Tuesday, April 10, 2007

photos: the problem with signifying africa

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...? :


Joshua said...

Although there is debate to how progressive this movie actually is, Blood Diamond has an amazing scene depicting the violence of the photographic gaze when Solomon (Djimon Hounsou) learns that his son is not with the rest of his family at a refugee camp in Guinea. Wanting to capture the reunion of a family, Maddy (Jennifer Connelly), a journalist, begins happilly snapping away. The film splits between showing photographic stills and "real life." Once Solomon find this horrible information out, Maddy continues to click until she recognizes the violence of her action. A reality we see through her photos, ones that erase the humanity of the situation. However, Maddy begins clicking again as the situation eases up a minute later.

I thought the scene was well done and, if nothing else, gave the viewer a chance to question all intent, even that of the film.

Any other TNS bloggers or readers see the movie? Thoughts?

And Elizabeth, is there a difference between a solo snap and the decision to publish? Or should they both be lovingly critiqued?

Naima said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Naima said...

elizabeth, i think that a significant difference between the photograph from the NYT and the photograph you took in ghana is the degree to which the folks in the photograph are able to engage with the viewer.

in the first photograph, the woman and her child are objects of a gaze (reminiscent of many of the pictures of Depression Era kitchenette life captured in 12 Million Black Voices). in your photograph, however, there is a more reciprocal gaze: the young people engage the viewer directly and thus seem to possess more life, more agency.

thank you for this post. your thoughts, as usual, are brilliant.

Elizabeth said...

"Is there a difference between a solo snap and the decision to publish? Or should they both be lovingly critiqued?"

ok josh i see how you like to ask the complicated questions. i had to think about that question and i'm not even too sure i have a great answer. but here goes...
the first act in truth-photography, i think, is to establish some sincere link between the photographer and the subject as a way to break down the typical binary that might exist between the powerful photographer and the subject. the individual with a camera in his/her hand is already embued with some power because they can choose how to take the picture, to position the subject, to use certain lighting etc. the photographer creates the scene and while i guess the subject has the power to say no, saying yes as the subject of a photo means submitting yourself to the *gaze* of the photographer.

so being aware of this hierarchy, there's a first responsibilty of the photographer to create trust between him/herself and the person/people who'll be photographed - to illustrate that i as photographer, will not just take your photograph so that i can publish it, make money from it, etc. your condition is not merely a means for my egotistical purposes (i mean, sometimes a photographer etc. has to eat...but the question, i think, is at what cost). i, the photographer, respect and am grateful that you have allowed me to be a part of this experience and i will do my best to reflect it with a complexity that honestly (though will never fully be able) to translate the complex immediacy of your experience.
but josh you already know that i get a little idealistic and to be real, not every photographer/videographer has the time to create a relationship with the subject so that they will not be represented as objects to the public. in that case then, the image we choose to put up for public consumption should, to the best of our ability, get as close to factual representation. meaning if the article is about closed off borders, there should be a picture of the border and not a random, sort of sad-looking black woman.

but if we're talking about portraying poverty, then hmmm...how do we represent black people in these difficult conditions without affirming stereotypes? i don't know. i think loving representations, loving photographers can do that. what the exact charecteristics...that's the mystery of art i guess.