Is the Most Famous Photography of Africa Fueling Stigmas?

Is the Most Famous Photography of Africa Fueling Stigmas?

This is an article I've been on the cusp of writing for some time. I was first jolted into this area of discussion when I heard someone refer to the photography of poorer cultures and communities as "white middle-class photography." I say jolted because — perhaps naively — I had drawn no parallels between types of photographer and types of subject before that day. Unlike most criticisms about photography, this comment didn't glide past me; instead, I found myself plunged into an internal debate. Are the loose motivations of "raising awareness for" and "the documentation of" these communities disingenuous and moreover, are they doing more harm than good?

There are two photographers that I hold particularly dear in this genre: Jimmy Nelson and Sebastião Salgado. Their portraiture of remote communities is astonishingly beautiful, and I implore you to see their work wherever exhibited. However, in 2014, Jimmy Nelson's project, "Before They Pass Away," came under heavy fire from the director of Survival International, Stephen Corry. The conclusion of Corry's scathing review of Nelson's work is most pertinent to the question at hand:

If his images look like they come from the 19th century, it's because they do. They echo a colonial vision which remains deeply destructive of peoples who try and reject its domination. Nelson must surely 'retune his antenna again,' for whatever else his work might be, the claim that it's the 'irreplaceable ethnographic record of a fast disappearing world' is wrong from pretty much every angle. 

- Stephen Corry

This debate can be dichotomized into a very familiar photographic discussion: is photography a historic documentation or is it an art form? Steve McCurry has found himself in the midst of controversy of late as one of his images was discovered to have been edited in Photoshop in such a way that it had changed the scene entirely to be more visually pleasing. This is easily defensible when his images are bottled and sold as art, but as a photojournalist, they are meant to be closer to that of historic documentation. Nelson, however, is creating beautiful images framed in a way that are to be consumed as intimate insights into remote communities fading away. Whether his representation of them is outdated and disingenuous is open to discussion, but the panAFRICAproject raises and then answers a new question built on similar foundations: are the photographs of Africa we see so often (tribes, poverty ,and famine) fueling stigmas about Africa? panAFRICAproject believes the answer is a resounding "yes."

The goal of a lot of photojournalism in Africa is not to find beauty like Jimmy Nelson and Sebastião Salgado strive to do, but instead to bring to the attention of the West the debilitating poverty that grips certain areas of the continent. The difficulty that has been born from the most famous images to have come out of Africa is a largely unjust stigma about the living situation, the standard of education, and the general autarky of the African population. The creator of the panAFRICAproject, Lou Jones, has set out to rebalance the Western media's perception of Africa with his images of the "other Africa." This project raised an important question.

"panAFRICAproject: Redefining the Modern Image of Africa"

Do photographers have a duty beyond the realm of interesting images when photographing people and areas outside of the West that are less well covered? There is widespread outrage when a photographer takes and/or manipulates an image where the subject looks thinner or more proportionate (in the sense of the commercial conception of beauty) in the fashion industry. The driving force behind this outrage is creating unrealistic expectations of beauty. It seems to me the issue Lou Jones is raising of photojournalism is it can create unrealistic expectations of the state of Africa, in that it is shown as poorer and far more archaic than it truly is. The project describes the problem in the following way:

For the last several generations, media coverage of Africa has been both naive and slanted. What Western media deems newsworthy has largely been limited to pestilence, poverty, conflict, and wildlife.

Their mission is described as so:

The panAFRICAproject mission is varied: to create a photographic portrait true to the multi-faceted identity of Africa, as one continent and also as 54 individual countries, to provide an ongoing and up-to-date visual 'scrapbook' of Africa at the beginning of the 21st century, celebrating its progress, development, human potential, and enormous contributions to the world, to fill the desperate need for comprehensive imagery that will communicate the complexity of Africa to economic, political, academic, and cultural institutions, to disseminate these images using both traditional and accelerated technologies for communication, to deconstruct the stereotypes created by slanted Western media by conducting an in-depth investigation of the African experience, to make photography a major fulcrum of dialogue and communication for all African points of view. 

While I support the project's goal — promoting a more modern conception of Africa — its criticism of photojournalism by the West is certainly not without faults of its own. The media's role in society, whether it achieves it or not, is to bring about important current affairs to the attention of its readership. The increase in industry, gainful employment, and education may well be growing healthily in Africa, but that warrants less attention than the continent's problems in which the West can be of assistance. As callous as this may sound, gradual improvements aren't interesting news, and therefore, photojournalists will seldom be sent to cover it. Nevertheless, there is truth in the project. If I were asked what the most famous photo of Africa is, I would sadly have to say Kevin Carter's infamous image of the little girl and the vulture, and I don't think that is a result of my ignorance toward Africa. You can view Lou Jones' video for his Kickstarter campaign below:

There is much debate left to be had on this topic. Try as I might, keeping the argument self-contained was tricky, and I have been left with some resonating questions: Do all photographers have a duty of care over how they represent their subject and the image's implications and inferences? Should the West's media and photojournalists do more to represent the "other Africa"?

What are your thoughts? 

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james johnson's picture

This was also addressed in this TED talk:

Anonymous's picture

Thanks for linking this. Great video that I'll surely pass on to others.

Anonymous's picture

I like to shoot landscapes but cityscapes are just as interesting and perhaps more varied. It's not my responsibility to shoot those photos, it's someone else's.
If Western photographers aren't telling the whole story, and they're obviously not, then African photographers, and anyone else who feels called to do so, should. The idea that the African story can only be told by Westerners is just as patronizing and debilitating as the photos in question.

Gypsy Frank's picture

"What is far more destructive is self loathing, politically correct driven, white social justice warriors from the West that perpetuate the idea that most of Africa's problems are the fault of the West and that they continue to be victimized by the West, and therefore need to be coddled and compensated in some way."

But, a large majority of the problems in Africa are a result of Western slave trade, colonization and contemporary pillaging of Africa's natural resources which are mostly consumed by Western civilization while Africa barely even sees less than 1% profit from that consumption. There is a moral responsibility to right the wrong doings that have been done to the birthplace and heritage of my ancestors.

Put another way, if someone broke your camera which provides income and shelter for your family, wouldn't that person be obligated to fix/replace your damaged property?

Damon Lynch's picture

Pete Miller argues the crimes his ancestors committed and from which he benefits from today are nothing to do with him.

Let's take his line of reasoning and apply a parallel situation, where the victims are not black but white, e.g. the theft of European Jewish property by the Nazis. According to Miller's line of reasoning, descendants of those Nazis owe Jews nothing, because it was not them who committed the crimes.

That's the kind of extreme right-wing argument a Nazi sympathizer makes. Fortunately the post-war German state has largely rejected this line of reasoning.

Damon Lynch's picture

Pete Miller your line of reasoning violates established legal and moral norms established in pretty much every Western country I'm familiar with. Of course Germany compensates the descendants of the victims of the holocaust, as it should continue to do when items like stolen artwork are found. Of course the New Zealand state has compensated the indigenous descendants from whom the state stole land and other resources in the 19th century, as it should.

When countries do not behave responsibly by failing to face their obligations squarely, they bring shame and dishonor upon themselves. Sadly there are plenty of examples of this too. Has Japan properly compensated Korean and Filipino sex slaves? No it hasn't, and people don't forget, even though every year fewer and fewer of the actual sex slaves survive. They deserve to be fully compensated, but they haven't been. Since those who already died could have passed the wealth onto their descendants, their descendants deserve the compensation too.

With respect to Sub-Saharan Africa, I suspect you are simply unaware of the massive transfer of wealth that occurred during formal colonialism. Have you educated yourself with what the Belgians did in the Congo, for example? That happened in the recent past. One century ago is nothing. It's just a blink of the eye since the CIA and the Belgians murdered Patrice Lumumba.

And for the record I'm against slavery, feudalism and imperial rule whoever does it, regardless of skin color, culture, religion and whatever else we can think of. It's wrong, period. It's just as wrong as when Pakistanis do it as it is when Americans do it.

Damon Lynch's picture

Pete Miller, I'm from New Zealand. I'm guessing you know next to nothing about the colonization of NZ, my mostly British ancestors, or the history of Maori and other indigenous peoples in the South Pacific. Earlier this year I discussed with colleagues about Taranaki Maori enslaving and wiping out the Moriori and the implications it has for the academic study of peace and justice. I'm pretty certain like most people you know nothing about this history, but trust me it's far from pretty. Moreover I have photographed in two different Sub Saharan African countries, and my work there was nothing to do with wildlife or tourism. Like other people here I have taken the time to study the impact of colonialism on Sub Saharan Africa, and I am familiar with some of the war crimes and crimes against humanity undertaken on the continent before and after the formal colonial period. It is quite clear from your statements that your understanding of this topic is shallow and that you have not educated yourself into how countries and peoples that have committed mass crimes against others do or do not try to atone for their actions. Your stated position is extreme, not supported in law or in practice, and I will not discuss why further.

Jacques Cornell's picture

Well-written, nicely balanced, and thought-provoking article. Thanks!

Simon Patterson's picture

This is a terrific, thought provoking article. Many people in Africa are aware of this issue, as Africans consume the same western TV and internet feeds that we do in the West.

For example, many Zimbabweans (in Zimbabwe) have brought this issue up with me, that our western media presents a very biased view of their country. It is not that Zimbabweans ignore their problems - they are acutely aware of the problems and their causes, much more than we are. But there are many great stories (and, of course, people) in Africa, too, and we rarely hear about that.

All these stories are worth telling, including the positive ones. Not because they are specifically about Africans, but because they are about people.

Gypsy Frank's picture

All things are about balance. I think it's dis-ingenuine to show only the plight of the poorest nations/states of Africa (or any other place inhabited majority by people of color) and not show the balanced side which are the places and people that are doing well economically, doing well in education, places with strong systems of government, so on and so forth. What's described herein would be like a foreign photographer coming to America and only publishing photographs of the poorest Appalachian whites while excluding the other 95% of America that's doing exceedingly well.

Anonymous's picture

A lot of photographers and reporters only report on the crime and violence in America. I've had a lot of Japanese people express surprise to find out we don't all have several guns or go to church every Sunday.
It's inconvenient but I don't expect anyone will change their reportage.
I think balance comes from multiple people telling the story they want to tell. No one person has an obligation to tell all the stories and I don't believe there is any collusion among those telling similar stories.

Tom Jobs's picture

Honestly who cares. What a boring article. If the picture depicts a real scene in Africa it is perfect and not some twisted way of trying to manipulate things.

stir photos's picture


David Sanden's picture

Most one sided anything is incorrect. Look at Tourism Post Card for instance, Los Angeles doesn't look like that!

Anonymous's picture

Really? I'll have to see if I can cancel my flight. :-)

Deleted Account's picture

The issue is really about art and beauty in opposition to propaganda.

Until recently, Western artists always strove towards representing beauty. If a work wasn't beautiful, then it wasn't considered to be worthy of being called art. The Cubists, Dadaists and other subversives helped to overthrow the idea of beauty in Western art and we've been dealing with the ramifications ever since.

I've always been against the negative portrayal of poor people. The reason is because I don't think that any person should be represented in a photograph without dignity and respect. Their humanity should be maintained and they shouldn't be turned into objects that a photographer stumbles upon and takes home like a souvenir. Poverty can be portrayed in ways that tell the truth and still give quiet dignity to the subject matter. For example, there are paintings of street beggar boys filled with grime and dirt yet playing games and seeming to have the beautiful light of a child with not a single care in the world. These types of portrayals balance the material aspect of poverty with the spiritual aspect of the individual soul and personality of the subject. We shouldn't forget that poverty is purely material and has nothing to do with the human spirit. It's certainly possible to have grace and be poor at the same time.

If photographers are going to Africa with the intention of using photography to bring awareness to poverty etc, then their purpose is to create propaganda instead of art. That's probably why they try to make the people appear as pathetic as possible. We shouldn't be surprised if they're accused of stereotyping and creating a vision of Africa that fits a pre-concieved political image and might not be the image that the Africans have of themselves. Therefore, those kinds of photographers are susceptible to charges of political exploitation and shouldn't be able to hide behind the arts as a defense.

The best way to deal with these kinds of discussions is to bring back the Ideal of Beauty in Art. Beauty is not just a material quality, it is also spiritual.

jakereeder's picture

Hey Robert,

I wouldn't place Jimmy Nelson and Sebastião Salgado in the same boat. You seem to be touching on the place of aesthetics in doco. Ingrid Sischy famously published an article in the 90s on Salgado and declared "to aestheticise tragedy is the fastest way to anaesthetise [it]". I really think that argument is outdated- Sischy borrowed her argument from Walter Benjamin's author as producer, but he was writing in protest of a specific political movement.

My favourite contemporary writer on this is David Levi-Strauss- he picks apart some very useful case studies. I really think that given the subjectivity of the medium, an abstraction through aesthetics can represent and transform- sometimes it's the visual rhetoric which gives work so much clout. This seems a lot better to me than presumed authority, complete objectivity etc.

I am talking about aesthetics completely separately from photographers who exoticise. This is where Nelson and Salgado seem to be polar opposites. To me, Salgado uses the individuals as symbolism, so the images work on several levels. Not only is Nelson politically and historically incorrect, the photos strike me as super colonial- sort of like a caricature.