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photography politics

The elusive enemy: Looking back at the “war on terror’s” visual culture

Last week The Guardian published an extraordinary report on how Al Qaeda is using aid to win the ‘hearts and minds’ of displaced Somalis in East Africa’s zone of food insecurity. Jamal Osman’s investigation – including a compelling eleven minute video – reveals how aid workers and medical units, including American and British citizens, are making food and money available in a refugee camp in southern Somalia.

What is striking about the photographs and video that Osman’s team produced is the way the Al Qaeda unit is both present and absent. While their aid distribution was a carefully orchestrated media event, with their leader reading a prepared statement to a group of journalists, the Al Qaeda personnel remained shrouded in scarves obscuring their faces throughout.

Al Qaeda’s elusiveness is something that has marked the decade long ‘war on terror’. After ten years of conflict in Afghanistan and Iraq, the US-led military interventions that made those countries the front line are slowly being wound up. What began with the October 2001 launch of Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan is now the United States’ longest war, and the American commitment is being scaled back as part of the transition to Afghan security control by December 2014. In Iraq the change is swifter, with President Obama announcing last month US combat forces will withdraw from the country by years’ end.

These changes provide useful markers against which to think about the visual culture of conflict, specifically the ‘war on terror, over the last decade. As this post will argue, focusing on news photography and photojournalism, the visual culture of the ‘war on terror’ over the last ten years can be understood as both beginning and ending with absence.

As a response to the attacks of 11 September 2001, the ‘war on terror’ was inaugurated in President Bush’s congressional address on 20 September 2001. Denoting the attacks as an “act of war,” Bush mapped a moral geography in which an axis of evil divided those who were with America from those in conflict with America. This moral geography was heavily indebted to notions of identity/difference that have historically driven US foreign policy. It also constructed a narrative of terror that obscured other potential points of origin for a war, such as the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center, the 1998 East African embassy bombings, or Osama Bin Laden’s declaration of a jihad against Jews and Crusaders that preceded those attacks (as detailed in Stuart Elden’s Terror and Territory).

Because the ‘war on terror’ was understood as a new type of conflict, fought against an “elusive enemy” in disparate and dispersed locations, visualizing the event was always going to be a challenge. Through its enactment as a response to something real yet virtual, the ‘war on terror’ was an event that both privileged representation yet made representation difficult. What overcame this aporia is the way the ‘war on terror’ has, for us, been largely framed by US-led military action, such that the overwhelming majority of photographs we associate with the ‘war on terror’ are both concerned with and part of US-led military action that began with the 7 October 2011 attack on Al-Qaeda targets in Afghanistan.

It is common to identify the embedding of journalists and photographers with US and allied forces as the primary reason for the affinities between images and strategy (which is something I debated with Tim Hetherington). Embedding has played a significant role in the visualisation of Afghanistan, though not from the beginning, because when Operation Enduring Freedom began the Pentagon had not yet conceived the specific system. Moreover, given that the first military operations in Afghanistan were covert actions by Special Forces against a non-state actor, embedding was from the military’s viewpoint untenable. As a result, the US-led strikes in Afghanistan proceeded with minimal media access but there were few if any serious protests about this lack.

The early photographic coverage of Afghanistan was, therefore, part of the overall coverage of the ‘war on terror’ arising from the 11 September attacks. Photography is deployed to mark globally significant events, and some US newspapers underwent a “sea change” in their use of news pictures, doubling the number published after 9/11. Part of this proliferation of images was the use of pictures that, while showing something from the general area of operations, did not depict the specific events being reported. This symbolic function, where the repetition of icons associated with 9/11 provided cues and prompts for viewers, meant photographs became a means of moving the public through its trauma, enabling support for the military action in Afghanistan.

A severely wounded US Marine hit by an Improvised Explosive Device (IED) is carried by his comrades to a medevac helicopter of U.S. Army’s Task Force Lift “Dust Off”, Charlie Company 1-171 Aviation Regiment to be airlifted in Helmand province, on October 31, 2011. The Marine was hit by an IED, lost both his legs and fights for his life. Photo: Behrouz Mehri/AFP/Getty Images, via In Focus/The Atlantic, 2 November 2011.

What we have come to see from Afghanistan is a steady stream of familiar pictures made up of allied forces, Afghan civilians, Taliban casualties and American military families (the monthly galleries at The Atlantic offer examples). Of course there are exceptions, and very occasionally we get to see things from the other side. But generally photojournalism on the front line has focused on the military struggles of international forces as they combat an elusive opponent, with allied soldiers and their weaponry front and centre. Much the same can be said of the visualisations of Iraq since 2003.

Coverage of the invasion of Iraq demonstrated the value to government of the embedding process (although Simon Norfolk has demonstrated being embedded does not preclude making photographic work that questions government policy). Michael Griffin’s survey of US news magazine photographs showed “a highly restricted pattern of depiction limited largely to a discourse of military technological power and response.” However, while the number of combat photographs from Iraq increased from those published in the 1991 Gulf War, they still only comprised ten percent of published pictures. This was less than expected from front-line reportage, and demonstrates that news pictures are less concerned with the first-hand recording of events and more with the repetition of familiar subjects and themes. While individual photographers felt they operated with freedom within the system of embedding, and sometimes even broke the rules, the way their pictures were used in publications did not challenge the official war narrative. That is because the news photographs the public ends up seeing are chosen less for their descriptive function or disruptive potential and more for their capacity to provide symbolic markers to familiar interpretations and conventional narratives.

U.S. President Barack Obama shakes the prosthetic hand of Medal of Honor award recipient U.S. Army Sergeant 1st Class Leroy Petry after he introduced Obama to speak at the American Latino Heritage Forum in Washington, D.C., on October 12, 2011. SFC Petry lost his right hand tossing away a grenade to save his fellow soldiers during combat in Afghanistan. Photo: Reuters/Kevin Lamarque, via In Focus/The Atlantic, 2 November 2011.

As a result, much of our media operates within the limits of official discourse, with journalists working on the field of perception through commitments to their national frames (something apparent in images of official ceremonies with their symbols of sovereignty, as in the Kevin Lamarque/Reuters photograph of a Medal of Honor recipient). Although we still harbour a belief that journalism is indebted to the ethos of the Pentagon Papers or Watergate, fearlessly investigating government failings, much contemporary war coverage directly or indirectly supports military strategies. For example, although British television broadcasters exhibit more faith in the idea of impartiality when compared to the overt patriotism of their American counterparts, a review of their Iraq invasion coverage found that “when it came to contentious issues such as WMDs or the mood of the Iraqi people…overall, all the main television broadcasters tended to favour the pro-war, government version over more sceptical accounts.”

Throughout the last decade, whatever the intentions of individual practitioners, news photography has re-presented the ‘war on terror’, in the form of military action in Afghanistan and Iraq, in ways consistent with military strategy. Much photojournalism exists within and reproduces an ‘eternal present’, obscuring the frames that narrow its perspective, rendering casualties and context as absent. Nowhere was this clearer than in the official White House photo of Osama Bin Laden’s killing. Instead of releasing an image of Bin Laden, what we saw was the Obama national security team in the Situation Room watching a monitor on which the event might have been unfolding. The centrality of absence to the visualisation of the war on terror could not have been more obvious.

Embedded journalism has contributed to this confined view, but this practice has also been constrained by the way the media generally offers a limited challenge to established positions. In this context, calling for an unsanitized view of the war is bound to be insufficient as a strategy for challenging the official photographic narratives. What we require is the exposure of all the frames involved in the production of the field of perceptible reality. To that end, enacting an alternative view requires an aesthetic strategy that draws history into view, pluralizes perspectives, and seeks to overcome the absences that have marked the pictorial coverage to date. Given that the struggle with Al Qaeda will outlast the American withdrawal from both Afghanistan and IRaq, this will be an on-going project.

This post is based on an editorial written for e-IR.info, and cross-posted here and at BagNewsNotes with permission. 

Featured top photo: Al-Qaida medical workers at Ala-Yasir camp in Somalia, also known as K50. Jamal Osman for the Guardian.

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More posts photography politics

The problem with the dramatic staging of photojournalism: what is the real issue?

Photojournalism Behind the Scenes [ITA-ENG subs] from Ruben Salvadori on Vimeo.

Ruben Salvadori’s video – “an auto-critical photo essay” – demonstrates clearly that when we see a conflict, what we see is the outcome of “conflict image production.” It’s like those still photographs which reveal photographers at work – Paul Lowe’s 1992 photograph of the Somalia famine victim, Alex Webb’s 1994 picture of photographer’s in advance of US troops landing in Haiti (Magnum reference PAR112713), Nathan Webber’s image of photographers with the dead Fabienne Cherisma, and many other examples.

These all demonstrate that photographs are neither mirrors nor windows offering untrammelled access to events. Events come to be through technologies of visualisation, and that is a process in which all participants in the visual economy (subjects, image makers, news agencies, media networks, audiences, and others) have a role in the construction of people and places.

The difficult conclusion from this is that all photography is staged. But, as I’ve argued previously, staging is not the same as faking. Photography records events in front of the camera faithfully. However, events are often photo opportunities in which politics becomes theatre, and photographers emphasise the dramatic. And if you look at the examples offered by the Italian digital lab 10b Photography, we can appreciate that aesthetic dramatisation has long been, and continues to be, part of the most respected photojournalism.

When these stagings produce or reinforce stereotypes, they are a big problem (as duckrabbit rightly argued in their take on Salvadori’s video). But photography’s dramatic stagings are not the main problem. I believe that avoiding or challenging stereotypes necessitates changing the terms of the debate.

The problem is that too often controversies over the staging of images proceed as though there is a photography free from staging (meaning construction, enactment, interpretation, or production). Moments of staging are called out, seen as exceptions, and judged against supposedly universal norms. An example is the way the excellent PetaPixel blog introduced Salvadori’s video. Calling it “eye-opening,” they wrote:

Here’s a fascinating video in which Italian photographer Ruben Salvadori demonstrates how dishonest many conflict photographs are. Salvadori spent a significant amount of time in East Jerusalem, studying the role photojournalists play in what the world sees. By turning his camera on the photographers themselves, he shows how photojournalists often influence the events they’re supposed to document objectively, and how photographers are often pushed to seek and create drama even in situations that lack it (emphasis added).

Salvadori’s video is certainly revealing, but “eye-opening” suggests a level of surprise that few in photography should have. It reinforces the idea that what we see in this case are a few bad apples who are failing to be “objective”. There is much that needs to be said about the claim of objectivity with regard to photography, and I hope to write more later. But how could a photojournalist in the scene Salvadori films not influence events? The presence of a camera changes the dynamics of any situation regardless of the intentions of the photographer. Indeed, any scene is changed by the presence of any participants, so the idea that you can imagine a scene that is hermetically sealed from those in and around it is naive. If scenes are to be witnessed, then witnesses will inevitably ‘contaminate’ the scene. And what would an “objective” photo of this scene look like? I can imagine many different images from those moments, but can you conceive of any that aren’t constructed?

Surely it’s time to drop the pretence of shock when photography’s constructed-ness is exposed. If we constantly view the essential nature of photographic practice – that it inescapably and unavoidably constructs, enacts, and produces images – as always exceptional and sometimes perverse, we are missing the main problem. That is, how, within a practice that necessarily constructs the world, can we produce authoritative accounts of events and issues?

I suspect many might read this and misunderstand the point I am struggling to make. I am not defending the conflict photographers portrayed in Salvadori’s important video essay. Their images are dramatised, though in ways common to conflict photojournalism. Nor am I arguing the images they produce are the best of that scene. Finally, I am not minimising the problems caused by dramatic stagings that turn into one-dimensional stereotypes.

Above all else, I want to argue that its ultimately self-defeating for photographers to be outraged by the idea that photographs construct situations. Let’s judge how pictures produce narratives, and the effects of those narratives, instead of being hung up on the fact narratives are produced. If we are constantly bogged down in the unfounded belief that somehow there is a photography unencumbered by the problems of representation, we will never move the debate on visual enactment forward.

To underscore these points, I’ll enlist Errol Morris’s support. Morris recently condensed the argument of his book Believing is Seeing (well reviewed by David White) into ten tweets. Numbers 1, 9 and 10 are most relevant to this post:

[blackbirdpie id=”120329863180726273″]

[blackbirdpie id=”120567296392564736″]

[blackbirdpie id=”120570913224790016″]

 

Categories
photography politics

Imaging famine: How critique can help

What is the point of critique, and how can it help produce better visual stories?

According to Jonathan Jones (writing in the Guardian on 22 July) all the sophisticated critiques of photojournalism are pointless when it comes to picturing famine:

It seems shocking that commentators…wasted their breath on the ethics of a photograph instead of urging action to deal with the suffering it showed. The fact that people far away can see with visceral immediacy the facts of a crisis like the one now hitting the Horn of Africa is one of the most optimistic aspects of the modern world. Consciences are awakened by the camera.

Jones’s own critique is simplistic – either you see or you don’t, visibility is better than blindness, and images provoke conscience. The last point demands more consideration, but in casting the issue in terms of a simple either/or proposition of seeing or not seeing, Jones misses the big picture. The issue is HOW we see, what effect does a particular way of seeing have on our understanding of the issue, and how might we see more effectively?

I’ve been debating related issues with Jon Levy, and yesterday we participated in a productive OPEN-i forum that revealed both much common ground and some continuing differences. As a result I wanted to set out a series of propositions that encapsulate my thinking on how we can contribute to a better visual account of famine.

1. Critique is not negative, and does not involve blaming photographers.

A critique is an intervention in established modes of action and thought. Such interventions try and disturb those practices which are settled, untie what appears to be sown up, and render as produced that which claims to be natural. There is an ethical imperative behind such interventions, a desire to open up possibilities being foreclosed or suppressed by that which exists. Intervening involves a questioning of what is established, that questioning follows from a concern or dissatisfaction with what is settled and appears inevitable, and creates the possibility for the formulation of alternatives. We can’t know where we are going unless we understand where we are now and how we got here. And although discussion necessarily proceeds through examples of particular images by individual photographers, it is not about accusing practitioners of bad faith.

2. There is no distinction between an event and its representation.

The reason we begin photographic critique with images, the individuals who make them and the institutions that distribute them is because they offer a way into thinking about the visual economy through which a disaster like famine is made real for the majority of people. Few if any of us have direct experience of disasters, so we necessarily rely on mediated knowledge. That means our reality comes through representation. NGO officials understand this. As Don Redding once observed, “the construction of the event (the humanitarian emergency) becomes the event – for the purposes of public opinion and policy flow.” To engage the event, and how we should respond to the event, demands an analysis of the event’s representation (some of which is discussed in posts reflecting on recent photographic and broadcast coverage.)

3. Famine is made real through a particular visual tradition, and we continue to see it.

The 2003 cover of the New York Times magazine above, with 36 portraits of malnourished children from dozens of different countries over a 50-year period, illustrates the dominant way of representing this sort of disaster. It has been common from the nineteenth century, as we showed in the 2005 Imaging Famine exhibition.

In the current picture galleries from East Africa, we see much of the same (see herehere and here). There has been little if any evolution in the way famine is represented. The problem is that these images individualise an economic and political issue, and focus our attention on passive victims awaiting external assistance.

In the OPEN-i debate Jon argued that these photographs “show you what’s going on.” I think that the stereotypes are politically necessary in certain contexts, and it’s possible to make a case for their use, as Tyler Hicks and Bill Keller of the New York Times have done. But the major problem is that the stereotypes do not show us what is going on. They show us only the end of a process. They show only the final, fatal stages of food insecurity. Most of the issue remains obscured by their continual reproduction.

4. Famine is not a natural disaster, and photography needs to get to grips with this.

While the fact East Africa is suffering the worst drought in 60 years provided the hook for most recent coverage, the disaster is not natural. Indeed, few if any disasters these days are natural. When an earthquake of the same magnitude kills hundreds of thousands in Haiti, but less than a hundred in San Francisco, the differing death toll is not simply a result of the earth moving.

According to the World Bank’s lead economist for Kenya, Wolfgang Fengler, “this crisis is manmade…Droughts have occurred over and again, but you need bad policymaking for that to lead to a famine.”

Famines, paradoxically, are also not simply the result of food shortages. As Cambridge lecturer David Nally observes, during the Irish famine food exports continued while people starved, and Bengal in 1943 (memorably recorded by Werner Bischof) saw hundreds of thousands perish even though that part of India had its biggest rice harvest ever:

The historical study of famine shows that the people of countries that are nominally resource-rich can starve because those resources are extracted to meet the needs of a global economy rather than the nutritional needs of local populations. The recent use of African land to grow crops for biofuels is particularly instructive: filling the tank of a sport utility vehicle, for instance, uses 450 lbs of corn – enough food to feed one person for an entire year. Thus policies designed to enhance the ‘food and energy security’ of relatively affluent places, such as Europe, can compromise the security of peoples in Africa. Today, as in the nineteenth century, life and death decisions of a terrifying scale are woven in the fabric of international economic relations.

These issues cannot be encapsulated within a single photographic frame, and representing them in their complexity is not simply photography’s responsibility. But I don’t see any examples from the current crisis in East Africa that even gestures towards these larger issues. Of course, correct me if I am wrong.

5. What now?

With more than 12 million people in urgent need of humanitarian assistance, and some areas of Somali having more than 40% of children under five suffering from acute malnutrition, their situation has to be pictured.

But, as with the coverage of Japan, Egypt and Libya this year, East Africa is being covered by a relatively large number of excellent photographers that surely means there is scope for someone to do something different. Do all of them have to go to Banadir hospital in Mogadishu to photograph fly blown, emaciated children? Could not some of them record audio as well as shoot photos so we can hear from the people affected? Can’t their editors push for alternatives and offer greater support to achieve them? Is it beyond our collective capacity to follow the leads from critical questioning and see what’s really going on with famine?

Categories
photography politics Thinking Images

Thinking Images v.20: Famine iconography as a sign of failure

The homogenisation of ‘Africa’ – the rendering of the continent into one form. The anthropomorphisation of ‘Africa’ – the representation of the continent as one person. The infantilisation of ‘Africa’ – the image of the continent as a child. The impoverishment of ‘Africa’ – the construction of the continent as a desperate, poor, passive victim.

Peter Brookes’ 5 July 2011 cartoon from The Times condenses all these attributes into one visual form. Like most editorial cartoons, it derives its symbolic force from the dominant images of the day, in this case the extensive media coverage of the current humanitarian crisis in the Horn of Africa. The all too familiar images of displaced people and starving children amidst a desert landscape have been common in recent days as both NGOs and the media mobilise in response to what is unquestionably a crisis of food security that demands action. From television coverage to photo galleries, we are seeing the sort of pictures we have seen many times before, be they Tyler Hicks colour photos in the New York Times, Robin Hammond’s series for the Guardian, the Save the Children Fund pictures from East Africa (also in the Guardian), or Oxfam’s Flickr gallery. While it is interesting to think about the virtues of colour versus black and white, or ask whether we can spot a difference between photos taken by professionals and NGO staff (and I can’t see much of one), I want to call attention to the larger dynamic which drives this recourse to familiar visuals.

In an excellent post on the coverage of the Horn, Peter Gill argues that “sophisticated early warning systems that foresee the onset of famine have been in place for years, but still the world waits until it is very nearly too late before taking real action – and then paying for it.” With regard to East Africa, both international agencies and NGOs have been warning for some months that a combination of factors – drought, conflict, high food and fuel prices, and funding shortfalls – were likely to produce a humanitarian crisis. But nobody found a way to picture the problem, so the story went unrecorded. When, finally, in late June, the UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs simplified the story into ‘the worst drought in sixty years’, Gills says “the media mountain moved, and the NGO fund-raisers marched on behind.”

We can easily lament the limitations of famine iconography, especially the way it homogenises, anthropomorphises, infantilises and impoverishes. But above all else we have to understand it is a visual sign of failure. The recourse to the stereotypes of famine is driven by the complex political circumstances photography has historically been unable to capture. This means that when we see the images of distressed people, feeding clinics and starving babies, we are seeing the end result of a collective inability to picture causes and context.

Is it because photographers lack imagination? I don’t think so. As I’ve written before on this topic, it is more a product of the fact that the media generally is caught in a tragic conundrum:

Governments and international institutions are not moved by information alone, and without official activity the media lacks a hook for a story. A story becomes possible when there is visual evidence of disaster, but in the case of famine that evidence cannot be easily visualized (at least in terms familiar to the media) until people start showing an embodied trace of the food crisis (with distended stomachs and prominent ribs) or start dying. By that time, however, because of the indifference of governments, the final stages of a food crisis have begun, the possibility for preventative action has long passed, and the only course of action is humanitarian and remedial.

We have, then, a systemic problem. While there are famine early warning systems that function quite well, the media is generally a late indicator of distress. The urgent task – in advance of the next humanitarian crisis – is to find a way to tell the story of the many and varied reasons that produce food insecurity without waiting for the visual traces that signify it’s too late.

UPDATE 27 August 2011: This post drew a critical response from @foto8 on Twitter. I have curated Jon Levy’s points, additional comments, and my response in another post, Imaging Famine: A Debate. After our OPEN-i debate, I wrote another post summarising some points from the discussion to underscore my belief in the necessity of critique.  

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Back Catalogue photography politics

The Back Catalogue (3): Images of atrocity, conflict and war

Welcome to the third in “The Back Catalogue” series of posts…

I’ve been actively writing online for nearly three years now, and one of the challenges of the blog format is how to keep old posts with content that is potentially still relevant from slipping off the radar. And because this site combines my research with the blog, an additional challenge has been how to make blog readers aware of other content that might be of interest.

To address that I am identifying a number of key themes from what I’ve published over the last couple of years, pulling together posts and articles that deal with each theme. The first ‘Back Catalogue’ covers work on representations of ‘Africa’ while the second is on photojournalism in the new media economy.

Here, starting with the oldest in each section, are 34 posts and 11 articles on the photographic representations of atrocity, conflict and war.

POSTS

ARTICLES

Imaging the Real, Struggling for Meaning [9/11],” Infopeace, 6 October 2001, Information Technology, War and Peace Project, The Watson Institute for International Studies, Brown University.

Atrocity, Memory, Photography: Imaging the Concentration Camps of Bosnia – The Case of ITN versus Living Marxism, Part I,” Journal of Human Rights 1:1 (2002), p. 1-33.

Atrocity, Memory, Photography: Imaging the Concentration Camps of Bosnia – The Case of ITN versus Living Marxism, Part II,” Journal of Human Rights 1:2 (2002), pp. 143-72.

Representing Contemporary War,” Ethics and International Affairs 17 (2) 2003, pp. 99-108.

Cultural Governance and Pictorial Resistance: Reflections on the Imaging of War,” Review of International Studies 29 Special Issue (2003), pp. 57-73.

Horrific Blindness: Images of Death in Contemporary Media,” Journal of Cultural Research 8:1 (2004), 55-74.

Geopolitics and Visual Culture: Sighting the Darfur Conflict 2003-05,” Political Geography 26: 4 (2007), 357-382.

(co-edited with Michael J. Shapiro), “Securitization, Militarization and Visual Culture in the Worlds of post-9/11,” a special issue of Security Dialogue 38 (2) 2007.

Tele-vision: Satellite Images and Security,” Source 56 (Autumn 2008), 16-23.

Constructed Visibility: Photographing the Catastrophe of Gaza,” draft paper, June 2009.

How has photojournalism framed the war in Afghanistan?“, in John Burke and Simon Norfolk, BURKE + NORFOLK: Photographs from the War in Afghanistan (Stockport: Dewi Lewis Publishing, 2011)

UPDATED 10 April 2012

Photo credit: American Marines patrolling in Mogadishu while being closely followed by the global media circus during ‘Operation Restore Hope’ (1992). Copyright Paul Lowe/Panos.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Categories
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.