My memory of Kenya when I was young…it was a beautiful time, Kenya was growing, things were happening well…And suddenly there is new culture of humanitarianism…[and]…it was saying that the project of independence is over…for us, it was a very painful thing to witness ourselves on We Are The World…as if we need to be taken care of….and now, we have a new [set] of missionaries [here]…

I have written quite a bit (see here, here, here and here to begin!) on the degrading, dismissive, denigrating and dehumanising way in which photojournalism has pillaged the communities, histories, polities and individuals in the vast, diverse, complex, and ever-changing continent of Africa. Now comes a documentary that peels apart the social, cultural, and intellectual frameworks that allow us to be so indifferent to the history, humanity and agency of a few hundred million people.

Much like the generic, mindless, tiresome troupe of the veil in the Middle East – an obsession that has now become largely comical and so devoid of any serious intent or value that it verges on a farce (i wrote about this at least once here but there are more pieces if you dig around that focus on this quite simply banal and stupid obsession which however has a long colonial and orientalist heritage) – the African continent and its use as a site of Western privilege and performance remains an unchanging and unstintingly pathetic site to behold.

The fact is that this is not a technical, aesthetic, or technology problem. This is an intellectual problem and a humanist imagination problem. No amount of ‘nice’ photos from Africa will address the underlying ethical and intellectual through processes that see Africa as a blank slate of history, humanity, morality, agency, politics, narratives and dreams. It is only an absolute intellectual re-structuring, a de-education that can begin to help us create what the American philosopher Martha Nussbaum argued was the cultivation of a narrative imagination. As I have written earlier, Nussbaum asked us in her work Cultivating Humanity to:

  • To have ‘…the capacity for critical examination of oneself and one’s traditions – for living what, following Socrates, we may call “the examined life.”‘
  • To develop ‘…the ability to see [oneself] not simply as citizens of some local regions or groups but also and above all, as human beings bound to all other human beings by ties of recognition and concern.’
  • To possess ‘…a narrative imagination…[i.e.] the ability to think what it might be like to be in the shoes of a person different from oneself, to be an intelligent reader of that person’s story, and to understand the emotions and wishes and desires that someone so placed might have.’

Andrew Hernann is an educator who spent a year in Northern Mali doing field work with internally displaced people. Dismayed at the inane questions people asked him when he returned to the USA, we pointed out in “How Was Africa?”  a post titled :

[we]…must go further in my attempts to disrupt some of the entrenched and privileged positions that many of my students maintain and push them to rethink contemporary processes that continue to marginalize much of the continent. In my view, though, my current focus on history, power relations, social construction, and even everyday African lives remains insufficient. Superficially, such instruction disrupts discourse, but seems to fail to undermine years of ideological social distance and apathy. Therefore, to join the chorus of educators of global inequality, in addition to providing information and challenging presumptions, I contend that we must also attempt to teach something considerably more complicated: empathy.

Photojournalists will have to confront their inherent bias, prejudices, and arrogance. As they step into the world they have to jettison the literature and the ideas that have been fed to them since childhood and reach for works that dismantle, and deconstruct their very conception of what it means to work outside an Eurocentricity, a Western narcissism and a sense of cultural superiority. Before they even lift the camera to their eye, they have to find a humility of spirit, intellect and ethics that looks at the seemingly weaker, poorer and ‘backward’, (as they have been described to us), and for the first time perhaps sees them as an equal, as complete, and as one worthy of standing alongside and telling their story.