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 Whether his representation of them is outdated and disingenuous is open to discussion, but the panAFRICAproject raises and then answers a new question built on similar foundations: are the photographs of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.
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?