Friday, June 25

Photographing Africa

I liked this piece by David Campbell, calling for alternative stories and pictures of Africa, when I first read it, and visited his blog Imagining Famine where he develops the idea from day to day.  I think he's right, for one thing.  There are pretty strict expectations when it comes to African photographs.  If the pictures deal neither with the humanitarian issues of poverty, famine and civil war nor with the tourist spectacles of nature and wildlife, they are something of a shock and take a moment to register as truly African.  To see pictures of Sudan Premier League's Al-Khartoum at practice is jarring in the same sense as seeing pictures of LeBron James hosting a barbeque.  With some thought you can recognize that these are not ridiculous images.  They do make a certain amount of sense.  Of course the Sudanese like to kick balls into nets as much as the rest of the world and surely James needs to eat, but these are not the first images we expect from either.  In calling for a conscious effort to explore new photographic themes in Africa and help people unconsciously realize that the continent and its 53 nations have an existence beyond the 'famines and coups' storyline, I think Campbell's intentions and hopes are good.

Unfortunately I really can't see how his approach is much less patronizing than the stereotypes he refutes.  It still depends upon us treating the Africans in the appropriate manner.  Where is the African agency in this?  We can throw planes full of Americans into western Europe and the pictures they bring back will not slide far beyond them and their families at the base of the Eiffel Tower or them straining to hold up the Leaning Tower of Pisa.  Do we honestly think here, though, that these are the totality of France and Italy?  No, and it's not because Americans are doing such a great job of portraying them in their cultural fullness in Hollywood blockbusters and popular fiction.  It's because they promote themselves.  They're not waiting for Americans to treat them with dignity and tell their stories.  Their writers, filmmakers, singers, musicians, dancers, sculptors, painters, bloggers, journalists, photographers and all the rest are already doing it and have been for decades and centuries.  The answer to African stereotypes by the West is not further attempts by the West to get it right but an African response.  Kenyans telling Kenyan stories, Nigerians taking Nigerian pictures and Zambians writing Zambian songs.

Like I began, I think Campbell is right.  There is a standard plotline to African stories throughout the West that should be exposed for how shallow and incomplete it is at describing the depth and breadth and complexity of an entire continent.  The appropriate response, though, is not, necessarily, to take new and different pictures but to support those Africans already doing it.  Read Wizard of the Crow.  Listen to a Tumi Molekane album.  Make a global market for African artists and allow them to bring produce more and share more still with the rest of the world.

My just voiced complaints withstanding, should you like to see some of these alternative visual stories of Kenya and its neighbors to the north, west, south and beyond, check out African Lens.  It has some good stuff.

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