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Tuesday, 3 August 2021

Africa in the Photobook


I'm looking forward to running another series of lectures at the RPS on history and theory (more details are here). It's a great course if you're looking for an introduction to photographic history and theory or you've been away from studying and miss it. 

The images are from one of the lectures on the last course on Africa in the Photobook. This is a phenomenal website run by Ben Krewinkel on which there are photobooks that exemplify the power of photography to dominate peoples and influence opinion. 

The first image above is from Africa Occidental and came around the time of the Berlin Conference. It shows a flag on the bank of a river near Mozambique. It was pictures like this that helped determine the border of present-day Mozambique. It's the hinterland doctrine -  if you planted your flag, you had a claim. And there's the photograph to prove it. That is the basic way photography works and that's what you see over and over in the books Krewinkel presented.

The one above show early African elites. This example is form a time when Europeans needed people who spoke the language and had influence over local people, at a time before they had full influence over the colonised country. 

As soon as the colonisers had more complete control, this form of representation ended - until African nations gained independence and the first step of independence photobooks was to show Africans with education, with responsibility, helping themselves. Visibility mattered then, just as it matters now.

This is the heroism of poor white settlers  breaking the land in Angola. It's the heroism of settlement if you like. And the rationale for the need to settle land (that was already settled) comes from the kind of photobook featured below.

This was the anthropological photobook. There was the classification by hair, body type, tribe, whatever suited the colonial narrative to diminish, divide, and conquer. This kind of categorisation by ethnic group tied in with eugenics, with ideas of evolution, with ideas of genetic superiority - and helped justify the heroic settlement seen in the image above. By settling the land, you're saving the land. 

The colonial project had to be sold to European populations, and so books of discovery and adventure were made, of the white man going where no man had gone before. 

But at the same time, there was an emphasis on the brave warrior, this time in Congo. Here the idea is at least partly to justify military presence and action, and to riff off the idea of the necessity of the European civilising influence.

Tagged onto that idea was the idea that ultimately, the European was in the land of the savages. Hence the emphasis on cruel practices such as cannibalism. And if there wasn't any cannibalism and no photographs existed. Well, drawings could do the job just as well as in the image above. 

There were missionary books to show the civilising influence of the christian mission through the classic before and after image. It's the dumbest thing going the before and after picture, but unfortunately it is very simple and very effective. 

And there was more tourism, where modern cityscapes and industries were mixed with semi-ethnographic racist depictions of native life as colourful natives, as a tourist attraction. First they are dangerous warriors, then they are colourful natives (and further afield, that was exactly the process that transformed places like Bali into a paradise island)

There are books of conflict, the above shows pictures of Italian atrocities in the conquest of Libya. But you can see Brits burning villages, or other Europeans using natives from other countries as the final years of land-grabbing and colonisation took place. 

And then as independence gathered pace, unsympathetic reportage begins to show the avowedly racitst nature of white presence in Africa, in South Africa in particular.

Independence photobooks show the capability of the non-European to work in science, in medicine, in education. Visibility matters as mentioned already.

There is celebration as colonial flags come down, and independent flags go up.

And there are new presidents, new nations, and new forms of progress.

Again, in the image above and below, it's black doctors and nurses, a salve to the belittlement by absence of representation of the colonial years when white doctors would be shown saving black babies (and that is still the trope that raises the money in British fund-raising). 

There is still a kind of internalised colonial rule as very few African photographers get mentioned (and you can look at the examples in Africa in the Photobook and see how rarely African photographers are mentioned in some countries).

There are political crossovers, as different visual influences come to play. There are socialist influences with some of these photographers mentioned above trained by Czech photographers.

And then you get (just as you did with the missionary books) before and after pictures. Before colonialism and after colonialism.

There are books dedicated to leaders, some of which verge on the personality cult.

And as photobooks are given out as gifts, there come to be family resemblances between the photobooks made in different countries.

Key tropes develop and are used for multiple ends. So here images of hair are seen as a representation of independence from European beauty standards. 

But at the same time, in other places, how you wore your hair could also be used as a system of control, with hair length or style used to police the behaviour of people (and maybe that should read women).

There were atrocity books.

And in Mozambique, Frelimo trained its soldiers as photographers. The result was there were few images of conflict and the photographers were not named. Who needs a name if everyone is a photographer.

An Africa in the Photobook publication with contributions from African photographers and academics was in the pipeline, but now might be on ice. I do hope it comes along because there was nothing quite as concrete as the example of how photography and its absence can be used to control, influence, and demean.

To see more images from africainthephotobook go here. 

To see the RPS course, go here. 

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