A new generation of photojournalists is challenging stereotypical images of the continent by showing another side of Africa
Conflicts, poverty, disease and misery, these, unfortunately, remain the staples of many foreign photojournalists covering the continent of Africa. Heartbreaking images just sell a lot better then pictures of ordinary Africans doing what people all over the world do: simply living. This was one of the points artist/documentary maker Renzo Martens was trying to make in the following clip in which he explains to Congolese photographers how they can earn more money from international media houses.
Renzo, roughly translated, says to the photographers: “You earn one dollar a month [with wedding, birthday and anniversary photographs]. But photos of rape victims, corpses, and malnourished children fetch up to 1,000 dollars a month.” (The clip is from his documentary Enjoy Poverty. The artist/director has also spoken about the power imbalance between those doing the watching, the westerners who will watch his documentary and who buy the newspapers in which photographs that tell a one-sided view of Africa appear, and those being watched, people in Africa.)
Renzo’s point remains valid, but fortunately there are also photographers who are interested in showing the other side of life as well, and go in-depth to portray Africa through the eyes of professionals who actually do care about this continent. African photographers have always done this, even if you didn’t see their work in international newspapers, but some foreign photojournalists are now doing the same. It’s not that these photographers ignore poverty, it’s just that they are intent on preserving the humanity of their subjects.
Skorzh, the tailored menswear fashion label. Photograph: Anthony Bila/This Is Africa
Giving hope and a goal to those without a voice, that’s one of Joe Lukhovi’s aims as he embarks on his endless journeys through Nairobi to photograph real life in Kenya, but also when he travels elsewhere on the continent. The 24-year-old photographer from Nairobi feels it’s his duty to show the “invisible reality” of his country and shine a light on those aspects that many foreigners never get to see. Without a formal photographic education, Lukhovi went on to the streets and taught himself to be a documentary photographer.
“Photography is my way to let the identity of closed communities emerge. It’s plainly wrong to only show the negative sides of a country and skip the positive ones. We have been the victims of twisted foreign reporting that only serve the wrong purposes. As an African it feels like my task to show people the true image,” he says.
Joe Lukhovi’s street scene from Uganda. Photograph: Joe Lukhovi/This is Africa
Lukhovi’s opinion of the images routinely used to represent the continent is shared by South African photographer Anthony Bila, founder of the picture blog The Expressionist, and also an autodidact. Bila is tired of the misconceptions and prejudices about his continent. “That’s why I take it to the streets in South Africa to show my country on a day-to-day basis. I want to step off the one-dimensional view that is being fed to us by international mass media. Africa is anything but lost; instead it’s a place full of possibilities and beauty. We Africans can tell our own story in our own way.”
Roxanne. Photograph: Anthony Bila
A growing number of foreign colleagues are starting to see the multiple dimensions of the continent, too. The 33-year-old German photographer Marc Hofer for example, who quit his job at Microsoft to chase his dream of becoming a photojournalist. From his post in Kampala, Uganda, he covers south and east Africa with a refreshing point of view.
“In the contemporary photo-journalism on the African continent, I see too much artistic manipulation. Foreign photographers only think about what their audience wants to see, not about what they should actually show. It’s so easy to get carried away by what sells, but at the same time very dangerous. It’s the main reason that Africa at this moment has such a bad and negative reputation; photographers have been looking at and portraying this continent in a much too simplistic and sensational way for far too long.”
Scavenging Boma in Nairobi. Photograph: Joe Lukhovi/This Is Africa
Hofer sees himself as part of a growing counter-movement; foreign photographers who try to broaden the world’s view of Africa by capturing the continent with an open mind. “(They are) well-informed professionals who dive into background stories and show all sides of a story,” he explains. “Together with the their domestic colleagues they can create a context and reach international media, resulting in a more balanced picture of the continent that can actually contribute to improving the living situation of many Africans, instead of being counterproductive.”
While Bila in Johannesburg goes into the townships to photograph the fashion and street cultures, Lukhovi visits the garbage dump of Dandora in the east of Nairobi for his series Scavenging Boma, to show the hope that can radiate from even the hardest of realities. “I want to show South Africa to the world and the world to South Africa,” says Bila. Lukhovi adds: “With my images I try to show the hope and success of people. Our continent is full of blessings, and even though it gets tagged as lost, there are more the enough beautiful and exhilarating stories to be told. Photography is the best medium to show these hopeful sides of the continent.”
From the Township Diaries series. Photograph: Anthony Bila/This Is Africa
That’s exactly why Dutch photographer Martin Waalboer captures life in “troublesome” countries such as Liberia (where he documented life in the town of Harper), Ivory Coast, Burkina Faso and Guinea-Bissau from a cultural and artistic perspective. According to him, foreigners have seen so many extreme shots of these places that they think that is what is normal.
“Therefore I focus on average people, like a chronicler of daily life. We shouldn’t be reporting like it’s a freak show over there, but rather finding special things in the ordinary. They’re also just people like you and I,” he says.
Domestic (Lukhovi and Bila) or foreign (Hofer and Waalboer), they share the same values and goals: a desire to avoid sensationalising and instead delve more deeply with the people they’re shooting. Though it’s harder to get published covering stories of day-to-day life, they want to keep using photography to show the possibilities and potential of the countries in which they operate.
Joe Lukhovi’s Obama, shot in Kampala in Uganda.
Whether these photographers can change the way the continent is seen when they are outnumbered by those who just want to deliver what sells remains to be seen. “At least we can try to take away some of the preconceptions and misconceptions by portraying common people and documenting daily life.”
This sense of responsibility is there and growing, and the gradual change in the way the continent is written about by some foreign media houses offers hope that eventually the work of the more conscious photographers will also receive wider publication and reach a larger foreign audience.