The Violence of an Image

My favorite class at UCT has been “Culture, Identity and Globalisation in Africa.” Our goal for the semester was simple: think Africa differently.

My professor Siona challenged us to ask questions about our new environment and the dominant discourse surrounding it. We spoke a lot about photography and the impact this particular art form has altered the world’s view on Africa.

When I say I live in Africa right now, most people will think of images like this:

I took each of these pictures myself, but is this the real Africa? What do you think when you see these pictures? And is what you think as a result the way I want to portray my time here? Probably not.

Much of Africa’s history, and the museums regarding that history, has been shaped by those from outside of Africa. Colonial powers came in, took over the land, and subjected the native people to their preferred forms of governance and ways of life. Colonists were fascinated with the “tribal” peoples and continued to poke, prod, and take pictures of the people for the benefit of their home country. Photographers documented what marked Africa as different from what they knew in Europe. Discourse has continued in this manner until today – where we generally view Africa as a poverty-stricken, far off land full of civil wars, exotic animals, and bare chested women.

In an article titled How to Write about Africa Binyavariga Wainaina writes:

Always use the word ‘Africa’ or ‘Darkness’ or ‘Safari’ in your title. Subtitles may include the words ‘Zanzibar,’ ‘Masai,’ ‘Zulu,’ ‘Zambezi,’ ‘Congo,’ ‘Nile,’ ‘Big,’ ‘Sky,’ ‘Shadow,’ ‘Drum,’ ‘Sun’ or ‘Bygone.’ Also useful are words such as ‘Guerrillas,’ ‘Timeless,’ ‘Primordial’ and ‘Tribal.’ Note that ‘People’ means Africans who are not black, while ‘The People’ means black Africans.

Never have a picture of a well-adjusted African on the cover of your book, or in it, unless that African has won the Nobel Prize. An AK-47, prominent ribs, naked breasts: use these. If you must include an African, make sure you get one in Masai or Zulu or Dogon dress.

In your text, treat Africa as if it were one country. Don’t get bogged down with precise descriptions. Africa is big: fifty-four countries, 900 million people who are too busy starving and dying and warring and emigrating to read your book.

This article and our discussions in class makes me think critically about the events that happen in my daily life and how I choose to document them. How will taking a photograph of these events change the way I view Africa? Or change the way my parents or friends view my experience?

Have you ever wondered why the discourse surrounding photography is so violent? Loading the camera with film. Aiming the camera. Shooting a picture. Capturing a moment.

Beyond that, the relationship between photographer and subject is also of a violent nature. In a separate reading for my class Susan Sontag remarks:

To photograph people is to violate them, by seeing them as they never see themselves, by having knowledge of them they can never have; it turns people into objects that can be symbolically possessed.

We must always remember the consequences of our actions. Every time I switch on my camera I ask myself:

  • What am I trying to capture with this photograph?
  • What am I trying to say with this photograph?
  • What will viewers think of this photograph? Is that what I want them to think?
  • Is this the way I want someone to take a photo of me or my home?
There are many times that I subsequently turn off my camera after thinking about these questions. I believe some photographs are not meant to be taken. I refuse to present my study abroad experience as that of a “typical” “African” journey. Because there isn’t one.
My hope is that by reading my blog posts, you too have learned how to think about Africa differently. A vast continent that cannot be contained by one description or one stereotype. A place full of bustling cities, up and coming economies and world class thinkers mixed in with the most beautiful landscapes and wildlife I have ever seen. A place that has allowed me to learn and grow into the woman I want to be.
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