Satisfied in wasting time in juvenile discussions about the ‘seriousness’ of Hipstamatic or Instagram while … avoiding any debates about the the historical, cultural, and social prejudices that underpin the craft, or even the legacy of a colonial forms of knowledge that continue to inform its form, photographers seem deeply disconnected from the very world they so claim to be documenting.
It has been difficult to write. I suppose that is stating the obvious given that this blog has been rather quiet for many weeks, if not months. I am not quite sure what the cause of this silence is. But I have been blocked. But this is a block that comes not from a lack of things to say and write, but from a sense of distance and disconnection from my perceived audience. This blog is read by a small group of people, but I fear that I have been so involved in my own struggles with life and projects that I have lost my connection to the imagined reader. Somewhere during these past few months, I have been unable to conjure up the reader I have been writing for and without that reader I have not known what to say or how to say it. But every now and then one of these readers writes back, reminding me that I must find this voice again.
A few days ago I received a note from one such reader who told me that she had enjoyed reading a piece I had written some months ago called How To Take Photos Of Africa Or Where Intent and Ideas Collide. The piece attempted to show the works of some photographers producing interesting and new works from a continent that has long suffered under the weight of ahistorical, sensationalist and outright bigoted representations.
I have found it staggering that the mainstream photojournalism community remains so resistant to a serious discussion about the prejudices and structures of knowledge that inform so much of what passes for reportage from the African continent. To say nothing about its representation of the other ‘blighted’ areas of the world. A high degree of self-congratulation, self-aggrandizement, machismo and self-righteousness that masks deep historical and cultural ignorance, continue to mark the works of so many who purport to be ‘reporting’ the world. It is as if the more aware they are of their ignorance, or intellectual laziness, the more determined they are to insist that there is no need to change anything. Satisfied in wasting time in juvenile discussions about the ‘seriousness’ of Hipstamatic or Instagram while assiduously avoiding any debates about the the historical, cultural, and social prejudices that underpin the craft, or even the legacy of a colonial forms of knowledge that continue to inform its form, photographers seem deeply disconnected from the very world they so claim to be documenting. Photographers can’t seem to find a way to speak about the complexity that exists between their preferred extremes: sentimentality or sensationalism. This is perhaps one of the main reasons why the entire industry is trapped in reproducing stories, repeating representations and increasing its irrelevance to the broader public. The industry continues to search for its savior in new revenue models, new aethetic tricks, new technology platforms, new technical gizmos and yet remains obstinately resistant to revisiting its assumptions about method, voice, engagement and documentary approach.
I was reminded of all this by this reader’s email and a recent piece in The Boston Review by reporter Jina Moore called ‘The White Correspondent’s Burden’ where she argued that:
Since its first encounters with the continent, suffering is all the West has known of Africa. We’ve caused much of it—centuries of slave trade, followed by a near-century of colonialism and its attendant physical and structural violence, from the rubber fields of the Belgian Congo to the internment camps of British Kenya. But it’s also been our narrative preoccupation.
In his contribution to the book Humanitarianism and Suffering (2011), historian Thomas Laqueur charts the birth of “the sentimental narrative” and its role in changing hearts and inspiring action. “In the late eighteenth century,” he writes, “the ethical subject was democratized; more and more people came to believe it was their obligation to ameliorate and prevent wrongdoing to others.”
The sentimental narrative…is a sneaky one. Superficially, it seems humane, a good-hearted response to the impoverished and their plight. But it also objectifies the sufferers it nominally empowers—people with pain to ameliorate, against whom wrongdoings are to be prevented, on whose behalf this compassion is to be invested. However many noble or real or useful things that investment may bring, it also flatters us, by affirming our own righteousness.
But I would also argue, that it is an outdated one. The sentimental narrative harks back to a time when Europe had a different ‘relationahip’ (that has to be the worst euphemism for the institution of slavery, and the brutal colonial practices that tore the lives of hundreds of millions apart!) to the continent. And yet the narrative remains current and much in use today. And whereas Jina Moore’s piece is about reporting in general, its concerns are very much related to the practice of photographic reportage from Africa.
My point is not to argue for a ‘right representation of Africa’ vs. a ‘wrong representation of Africa’. It is however to argue for a ‘complex’ representation of Africa – one that takes into account the human history and politics of the people we choose to document. And perhaps equally importantly, one that shows a greater degree of self-awareness, and self-reflection so that we are not merely pontificating, righteously judging or worse, piously pitying.
The fact remains that so much of what passes for photojournalism about Africa has become a travesty of ancient memes – speaking about the dark continent today says more about the ignorance, prejudice and riggedly closed intellectual and human capacities of the photojournalist, editor and publisher. The writer Teju Cole called these conventional stories, these unimaginative and self-affirming narrative structures, the White Savior Industrial Complex. In a piece called ‘The White Savior Industrial Complex’, written for The Atlantic in the wake of the embarassingly reductive Kony2012 campaign, Cole argued that:
One song we hear too often is the one in which Africa serves as a backdrop for white fantasies of conquest and heroism. From the colonial project to Out of Africa to The Constant Gardener and Kony 2012, Africa has provided a space onto which white egos can conveniently be projected. It is a liberated space in which the usual rules do not apply: a nobody from America or Europe can go to Africa and become a godlike savior or, at the very least, have his or her emotional needs satisfied. Many have done it under the banner of “making a difference.”
Cole is angered at a strangely European and American refusal to connect the wider social, political, historical and economic dots and return a complexity, and agency to the Africans. There remains a desperate need to reduce and simplify so that most all narratives can be conveniently fitted back into a structure that appeases the heart of the ‘godlike savior’
In August of this year I will move to Africa. Specifically, I am relocating to Kigali, Rwanda. I will be entering what is in effect an entirely new world. It is an exciting moment in my life as an individual and a photographer. It is also an unnerving one. Suddenly, in less than a month, I will be asked to put my own opinions and perspectives to the test. I turn my mind and then my camera to Rwanda, and to countries that surround it, I know that I have to walk the talk. I am looking forward to it.