How are Africans represented i

How are Africans represented in photojournalism?

The current exhibition “Human Rights, Human Wrongs” at The Photographers’ Gallery in London raises the question of how Africa is portrayed in the West, minimising Africa to be seen as a land of African soldiers and tribal beasts

How are Africans represented i

Clichéd images circulating in the media of  the “begging African” or the “starving child and mother” have become representations of the African continent’s grief and tragedy.

Oxfam, World Vision and other UK charities and aid agencies supported by the public, should determine how many of their donations go directly to those children, whether homeless, hungry or child soldiers. Bob Geldof has held Live Aid (1985), Live 8 (2005) and celebrated the 30 anniversary of the Band Aid (2014) and it appears that the musical community will keep on giving to Africa, which I applaud. However, shouldn’t we be empowering Africans with education and training rather than only making charitable donations or handouts? Let Africa manage its own affairs.

In the exhibition, where are the images of the steel and glass buildings in some of the more modern cities in Africa such as in Sandton in South Africa, Harare in Zimbabwe, Nairobi in Kenya, Lusaka in Zambia and others?  Having visited several countries in Africa, I have seen a vast amount of images that make up this complex continent.

However, if the guiding principle for this exhibition is Article Six of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which proposes, “Everyone has the right to recognition everywhere, as a person before the law”, then it should expand its photographs to capture more images showing how Africa has progressed up until 2015, and give more credit where it is due.

The exhibition features more than 200 original press prints.  It explores what role such images play in helping us understand the case for human rights, and further addresses the legacy of how photographs have historically functioned in raising awareness of international conflict. The exhibition spans a time frame from 1945 until the early 90s and examines the major political upheavals, conflict, war and struggles against racism and colonisation that became especially urgent following World War II. It seeks to present these events in a global context rather than as isolated incidents, using a linear and connected chronological representation.

The exhibition was curated by Mark Sealy MBE, of Autograph ABP with curatorial assistance from Valérie Matteau, of the Ryerson Image Centre.  Autograph ABP is a charity that works internationally in photography, cultural identity, race, representation and human rights.

It takes as its starting point the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the UN in 1948. From there, it ranges globally across Africa, Asia, South America, the Civil Rights Movement in the States and political upheaval in Europe.

For 50 years, this was how the West saw the rest, and it was a vision wholly biased toward a First World understanding of history, geography, winners and losers. Africans are either victims or savages shown in a collage of misery and infamy. The photographs are all presented in black and white, which is disappointing as I would preferred to have seen some photographs in “rainbow” colours.

We need to question what this human right to recognition actually means – especially today – and to really think about how such recognition is generated and controlled, particularly in terms of image production and circulation. In essence, we need to unpick an essentially imperialist notion of power. So much of the world, in terms of how we understand it, and specifically in terms of the imagery we are presented with, is conceived from a very particular tradition of Eurocentric concerns, and any enquiry into photo journalistic practice and its impact on humanitarian objectives, has to necessarily interrogate not only the kind of images we are presented with, but where, when and how they are distributed.

For example, we often talk about the Civil Rights Movement as if it was a localised incident, but it’s vital to consider it within the larger context of other liberation struggles; and to understand the efforts and political objectives for freedom and democracy at play in different parts of the world, and to recognise the shared ideological struggle behind these movements.

Fundamentally, this exhibition exposes a definite conditioning towards a western media perspective, which has had a huge impact on our reading and understanding of world events.

The references create very specific meaning and values, yet conditioned as we are, we’re largely unconscious of their effect. It’s incredible to think, for example, that in one year alone, 1960, seventeen African countries were liberated, and yet these hugely significant resistance movements are summed up in very few images, as this wasn’t necessarily sensationalist enough for Western media.

The way photojournalism deals with the racialised subject is an important inquiry and one they draw attention to because it seems that the black figure, the non-European subject, is often photographed in the most broken of conditions. It is almost as if it is visually acceptable to look at these people in the most debased of scenarios; contrarily, there is an absence of images that show the European subject in the same way. So we can see that there is a definite hierarchy at play as to who sees whom and how we engage with the actual subject in the frame.

The legacy of those relationships between people is part and parcel of what conflict is about: the intimacy that develops, the exchanges, whether they are paid for posing for the photograph or if it’s a natural situation. How are soldiers in conflict framed when the person behind the lens is of the other side?

The question about the representation of the developing world, with many African countries struggling for peace, as being merely depicted in images of people waiting in queues is not ideal. The horrific and brutal reality of mass genocide, that we have seen in Africa and other European countries, is both necessary but also haunting.

So, we need to think about how knowledge and the transfer of ideas are enabled. What value does photojournalism have? It could point to the paradoxes of violence, look at the different cultural and ideological exchanges that occur in these works, and serve as a reminder that most of the events happened within our living memory.

In Africa, it is complex to gain rightful and effective recognition. At a time when vast swathes of people – the refugee, the asylum seeker, the economic migrant – have no rights at all, they are in fact ‘no-ones’, it seems a matter of extreme urgency to consider political humanitarian development in today’s context.

If you wonder whether you should go and see the exhibition, I recommend that you go and reflect on the portrayal of Africans in context.


Photo: Sherman Geronimo-Tan
The Black Star Collection, Ryserson Image Centre