Whenever “Africa” is in the headline of mainstream US and European media sources, especially those that are highly regarded, I wince. I know the storyline is going to suffused by disappointment and resignation about Africa failing, once again.
While the rest of the world and its modern inhabitants are technologising and digitising, happily going about wearing jeans and T-shirts, there goes Africa, backwards into some apocalyptic, scarred past, wearing embarrassing tribal garb.
Sometimes, these media outlets allow Africa to come to the present, but of course, in dubious ways: embedded in the flow of “Islamic” terror-narratives: Nigeria and Boko Haram, Libya and its violent insurgents, Somalia and its troublesome “Islamic fundamentalists” raiding Kenyan universities.
It’s as though the editorial board is shaking its collective head with an exasperated sigh, and showing us, with a lavish, full-colour photograph, exactly why they are frustrated with the entire continent.
Sometimes, though, I’m just confused. For instance, the influential New York Times recently published an article titled “Who Is Telling Africa’s Stories“, covering efforts to develop photojournalism in various African countries.
The writer, Whitney Richardson, a photo editor for the paper, provided some contradicting points: Happy news about the growing number of talented photographers coming out of photography training institutes and collectives based in countries with divergent histories and presents – Ethiopia, Kenya, Nigeria, South Africa – but also that these photographers do not produce work that is “professional” enough for agencies to hire them.
Richardson offered some insight into continuing problems that locally based photographers face getting international news agencies’ attention. What emerges as a solution is the need for young photographers to get international exposure, where, according to acclaimed photographer Akintunde Akinleye, they may also “learn the ethical standards of the industry”. The takeaway: unless international news agencies based in North America and Europe such as the Associated Press, Reuters and Agence France-Presse pick your work, you are a nobody.
Yet, it is these very agencies that contribute to problematic views that simplify Africa into a repetitive trope. Africa remains a monolithic space of violence and poverty uncomplicated by global politics and military action, because the images and narratives chosen by powerful news agencies and newspapers continue to speak to foundational myths that Europe (and white ex-colonists and plantation owners in America) manufactured about Africa, in order to better ease their conquest and exploitation of a regionally, politically and socially complex, dynamic continental shelf.
If the construction of the African as child-like, or not quite human, who has little agency or intellect, aided the colonial project, today, the narrative continues to aid the construction of the European self as civilised, maintaining the African and Africa as the location of savagery, helplessness, and devastation. It also creates Europe as a desirable location that those who have no agency and have done little to better themselves attempt to infiltrate – much to Europe’s chagrin.
Aida Muluneh, Ethiopian-born artist, documentary photographer, and the founder of Desta for Africa (DFA) – a creative consultancy that curates exhibitions and pursues cultural projects with local and international institutions – emphasises: “Photography continues to play a key role in how we are seen, not just as Africans, but as black people from every corner of the world. Stereotypes and prejudice are incited by images, and if it’s used, yet again, to undermine those of us who are truly doing the difficult work, then we need to have some uncomfortable conversations.“
And when it comes to payment, there are further “uncomfortable” discrepancies that international agencies never reveal: “When we do get assignments, they want to pay us less because we are from the country; but for a foreign photographer, they will not blink to pay an arm and a leg,” adds Muluneh.
In Richardson’s piece, the prevailing view is that even though top photo agencies are looking for local photographers to “offset costs”, the Africans do not compare to western photographers.
Alice Gabriner, Time magazine’s international photo editor, expressed disappointment with African photographers (note, again, an entire continent’s photographers are lumped together), because they lack “completed bodies of work”.
But photography training institutions – producing photographers with “complete” bodies of work that have received international acclaim and awards – have mushroomed in the past 10 years. Muluneh’s own focus is on developing internal networks: to be “independent and to create our own platforms … and institutions … to be self-sustainable and to be able to compete in the international market.”
Despite the existence of photographers and journalists from African localities, they are not the go-to people that agencies based in the geopolitical West seek out. The New York Times’ reporters-in-Africa, Nicholas Kristoff and Jeffrey Gettleman, or R W Johnson, the London Review of Book’s go-to fave on South Africa, spin a good Africa story, seemingly with little self-critique, and with little thought to consequences.
The ideologies behind the image narratives and stories in English language news sources are presented matter-of-factly, with little resistance from alternative media in the US and Europe; although they often contain deeply problematic perspectives of significant issues, they are trotted out on a regular basis, whenever there is a “crisis” involving Africa.
Conscious and unconscious tropes
If we ask a photojournalist or a photo editor how old narratives constructed in order to aid slavery, exploitation, and colonisation, as well as current efforts to extract resources, continue to inflect themselves into how we conceive of Africa and Africans today, in current photo spreads, we’d draw blank stares, or be the recipient of hostile, defensive responses.
That lack of critique is partly owing to the fact that photo narratives reference prevailing problematic, and often racist, views; even those with expensive educations that taught them to be critical, those who hold influential photo-editing positions at the world’s most powerful news companies, still subscribe to these views, consciously or unconsciously.
For instance, only months before publishing “Who is Telling Africa’s Stories,” The New York Times published a photo essay with the troubling headline “Stepping Over the Dead on a Migrant Boat” by Rick Gladstone and Aris Messinis. The story focused on African migrants who had crossed the Mediterranean in an attempt to reach Europe, but ended up dying in a capsizing boat.
The photo essay appears, at first, to highlight the migrants’ plight. However, the way in which they are portrayed, along with the provocative headline, made their desperate attempts to reach safety appear callous and inhuman (because what civilised person would step over the dead?).
The survivors who scrambled to get to safety are depicted as broken humans, at best, or those with unformed psyches that permit acts of barbarity that the Western “we” would never consider.
Photo-narratives such as “Stepping Over the Dead” bring up many familiar, and troubling, tropes common to the prevailing narratives about Africa. They teach a new generation of readers to view the African as an “other” to be pitied or feared.
These arresting images – constructed mostly by flown-in photojournalists, with the help of their photo editors – grab our attention; the best draw the fundamentals of their aesthetic from European masters, referencing visual cliches that Western-educated audiences can identify and latch on to. They continue and reinforce colonial mythologies, fashioning the “us” of the geopolitical West as “civilised”, defining and distinguishing the enlightened European self from the dark, savage Africa.
When the same newspaper prints a story about the struggle that African photographers face getting their work published, with little critique of their own involvement in presenting an insistently racist vision of Africa and Africans that simply masquerades as compassion, it’s easy to end up with a little schizophrenia.
How can African photographers hope to get work or recognition without reproducing expected stereotypes? Can they do so without the accompaniment of writing that exposes European or US governments’ interference and military presence – as in the case of Somalia, Mali, CAR, Djibouti, and Chad – or destabilisation efforts and military campaigns – as in the case of Libya?
Instead of leading the story with the dearth of Africa-based agencies, and offering the need to get recognition in North America and Europe – itself a problematic solution, available mostly to those who are already from middle and upper-class families who are well-connected enough to navigate visa and immigration regimes, not to mention galleries and art world sharks – why not offer better solutions?
Photographs have traditionally been regarded as “evidence”, or even as providers of indisputable “truth”. And there is little doubt that the present generation reads the world almost exclusively through images. In this age, where images play a significant role in how we read the world, photographs that accompany news stories have even more influence.
But the practice of reading, in which we currently engage, is undergirded by consumer practices; it is carried out with little critical ability, and with little historical understanding about how and why readers’ image repertories, and their thought processes are influenced by material cultures – including photography – that aided violent, imperial histories.
But because photography is seen as a “truth-telling” medium that reveals without bias, audiences and photographers themselves are unaware of how the narratives they help create continue to be inflected with the same stories that enabled Europe’s construction of the African as a savage or helpless, the “other” needing the disciplinary forces of Western civilisation to tame and aid their unruly bodies and psyches into modernity.
When Muluneh was recently interviewed by a local radio station, she was asked how she was able to photograph “the good” things about Ethiopia, “as well as the bad”. Muluneh explained to her interviewer that the “bad is the easiest thing to document”. Perhaps that’s something The New York Times’ photographers need to hear in a critical skills workshop.
M Neelika Jayawardane is an Associate Professor of English at the State University of New York-Oswego, and an Honorary Research Associate at the Centre for Indian Studies in Africa (CISA), University of the Witwatersrand (South Africa). She was a senior editor and contributor to the online magazine, Africa is a Country, from 2010 to 2106. Her writing is featured in Transitions, Contemporary And, Art South Africa, Contemporary Practices: Visual Art from the Middle East, and Research in African Literatures. She writes about and collaborates with visual artists.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.