How To Take Photos Of Africa Or Where Intent And Ideas Collide

Binyanvanga Wainaina’s essay How to Write About Africa remains one of the most powerfully insightful criticism and accusation of the continued dehumanization and oppression of Africa and Africans that continues in modern day language, photography, fine art, literature, poetry and the stultifying and lobotomizing rhetoric of so-called aid organizations and their employees.

It was an essay that stopped me in my tracks and forever changed the way I looked at Africa as a photographer and as a viewer of photography from the continent. It was also the essay that led me to search out more interesting, complex and human works from and about that continent.

This search led me to such wonderful works as that by Steve Simon’s The Grandmother Spirit a project that will, as Steve describes it, ‘…illuminate the determination, strength, resiliency and inspiration of The African Grandmother – the heart, soul and hands of response to the HIV/AIDS pandemic there’

Copyright Steve Simon

Copyright Steve Simon

Or the work of the brilliant, infectious, exhilarating and simply magnificent Malick Sidibe – what can I even say about the sheer humanity, vulnerability and beauty of the people he knows, meets, photographs and offers to us as angels from lands afar. Just look how beautiful they are…..just look!

Copyright Malick Sidibe

And more recently this fascinating look at the African middle class by the photographer Joan Bardeletti called Middle Classes In Africa. The project was surprisingly recognized in this year’s World Press Photo competition. I say surprisingly because such competitions have traditionally been at the forefront of celebrating Africa’s pathological representations as they sum up the general approach of the press and editorial markets.

I appreciated Barteletti’s statement that he was:

Frustated by the simple succesion of  photo essays and …launched … the “Middle Classes in Africa” project … [to] study new ways to produce and broadcast photography.

It reminded me of the works of the Swedish photographer Per-Anders Pettersson who has been documenting South Africa’s transition from apartheid to….well, whatever it is that it is confronting today, complete with all its remnants of apartheid’s legacies and new founds possibilities.

Speaking of World Press Photo and the editorial market’s inability to see its own frail and contorted sensibilities, I point you towards this story by the British photographer David Chancellor which left me saddened and bereft of words. I don’t know Mr. Chancellor and do not suppose to judge his intentions or his sensibilities. Here I speak as a viewer reacting to his story and what it was constructed  – and yes it is a construction and a very deliberate one at that.

Its called Elephant Story on his website, and won 3rd Prize at this year’s World Press Photo contest in the People In The News category.

Copyright David Chancellor

In fact, the story is best seen in the near cinematic, quick fire sequence that in fact the photo essay presents. I have re-created it here:

Copyright David Chancellor

Copyright David Chancellor

If I see a people photographed like maggots, is it me or is it the way the story has been constructed?

And if you think about it, it is that ‘insect/carnivore’ instinct that gives this sequence of images its ‘story telling’ cohesion. It is the near maggot like appearance of human beings who, as Mr. Chancellor himself describes it:

…fall upon the body of a dead elephant, starved of meat they reduce the huge carcass to bones in under 2 hours.

These are disembodied, dehumanized ‘creatures’ who ‘fall upon’ another creature for apparently they are ‘starved of meat’. The entire construction of the sequence was troubling – and it is a construction because the photographer could just as well have broadened this story to show us a different possibility. A possibility that would emerge from asking a few more questions, for example:

Who are these villagers?

What are their lives like?

How do they know how to strip an elephant?

What use is made of its bones, meat etc?

Why are they ‘starved of meat’?

What makes the elephant a valuable commodity?

What is the relationship of man to beast in this region?

So many questions were left answered that I could not help but feel that there was more to this story than just a bunch of Africans attacking a dead elephant as maggots would.

Who are these people? Are these members of the Chitsa clan? A people who have been under threat of displacement by the Zimbabwe government that has for years wanted them out of the Gonarezhou National Park area to create the great tourist/money-making safari corridor called The Great Limpopo Transfrontier Park? Claimed to be the world’s biggest ‘wildlife sanctuary’ (a.k.a. safari part) as it will bring together Zimbabwe’s Gonarezhou, Mozambique’s Limpopo National Park and South Africa’s Kruger National Park. Are these those people who have been resisting being dispossessed of their ancestral lands and are being ‘starved’ to compel them to do so?

Eating elephant meat is not an act of desperation as it appears to be so in the story. Some simple research suggests that elephant meat is a delicacy. Could there be economic potential? Could the bones produce items for sale or home use? Could this have been a wonderful story about man’s relationship to nature and our ability to re-use all and leave no waste? It could have been, but I would not know this, along with so much more, by the way this story was constructed and delivered.

All I know is that a group of human beings were photographed falling upon an elephant carcass in the manner of maggots and leaving behind the same evidence as would maggots on meat.

A photographer has the right to construct the story s/he wants. I just have the right to ask why and what compelled that particular story to be constructed in the first place.

And that just left me sad. Sad that this was the only angle on the situation, the only aspect that was highlighted. Sad that this was the depiction that caught the photographer’s eye and compelled his  creative instincts to ‘construct’ into this award-winning story. Sad in fact, and I admit that perhaps it is just my ‘eye’, that I noticed the barbarism and felt ‘shock’ at its overt display. Where did that construct come from, whether in me or in the photographer or in the other viewers who were clearly impressed enough to give it an award?

I am left, much as I was left after reading Binyanvanga Wainaina’s essay, questioning myself and much more. Wondering how we arrive at where we do, how we notice certain things and not others, and how we construct certain stories but have such a hard time constructing different ones.

But I don’t want to leave this post on this note. So I leave it on the works of another amazing African photographer Seydou Keita:

Copyright Seydou Keita

How beautiful!

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