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The problem with photojournalism and Africa

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http://www.hiiraan.com/images/logo/Aljazeera.jpg
Thursday January 19, 2017

Whenever "Africa" is in the headline of mainstream US and European media sources, especially those that are highly regarded, I wince. I know the storyline is going to suffused by disappointment and resignation about Africa failing, once again.

While the rest of the world and its modern inhabitants are technologising and digitising, happily going about wearing jeans and t-shirts, there goes Africa, backwards into some apocalyptic, scarred past, wearing embarrassing tribal grab.

Sometimes, these media outlets allow Africa to come to the present, but of course, in dubious ways: embedded in the flow of "Islamic" terror-narratives: Nigeria and Boko Haram, Libya and its violent insurgents, Somalia and its troublesome "Islamic fundamentalists" raiding Kenyan universities.

It's as though the editorial board is shaking its collective head with an exasperated sigh, and showing us, with a lavish, full-colour photograph, exactly why they are frustrated with the entire continent.

Sometimes, though, I'm just confused. For instance, the influential New York Times recently published an article titled, "

Who Is Telling Africa's Stories
covering efforts to develop photojournalism in various African countries

The writer, Whitney Richardson, a photo editor for thepaper, provided
some contradicting points: Happy news about the growing number of talented photographers coming out of photography training institutes and collectives based in countries with divergent histories and presents - Ethiopia, Kenya, Nigeria, South Africa - but also that these photographers do not produce work that is "professional" enough for agencies to hire them.

'Uncomfortable conversations'

Richardson offered some insight into continuing problems that locally based photographers face getting international news agencies' attention. What emerges as a solution is the need for young photographers to get international exposure, where, according to acclaimed photographer Akintunde Akinleye, they may also "learn the ethical standards of the industry". The takeaway: unless international news agencies based in the

North America and Europe like the Associated Press, Reuters and Agence France-Presse pick your work, you are a nobody.
Yet, it is these very agencies that contribute to problematic views that simplify Africa into a repetitive trope.

Africa remains a monolithic space of violence and poverty uncomplicated by global politics and military action, because the images and narratives chosen by powerful news agencies and newspapers continue to speak to foundational myths that Europe
(and white ex-colonists and plantation owners in America) manufactured about Africa, in order to better ease their conquest and exploitation of a regionally, politically, and socially complex, dynamic continental shelf.

If the construction of the African as child-like, or not-quite-human,  who has little agency or intellect aided the colonial project, today, the narrative continues to aid the construction of the European self as civilised, maintaining the African and Africa as the location of savagery, helplessness, and devastation. It also creates Europe as a desirable location that those who have no agency and have done little to better themselves attempt to infiltrate - much to Europe's chagrin.


Aida Muluneh, Ethiopian-born artist, documentary photographer, and the founder of Desta for Africa (DFA) - a creative consultancy that curates exhibitions and pursues cultural projects with local and international institutions

- emphasises: "
photography continues to play a key role in how we are seen, not just as Africans, but as black people from every corner of the world. Stereotypes and prejudice are incited by images, and if it's used, yet again, to undermine those of us who are truly doing the difficult work, then we need to have some uncomfortable conversations.

And when it comes to payment, there are further "uncomfortable" discrepancies that international agencies never reveal: "When we do get assignments, they want to pay us less because we are from the country; but for a foreign photographer, they will not blink to pay an arm and a leg," adds Muluneh.

In Richardson's piece, the prevailing view is that, even though top photo agencies are looking for local photographers to "offset costs", the Africans do not compare to western photographers.








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