism. ‘Africa’ is therefore a mythic space, the quotation marks signifying its production.

The visual story that needs to be told about ‘Africa’ is not a single story. It is a series of stories assembled to end the idea of a singular ‘Africa’. We need accounts of complexity, contrasts, and diversity that are drawn from the everyday as much as the exceptional. We need reports that are aware of their own construction and understand how they either affirm or challenge stereotypes.

There is plenty of photographic work that does that. It is too much to ask of each individual project that it ticks all the boxes, but what projects like African Lens can do is aggregate and curate the rich material being produced so that we can see how, in combination, these images enable stories that complicate the simplistic and deepen the superficial.

How this project is framed will go a long way to determining its success. If we do not go beyond the limits of either/or options we will be stuck replicating colonial dualisms. This means that:

  • we need to interpret photographs in terms of the work that they do in relation to stereotypes rather than via an outmoded commitment to ‘objectivity’ and its spouse, ‘subjectivity’. When it comes to reportage we should demand accuracy, but photographs are inescapably representations and never simply mirrors or windows;
  • we need to exceed the idea that optimism versus pessimism, and especially “Afro-romanticism” versus “Afro-pessimism,” defines the options for stories;
  • we need to support new developments in the multimedia practice of photography that can literally give subjects a voice for their own stories.

Government speaker at a political get together, Abidjan. Photo: Joan Bardeletti.

There are many recent photographic projects contributing to this re-visualization of ‘Africa’. Consider Joan Bardeletti’s work on the middle class in Africa alongside Finbarr O’Reilly’s story on white poverty in South Africa. Think of Andrew Esiebo’s portfolio of Lagos nightlife and Ed Kashi’s Niger Delta project, Michael Tsegaye’s pictures of working girls in Addis Ababa, Andrew Tshabangu’s documentation of Johannesburg and Marcus Bleasdale’s presentation of the Kimbangist Symphony Orchestra in Kinshasa to name just a few.

The problem with stereotypes, as Chimamanda Adichie says, is “not that they are untrue but that they are incomplete.” Because of this, the new visual stories of ‘Africa’ cannot ignore the issues of famine, injustice, poverty and war. While we can sympathies with Paul Melcher’s cry for no more “dying Africans,” we must have visual accounts of atrocities when they occur. However, they have to go beyond the stereotypes, as with the Condition Critical project on the Congo war or the coverage of human rights issues in Burundi and Malawi.

These are exciting times for visual storytellers, with the power of the web facilitating the global production and circulation of new photographic projects. There are many challenges involved in getting better stories to the right people, but the gatekeepers of the mainstream media no longer have total control over what we can or cannot see. If we appreciate how stereotypes have been produced and can be contested, we can, over time,  achieve the re-visualization of ‘Africa’.

The need to re-visualize ‘Africa’ is a major concern of mine, and with my colleagues DJ Clark and Kate Manzo, we established the Imaging Famine blog last month as a way of continuing our Imaging Famine project by aggregating and curating work that both confirms and challenges stereotypes.

Many people are contributing to the production and circulation of new photographic portrayals of ‘Africa’ , and to support the recent launch of African Lens I wrote an editorial that summarises what I see as the issues involved in this important effort. This post reproduces that editorial.

Featured photo: Media circus photographing an American Marine with a malnourished boy during Operation Restore Hope, Somalia, 1991. Paul Lowe/Panos.

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photography

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’.