PHOTOGRAPHIC REPRESENTATIONS OF AFRICA

Excerpts from Photographic Memories: The Undue Influence of the Camera on Perceptions of Africa, By David Blumenkrantz, 2010

 

“Memory and consciousness are inseparable. But language is the means of memory, or following Walter Benjamin, it is the medium of memory. It is here, in memory’s very medium, that the various movements' quest for wholeness seriously falters: their relationship to both European and African languages remains problematic.” 

                                                                                                      *Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Something Torn and New: An African Renaissance (40)

There’s a mercenary zeal for marketable images that feeds the worst stereotypes about both the media and its subjects. The access that an enterprising artist, documentarist or journalist gains, even in the service of some high ideal, is prone to misrepresentations. James Agee, in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, said of the camera, “I feel such rage at its misuse: which has spread so nearly universal a corruption of sight that I know of less than a dozen alive whose eyes I can trust even so much as my own” (Agee 11).

Semiotic theories and high-minded ethical principles such as the utilitarian imperative cited by news organizations and relief agencies are considered by some to be insufficient justifications for perpetrating depictions that engender the notion that Africans are constantly at risk, while White Europeans inevitably swoop in to save them. Whether documentary-style photographs are framed as Art or presented as reportage, a parallel exists between what Ngugi describes as linguicide—the killing of native languages in the interest of imperialism —and the loss of cultural, social and political veracity that occurs when images are employed, intentionally or otherwise, in the perpetration of ambiguous, biased or outright false realities (17). Memories borne of deception can hardly be expected to be anything more than deceptive themselves.

Binyavanga Wainana, founding editor of the literary magazine, Kwani?, decries the “poverty pornography” which dominates global perceptions of Africa. In his celebrated “How to Write About Africa” essay (remarkably similar to Sherman Alexie’s “How to Write the Great American Indian Novel”), Wainana sarcastically evokes the broadest Western caricatures of African identity:

“Never have a picture of a well-adjusted African on the cover of your book, or in it, unless that African has won the Nobel Prize. An AK-47, prominent ribs, naked breasts: use these. If you must include an African, make sure you get one in Masai or Zulu or Dogon dress.” (Wainiana 92)

 While this might seem in itself to be condescending to those who care to know better, Wainana’s thinking is in line with those working toward an African Renaissance. In the field of photography, Okwui Enwezor’s high-profile work as a curator for institutions such as the Guggenheim Museum and the International Center of Photography gives greater voice to contemporary indigenous African photography, providing a powerful alternative to the Afro-Pessimism that holds sway in the global media. Decades after the independence of most African nations, Enwezor reminds us that visual perceptions of Africa in the rest of the world are still disproportionately shaped by Western photographers:

“The act of photographing Africa has often been bound up with a certain conflict of vision: between how Africans see their world and how others see that world . . . the latter sensibility has come to represent specters that haunt Africa. It is constituted around an accumulation of myths . . . a preordained, fragmented, and internalized view of the world Africans seem to occupy.” (13)

Thus Enwezor is unsparing in his critique of what the West deems iconic images such as Kevin Carter’s 1994 Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph of the young, emaciated girl being followed by a vulture in South Sudan.  “As an African, I felt a combination of shame and anger, disgust and outrage at that scandal of a picture” (17). Reports that Carter, a white South African with a reputation as a fearless photojournalist during the anti-Apartheid movement, reportedly stood by and waited for the right moment to snap the shutter as the child struggled for her life, fuels Enwezor’s contention that “the photographic sport between hunter and game often assumes the features of a low-intensity courtship, blurring the boundary between assent and violation, license and exploitation” (15). The fallout from this photograph was intense, and continues to this day —it has become a symbol of photojournalism’s ethical crucible, the struggle between utilitarian and absolutist ethical philosophies. The dissonance of Carter’s conflicting emotions over its popularity and the criticism it evoked were likely contributing factors to his much-discussed suicide. Personal tragedies notwithstanding, it is argued that the legitimacy and usefulness of these photographs are outweighed by the damage they do to the collective African psyche and image.

Consider the outcry if a Western photographer took the liberty of moving human remains around to create tableaus in the name of an artistic or political statement. It’s difficult to imagine the hyper-sexualized, Heart of Darkness stylings of Peter Beard being mistaken as the work of a purveyor of an African Renaissance. “I think it is a clear fact that Africa is doomed,” Beard intoned in his autobiographical documentary Scrapbooks from Africa and Beyond. It’s natural to wonder how Enwezor applies the “accumulation of myths” theory to photographs similar to Carter’s, taken by African photographers, images produced by Robert Magubane and the other South African photographers who heroically documented the horrors of the anti-apartheid movement for Drum magazine. Likewise, are the Fremenitos images guilty of contributing to an “accumulation of myths” even though they were made by an Eritrean? (13)

It was inevitable that in the course of building a visual catalogue (particularly of the people and situations covered during my work with NGOs), many of my photographs would serve to perpetrate negative perceptions of Africa. Citing the motives of compassion, humanitarianism, duty, providence and curiosity will never be enough justification for those who see exploitation and voyeurism as the inherent characteristics of this genre. Kamau Mucoki, a blogger on Africa.Visual_Media.nyc has written of my photographs “. . . from those images, I am getting a growing awareness of the fact that the nineties were a watershed decade for violence and death in Africa.” A fatalistic view of my role in documenting this troubling historical reality role in this is preferable to anything more noble, but this will not stop conficting perceptions. A series of photographs I took of bodies being recovered from Lake Victoria by Ugandan fishermen during the Rwandan Genocide function as both a newsworthy documentation of a colossal act of inhumanity, and an uncomfortable reminder of the worst of what the outside world sees as African dysfunction. Yet the viewer of the image published in Time cannot know if I sought that scene out of a sense of bloodlust and careerism, or because local villagers knew I was there (documenting an AIDS project for an NGO), and insisted that I see for myself the horror that had visited their shores. Did I feel exhilaration or an overwhelming sense of dread as I waded for an hour through ankle-deep water to capture the few images I ended up recording? Was my throat constricted in horror as I hid  behind the camera and snapped the shutter, or did I employ humor to demonstrate how immune I had become to such sights? If the road to hell is truly paved with good intentions, then it doesn’t really matter what my motivations or emotions were; what matters is perception. Even a relatively innocuous image-- such as the unsmiling, shirtless Zairean boy gazing intensely into my lens--can be perceived as raw beauty, or exploitative patronization.

Visual decolonization: through an African lens

“In the French colonies . . . the production and circulation of images by African photographers were controlled. Authorities were concerned that Africans would use the camera to more accurately record the lives and cultures of African peoples, destroying the illusion of exoticism or exposing French policies of forced labor that contradicted the celebratory view of colonialism . . .”

                                     Michelle Lamuniere, You Look Beautiful Like That  (21)

Speculation aside, Enwezor’s concerns are informed by well over a century of frustration. The early years of photography coincided providentially with the onset of colonialism in Africa. By the 1880s, photographs had become an integral tool in the extension of colonial rule, used to substantiate imperialist rhetoric, providing visual “evidence” to perpetrate myths about race and geography (Hight & Sampson 7-8). For the next several decades, commercial, missionary and scientific concerns depended heavily on photographic imagery.

Examples of photography done by Westerners that did not feed into this, while laudable, are few in number. And coverage of Africa in photography-based publications such as National Geographic, with its focus on traditional tribal lifestyles, did little to promote the notion that Africans were advancing in stride with the Industrial Age.

By the post-colonial era, photographic and cinematic representations in the West were fast approaching a fulfillment of Walter Benjamin’s prophetic statement that mankind would ultimately utilize reproducible mimetic media to view its own destruction as a form of entertainment. Toward this nihilistic end, there developed a sustained distortion of all non-Western culture, as if it were a propagandistic newsreel feature shown before the final act. The mind boggles-- to allow something of our own creation to bend perceptions of ourselves toward such an end-- how did this come about? A passage from John Berger provides some insight into the voyeuristic influence of a lens culture:

“During the second half of the 20th century the judgment of history has been abandoned by all except the underprivileged and dispossessed. The industrialized, ‘developed’ world, terrified of the past, blind to the future, lives within an opportunism which has emptied the principle of justice of all credibility. Such opportunism turns everything—nature, history, suffering, other people, catastrophes, sports, sex, politics—into spectacle. And the implement used to do this—until the act becomes so habitual that the conditioned imagination may do it alone—is the camera. (58-59)

As a child of this period, the first time I can recall Africa making an imprint on my consciousness was when I saw photographs from Biafra. I had no idea what the political implications were of what I was seeing, yet the black and white pictures of children with distended bellies left an impression of Africa as a desperate, troubled and mysteriously dangerous place. This view of was never, in my youthful experience, tempered by anything educational or positive, other than images and stories of wildlife found in magazines and on television. History books provided in public schools contained nary a mention of Africa after the slave trade. So it is with most Westerners of my generation—little knowledge or understanding of the impact of Africa’s colonial history, and other than reports of war, famine and poverty, very little in the way of coverage offered by the mass media. In this vacuum of knowledge and context, the influence of visual images on perception assumes an exaggerated role.

From the 1890’s until the 1930’s photographic postcards produced in colonial Africa functioned as records of events, personalities, as well as propaganda and generic documents of so-called primitive culture. Whereas studios established by Europeans in colonial lands invited Africans of an elite class to sit for their cameras, in many cases we see in these photographs the odd juxtaposition of African people wearing traditional clothing posed in front of backdrops painted as European settings. The demand for identity cards in colonial territories led to the spread of photographic technology, and as Africans received training both in the studios and by government agencies, an interest in photography as a medium of self-identity developed, along with the demand for portraits by Africans of all economic classes. By the mid-1940’s, portrait studios run by Africans were common, particularly in West Africa (Lamuniere 22). Backdrops in these studios were commonly painted in either a blandly neutral or exaggeratedly idealized fashion, as if to subvert the notion of location. Anthropologist Arjun Appardai cites these backdrops, and the widespread use of props—a trend that was equally evident in India at the time—as expressing a resistance to the documentary claims of photography (Pinney 213). Such were the origins of “visual decolonization.”

Malick Sidibe, a Malian studio photographer whose portraits of urbanites in Bamako in the 1960s and ‘70s typified this visual decolonization, recalled in a 2000 interview that necessity was the mother of invention: “It wasn’t the love of the camera that first drew Africans to photography, it was the promise of financial gain and respectable employment. But that first taste turned into a genuine hunger, and a real passion for the art of photography was born” (Lamuniere 53). Much has been written about the photographs of Sidibe and his elder compatriot, Seydou Keita; the work of both men have been paired together by curators fascinated with the seemingly artless modernity of their staging. While there is little admission by these photographers of attempting anything more than the creation of “memories” for their clientele, the ever-probing, relentlessly psychological filter of the Western perspective imbues these images with a great, if unintended irony. The portraits of Sidibe and Keita—not to mention countless others who have remained anonymous and “undiscovered” -- are interpreted as being iconographically defined through the symbols of fashion and technology, embraced by a people torn between tradition and Western culture. They are seen as a representation of the temporal, cultural legacy left to colonial Africa. From an African perspective, this interpretation may seem irrelevant. The strength of Keita and Sidibe’s images emanates not so much in the craftsmanship or technique they employed, but rather in the sincere directness with which the subjects met the gaze of the camera, what Enwezor termed their enunciation of “aesthetic values of African beauty previously denied them” by colonial photography’s obsession with imagining “the African subject as a specimen of some exotic investigation” (Enwezor 26).

Today, in spite of the triple threat of Artworld commodification, stereotypes perpetrated by global corporate media, and a relief and charity industry wanting to have it both ways, African artists, academics and intellectuals are seizing the initiative to reframe their visual identity in a uniquely African context. In 2006, Enwezor curated an exhibition entitled Snap Judgments: New Positions in Contemporary African Photography at the International Center of Photography in New York. Featuring the work of several artists,  in contrast to the extraordinary situations commonly presented in the mass media, there is a general sense of the banal permeating the work of these photographers, which Enwezor describes as “antiphotogenic and antispectacular” (19). Conceding “colonial subjectivity may never be completely vanquished,” he postulates that “whether or not modern African photographers intentionally constituted their work in response to colonial imagery, we must see it in light of their privileging of African memories” (32).

Similarly, intellectual activity surrounding The New African Photography Exhibition held in South Africa in September 2010 focused on questions surrounding Black self-image, poverty pornography, and the need for photographers to rise above financial and historical pressures to combat negative stereotyping. The photography promoted in both shows, while distinctly African in content, is remarkably similar in style and quality to good photography everywhere. With a wide selection of portraiture, street photography and abstract conceptualization, they represent an affirmation of photography’s universal ability to present personal and cultural narratives that are self-defining and empowering. George Mahashe’s black and white portraits of the women who have influenced his life refute a tired mythology of male chauvinism. Andrew Tshabangu’s images of men’s hostels and township life are described by one reviewer as seeking “to show how space could define the people who live in it,” a documentary approach with a rich history (Bruce Davidson’s environmental portraits from Harlem in the 1960’s comes to mind). In these works, I sense redemption and an assertion of identity. Indeed, if there is any merit to Marita Sturken’s proposition that “forgetting is a necessary component in the construction of memory, ” then seizing control of the visual narrative by contemporary artists contributes to an African Renaissance (Sturken 7).

Begging to be photographed?
The best intentions often fall short, and this is a phenomenon not unique to Africa. Erskine Caldwell and Margaret-Bourke-White’s Depression-era book You Have Seen Their Faces was panned by critics, not because of a lack of realism or veracity in the photographs, but for its patronizing tone, expressed mainly through simplistic captions which made the poor Southern sharecroppers captured by Bourke-White’s camera seem one-dimensional and ignorant.

While similar examples litter the back pages of journalism history everywhere, one would be hard-pressed to find a continent, or collectively imagined group of peoples so maligned by oversimplification as Africa. To see how ingrained this way of thinking still is, just look to the mainstream media. The cover story of the June 2010 issue of News Photographer magazine, the official mouthpiece of the National Press Photographer’s Association, features the headline: “Empathy in Photojournalism: Bearing witness to courage and resilience, love and the fundamental beauty of humanity.” Written by Ann Curry, a nationally known television news personality, the layout is filled with examples of Curry’s own photography, mostly from places like Goma and Darfur. They are stark black and white depictions of the worst kind of human suffering, dramatic in the tradition of classic photojournalism. But aside from the photographs themselves, Curry offers more empathy and bromides praising photography than context. “Documentary photography can teach us a simple truth: that if you step back and look through a wide lens, no one person is of greater value than another” (Curry 31). Near the end of the piece, she turns an unfortunate phrase, “We are surrounded by our constantly evolving human family, which now and for every decade to come is begging to be photographed” (Curry 41). More condescending than intended, this fuels the perception that the media has an over-inflated sense of its own self-importance. Moreover, with the inevitable negotiated reading this presentation is bound to receive, Curry’s outsized compaasion lends credence to Enwezor’s concern with paternalism, which (referring specifically to the Carter image) “encapsulates and seems to feed an intractable addiction—the fascination with Africa’s ostensibly futile struggle to slip the clutches of a perpetual nightmare” (Enwezor 15).

This attitude offends not only academics, intellectuals and social critics, but has to a large degree also worn out its welcome with the common man. In the spring of 2010, I returned to Africa to document development projects in Angola. Olivio Gambo, a communications officer for UNICEF, helped me navigate the labyrinthine slums of Luanda, where I encountered quite a few people who didn’t seem too thrilled about the prospect of being photographed by an outsider. Olivio explained that during the course of their 27-year civil war, people had grown resistant to the foreign press, whom he explained would “show up, stay for a short while, make their photographs and disappear.” The pictures would appear in international magazines, depicting the average Angolan as beleaguered, helpless or worse. “They still remember that, and the people (that are refusing to be photographed) don’t want it anymore.”

At the projects UNICEF sponsored, it was much easier to work—project directors understand the role of the media in bringing attention and fundraising dollars to their projects, and usually convince visitors to their schools or clinics to cooperate. This is the hybrid genre sometimes referred to as advocacy journalism, which blends public relations and marketing concerns with a documentary style. Operating on a parallel track with traditional reportage, both function on the presumptive notion that the viewing public accepts photography’s credibility. Both are equally responsible for creating the images that fuel Afro-Pessimism and most upset its critics. And both, whether de-contextualized as Fine Art or used to raise money for declared humanitarian efforts, have become increasingly effective in the commodification of misfortune.

In 1997’s The Road to Hell, Michael Maren’s exposé on the relief industry, he recalls the way he (an agricultural specialist) and others were trained by Save the Children  “to pose children for photographs to go into ads and brochures” (Maren 49). This brought back memories of meetings I attended during my early days with International Christian Aid, the California-based NGO that first sent me to Africa. I was dismayed to hear marketing personnel liken the packaging of our fundraising materials to selling cereal or soap. Maren also makes reference to the Kevin Carter photograph, which was used in a Save the Children print ad, even though the organization didn’t have any projects in Sudan at the time. Executives at Save the Children deflected accusations of “hunger porn,” and when the image was awarded the Pulitzer Prize, Maren recounts how they felt exonerated, and “called a staff meeting to gloat” (158).

But the most telling passage from Maren’s experiences concerns the blurring of lines between what is presented as news and advertising. Back in the USA in 1992, Maren followed reports of the continuing disintegration of Somalia on CNN, and noted:

“Newscasts faded into ads for Save the Children. At first I thought, ‘How tricky of Save the Children to make their ads look like news.’ Then I realized that it was the other way around. The news was looking like Save the Children Ads. The massive concentration of images of death was moving, but this was not the Somalia I had seen” (212).

The backlash of protest against this branding of misfortune has not gone unnoticed by marketing strategists, and attempts have been made by some agencies to present a more responsible view of the beneficiaries of international aid.