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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From “Headmen” To “Hitmen”–A People Brutalised Yet Again

Another photographer turns up at another manufactured ‘traditional’ geography, and produces another set of racist, reductive and entirely fake set of images. I don’t mean ‘fake’ in the way that most photographer’s get all concerned about. I mean ‘fake’ in a much more serious way, one that reduces people to social, political and historical caricatures and makes them into concocted objects for class titillation and voyeurism. And this American magazine–mired deep in the heart of American imperialism, its violence and its brutality–publishes the images and accompanies them with what can only be described as one of the most incredibly ahistorical, obfuscatory and infantile articles I have read outside of stuff frequently published by Time Magazine and/or The New York Times.

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Thomas Sankara’s Restless Children

The project is now complete. Although, we may never really complete the telling of this remarkable story. You can see the project by clicking on this link here, or on the image below.

Eyes Of Aliyah–Deport, Deprive, Extradite Initiative By Nisha Kapoor

I have publicly and on this forum very explicitly argued against the strange ‘disappearance’ of black/brown bodies that are the actual targets and victims of our ‘liberal’ state policies of surveillance, entrapment, drone assassinations, renditions and indefinite detention. I recently argued:

“Western visual journalism, and visual artists, have erased the actual victims of the criminal policies of the imperial state. Instead, most all have chosen to produce a large array of projects examining drone attacks, surveillance, detentions and other practices, through the use of digital abstractions, analogous environments, still life work or just simply the fascinating and enticing safety of datagrams and charts. Even a quick look at recent exhibitions focusing on the ‘war on terror’ or wars in general, have invited works that use digital representations of war, or focus on the technologies of war. An extreme case of this deflection are recent projects on drone warfare that not only avoid the actual brown/black bodies that are the targets of deadly drone attacks, but are not even produced anywhere near the geographies and social ecologies where drone attacks continue to happen! Yet, these works have found tremendous popularity, though i remain confused what kinds of conversations or debates they provoke given that the voices of the families of those who have been killed, are not only entirely missing, but people who can raised the difficult questions about the lies and propaganda that are used to justify the killings, are also entirely missing.”

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Public Release of “The Sinner”

This is my first feature length documentary film and we–Justice Project Pakistan, with the guiding support of Sarah BelalRimmel Mohydin and others at Justice Project Pakistan, are finally releasing it.

And we are doing it first in Pakistan.

The film takes us into the world of capital punishment in Pakistan through the life of one man; Jan Masi. Jan Masi worked as an execution for nearly 30 years, and claims to have executed over 1800 people. He started his work in the enthusiastic pursuit of revenge for the execution of Pakistan’s Prime Minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto.

This isn’t a typical documentary film. No talking heads. No linear story-telling. No polemics or moral grand standing. No righteous exclamations against capital punishment. Instead, Jan Masi, his life, his scars, his fears and despair, act as metaphors for the meaning of capital punishment in Pakistan, and the consequences it has on the broader Pakistani society.

Sudhir Patwardhan

Sudhir Patwardhan.

Can you discover ‘an influence’ after the fact?

What do you call someone who seems to embody your eye, your sensibility, and yet you had never seen his / her work, and yet, when you now see it, you see the ‘influence’…the similarities?

Is he confronting the same questions? Is he seeing this incredibly complex and multi-layered world with the same desire to depict it as close to that complexity as possible?

I was taken aback. The aesthetic pursuit is so familiar. It is as if he is a step ahead of me. He is a step ahead of me.

I am going through these images–gorgeous, striking, unique, and no, I refuse to give you some ‘European’ reference to understand them in any way. They are Patwardhan’s and his alone. But I want to make them as photographs.

They are the photographs I would make if in Mumbai. It is beautiful stuff. It makes me want to go and make photographs.

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Make It Right For Palestine, November 4, 2017

Be there. Hyde Park. Speaker’s Corner. London. 12:00 noon. 4th November, 2017.

The Polis Project…Is Up And Running

If you can’t join them, then just do it on your own.

We launched a new collective focused on research, reportage and resistance. The specific goals and objectives are being developed as we speak, but the idea is a simple one: to collect under one banner a group of individuals from different fields – artists, writers, academics, photographers, intellectuals, poets and others, who are consistently working against the grain. In this time of collective conformity, and a media sycophancy to power and extremism, some of us felt the need to create a small space where people are still determined to refuse the agendas of political power, debilitating capitalism, nationalist extremism and neoliberal idiocy, and remain fools in their hearts, and idealists in their souls.

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Short Doc: “As If A Nightmare”;The Story Of Former Bagram Prisoner Abdul Haleem Saifullah


We are commemorating 9/11 this week, but by remembering the ‘other’ victims of that event that few chose to remember. These are the brown bodies that rarely make it into visual media projects, that since 9/11, have chosen to hide behind digital representations, data charts, and other visual forms that do a lot, but never permit us to see or hear the brown and black people who actually suffer the consequences of drone attacks, sweeping surveillance, targeted entrapment, renditions, indefinite detentions, torture and other forms of inhumanity that today liberal minds seem to be able to easily justify.

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Short Doc: “Prisoner 1432” – The Story of Former Bagram Prisoner Amanatullah Ali


We are commemorating 9/11 this week, but by remembering the ‘other’ victims of that event that few chose to remember. These are the brown bodies that rarely make it into visual media projects, that since 9/11, have chosen to hide behind digital representations, data charts, and other visual forms that do a lot, but never permit us to see or hear the brown and black people who actually suffer the consequences of drone attacks, sweeping surveillance, targeted entrapment, renditions, indefinite detentions, torture and other forms of inhumanity that today liberal minds seem to be able to easily justify.

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10 Things To Consider…

I recommend that photographers, photojournalists, documentary photographers remember these wise words by Tania Canas, RISE Arts Director / Member – I am copying and pasting it here. As brown and black bodies are stripped of their clothing, as brown and black children are dehumanised to mere misery, as brown and black women are reduced to simply victims, as ghettos and brothels and refugee camps and slums become the ‘paint by number’ formula for White photographer’s career and publishing success, it becomes increasingly important that those of us on the receiving end of White ‘largesse’ begin to build obstacles, speak back, and refuse / reject these ‘representations’ and their reductive, violent and brutal narrative frames. We have lost too much, and are in danger of whatever little we have left as humans and as histories, if we permit this process to continue.

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