My Private Africa
Today was a good reading day and saw as its centepiece Okwui Enwezor's Snap Judgements: New Positions in Contemporary African Photography.
Enwezor rightly identifies photography specifically photography by Africans as a powerful tool for dismantling the pervasive attitude of "Afro-pessimism" usually seen in western portrayals of Africa and its people. "Afro-pessimism proceeds by first invalidating the historical usefulness of the African experience." African artists today, largely freed from colonialism and empowered by modern media, are finding their own voices and asserting their validity very well.
The book bears rich fruit on sustained viewing, seen away from the convenient lenses with which we in the west usually view Africa: either a gritty New York Times-styled view of famine and war, or National Geographic-styled imagery where the human presence is either marginalized to the point of absence or made merely picturesque. Both such approaches, while nominally "showing" Africa (and often resulting in accolades and prizes for the western photographers who create them), also serve to distance the viewer from an African Otherness. We are shown roles, not inviduals (the recent popularity of Seydou Keita's 1950's portraiture contains a sort of double bounce for westerners: the revelation that these portraits are so vividly personable, and then the awkward realization: why would that idea have been a surprise?).
Snap Judgements provides its own corrective post-colonial lens, one that works best if you can spend the time to work your way through these images, steadily and with eyes open rather than just as snips in reviews or small-sized partial website representations. In the absence of the more complete environment, it's easy for the casual viewer to look at a few scattered images in an abbreviated setting as simply evidence of their already-determined expected pathologies.
By coincidence, even as I was busy consuming Snap Judgements and enjoying each page of photos immensely, the latest issue of PRIVATE arrived at my door an issue dedicated to the work of the Panos Pictures Agency (one of the founders, Martin Adler, was murdered in Mogadishu in June). On the cover of PRIVATE: the bare feet of a Sudanese AIDS victim standing on a bathroom scale. Adult weight: 31 kilos (less than 70 pounds).
Unlike the previous "East Europe" issue of PRIVATE, the photos here are not made by members of the social groups depicted. Yet in cases like the AIDS center or Somalian regugees from famine, who else would have made them? Without that external reportage, these people have no photographic voice of their own.
It is difficult at moments to reconcile the vibrant, imaginative, and wholly contemporary art found in Snap Judgements and the strong PJ images that give the impression of a continent populated with victims. Yet to confront the reality of both is inescapable and important. Enwezor deliberately excluded such imagery of Africa from his book because it invites easy and dismissive interpretation of the broader African experience. He is right to an extent but in doing so he himself also as easily dismisses the real and difficult situations of that subset of Africa depicted in photos like those from Panos. A subset, to be sure, that may get more press and by extension mis-represent the lives of post-colonial Africans elsewhere. But that subset, like all of Africa, is populated by very real people. Snap Judgements, even without including such journalism, helps us to remember and value the identity and story of each face in every photograph.