Tuesday, April 10, 2007
photos: the problem with signifying africa
Kindu is now so cut off from the rest of the country that everything is flown in by plane: bottled water, panes of glass, cookies, cucumbers, even gasoline.
i post this to point out the discrepancy in reporting about africa. see how the sideline description is in reference to the geographical isolation of the town to other urban areas and how the picture shows nothing of the kind. to correspond with isolation, a photograph of the actual border in relation to cut-off roads or maybe at least an aerial shot would have actually corroborated this statement. instead, the idea of isolation is materialized in a picture of a congolese woman and her child - which is no evidence of isolation. by associating this image with economic/material deficiency, we are to assume that an african woman holding her child set in a vaguely dilapidated background is to mean just that. it is inaccurate to show a photo that does not relate directly to the subject being described- it presumes that if i as a reporter want to show poverty, i will choose out of an abundance of random congolese women who seem to be wearing a sad expression to illustrate the well-known fact of african degradation.
we are aware that the africa of public imagination is not nuanced. she usually appears as one of abject poverty and misery, devoid of cultural richesse and private/habitual life experiences (ie love, social life) and is, instead, besotted with economic/political trouble. whether that is in fact the case in congo, journalism and esp. photojournalism which has the weighty task of assigning image to language (solidifying our definition of what a place is), should take to specify as much as possible, to avoid leaving assumptions to do the thinking for us.
in this series of photographs about the congo, the nytimes for the most part accurately associated the subject of the photograph with the corresponding description but this slip above is, to me, demonstrative of how typified ideas of africa enter into 'objective' journalism. and without conscious recognition of these slippages, these views don't remain the subjective opinions that they are but become inseparable from definitions of africa.
the sad fact is i don't know how to effectively articulate what this appropriate or desirable depiction of congolese life ought to be. it should be honest, no doubt, but there are many ways to show the truth and in the spirit of artistic liberty and licence, i'm not interested in dictating the process. perhaps though, one step is to call for more diverse subject matter and photographers too (some from the country depicted itself who'd most likely have better access than unfamiliar traveler).
but then again this critique is probably borne out of my personal frustration with staring at several pictures of little african children at koffee2 which appear to be the most benign of photos. after one-too-many photo exhibits of yale students' passively-pleasant cultural experience of the third world and the gratuitous representations of little smiling black/brown faces, i'm apt to be a little sensitive.
i am posting a photograph i took when i was in ghana. maybe it can be a sound off for how to fairly (re)present lives which are not our own...? :