Tag Archives: This is Africa

Unstructured Image of South Africa

African photography is on the rise. Following decades of photographic misrepresentation by observers from outside the continent, African photographers are now showing the world what they see through their lens. This is Africa spotlights them in a series of interviews. 

To be honest, Graeme Williams actually became a photo journalist by default. He was always more interested in doing his own documentary (long term) projects, but the situation in his home country of South Africa dragged him into a flow in which he suddenly found himself working for Reuters. That was back in 1989 and after having spend a year in London, the Cape Town born photographer was covering South Africa’s transition to ANC rule. “The plan was to go to Joburg for two years, but I’m here for over two decades already”, Graeme says. He moved there because it’s the place to be when things are happening in South Africa and you can be sure that if they happen there, they will spread across the nation. “Of course in that time it was also the place for great political change and a turning point for South Africa as a whole.” He admits that Cape town is a beautiful place to live, but for a photographer Johannesburg is much more interesting.

Johannesburg. From the series A city refracted. 2013. Johannesburg. From the series A city refracted. 2013. Johannesburg. From the series A city refracted. As the grass grows 08

A city refracted

Everyday was a nice challenge back in those days and the work he did during that period is not housed in the permanent collections of The Smithsonian, The South African National Gallery, The Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg and Cape Town University amongst others. “In 2013 I was awarded the POPCAP Prize for Contemporary African Photography as well as the Ernest Cole Book award for the series, ‘A city refracted’.” The fact that photographic assignments have taken Graeme to fifty countries and that he has been published in major publications worldwide like National Geographic Magazine, Time, Newsweek and The New York Times Magazine, didn’t change his passion for South Africa though. Nowadays he finally has time to work on his own projects, to show a side of his country he wants to shine light on.

As the grass grows 09

Soweto 2006. From the series, The Edge of Town
 Graeme Williams13


“Where in the nineties it was about hard news, I now focus on aspects of society in an abstract way. I try to move away from what is happening at the moment and show more of a global view that evokes a feeling with the viewer.” It’s not a direct story Graeme is after, rather than it step back and look for a visually aesthetic way of portraying aspects that interest him. Take the series ‘A city refracted’ mentioned earlier for example. Instead of focussing on a single situation that occurred in the inner city of Joburg, he tried to capture his own feeling on being an outsider in a neighborhood that is less then ten minutes drive away from his home. Capturing the increasing social polarization isn’t something that can be done in a single shot; Graeme actually had to change his viewpoint from that of a local to that of a foreigner. “The images are unstructured and the content of the frame is at times seemingly random”, he explains. “Many of the images are blurred by movement or have a limited field of focus. The images therefore take on a dreamlike appearance resonant with the sense of disorientation tourists might experience when finding themselves surrounded by a foreign culture.”
Glen Cowie, 2005. South Africa. From the series: The Edge of Town.

Graeme Williams20
 Hanover. 2006. South Africa. From the series: The Edge of Town.

Born Frees

Reason for this way of working is the visual overload that makes us numb to feel emotions, according to Graeme. “There is too much information available. Therefore it’s losing it’s impact because of the intensity.” His own projects aren’t linear, but evolve around something bigger than a single subject. For another series ‘As the grass grows’, he focuses on young South Africans, who were born after the end of apartheid in a democratic South Africa. Therefore this group of young voters have been nicknamed ‘Born Frees’. “Paradoxically, the country’s unemployment rate has increased steadily over the past two decades providing little hope of employment for many millions of young South Africans, despite being born free. I wanted to give people a look into the lives of this group, to understand and learn.”

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Creating familiarity with portraits

African photography is on the rise. Following decades of photographic misrepresentation by observers from outside the continent, African photographers are now showing the world what they see through their lens. This is Africa spotlights them in a series of interviews.

“My aim as a photographer is to use my portrayals to re-image the African continent by show showcasing the continent in a more positive light, laying more emphasis on the positive. I focus on our African identity in all it’s diversity and the aesthetics of been African in the 21st century.” Nigerian photographer Jumoke Sanwo knows what she wants to show her audience. As a graduate of English Studies from the Obafemi Awolowo University in her home country Jumoke also knows how to communicate this to the outside, a power that she uses with great success. Her work has been exhibited far and wide, from New York, Brussels and Dubai to Lagos, Sudan, Addis Ababa, Benin, Chad and Ghana. “My work addresses aesthetic concerns as well as concerns on identity, which fosters the discourse on re-imaging the African continent”, she explains. “I will continue to push the envelope with my unique take on the lifestyle of Africans with projects that celebrate the rich cultural diversity within the continent.”

FishermenoftheCongo_2013_jumokesanwo-2 FishermenoftheCongo_2013_jumokesanwo-3


Jumoke wants to address social issues that in her opinion ‘ravage the continent’ with her imagery. Her view on the continent is what sets her apart, she believes, and her images are proof of that. “My portraits are quite intimate in a way that you are able to have a glimpse into the soul of my subjects.  I never shoot a subject until that window is open. The feel to my images is that of familiarity. For you the viewer has got to get the feeling to know the subject just by simply looking at the image.” What motivates her is the simple fact that she thinks these stories need to be told. Told by Africans. By doing so she wants to shed more light on her and her fellow Africans lifestyle. “For too long we’ve been subjected to objectification, almost to a point of spectacle. I feel that in the midst of all that are people living their day by day lives, doing normal things. They’re just surviving and going on; that’s what I want to show through my lens. African as a whole is a fascinating place for photographers, but most outsiders just come here to search for pictorials that illustrate the ideas they already have. I therefore focus on sharing stories without an agenda, unbiased. The focus is on my subject, not on me as a photographer. I simply witness the persons’ story and capture it.”




Black & White Project

Though Jumoke started off as a writer, she realized along the lines that words where not sufficient enough to express her artistic flair. Photography turned out to be the perfect tool as an extension to her views. She became a member of The X-perspective, Black Female Photographers Association, American Photography Association and Invisible Borders Trans-African Photography group to share her experiences with others and a broader audience. Like many other photographers in those association she wants to contribute to the discourse to consciously document stories that challenge the existing notions about a subject. “Last year I came up with an idea called the ‘Black and White Project’, to be presented in two parts. The first was the ‘Retrospective’ project to create an archival image bank. I believe we have a wealth of photographic history in private collections currently. The idea is to create a central body to digitally archive these images. The second part of the project is called the ‘Perspective’ and the idea is to consciously document ongoing occurrences pertaining to our lifestyle in the current day. I am still at the stage of fine-tuning the idea, but hope to be able to carry it out some day.”




In order to give a truthful image of her home country Nigeria she uses her native knowledge of the environment. Interacting with the space in a way that reveals a sensibility and understanding she tries to capture the story from the perspective of an interpreter, simply to share the stories from her subject’s perspective. It’s not always easy to do some in a city like Lagos, she admits. “It’s very challenging to survive as an artist here with the lack of an enabling environment for anything artistic. We see the future in ways how we can generate innovative ideas that can sharpen growth and development, but the government doesn’t understand this and therefore doesn’t support it. There is a rise in popularity of photography in Nigeria, but more in a commercial aspect. I don’t think we need more magazine type portrayals though, because this doesn’t add real value to the art of photography. Unfortunately the artistic practice is not lucrative enough for investments or support here.”

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Capturing the change

African photography is on the rise. Following decades of photographic misrepresentation by observers from outside the continent, African photographers are now showing the world what they see through their lens. This is Africa spotlights them in a series of interviews. 

She believes in the reality of existence and want to capture that story. Seeking to explore the world and herself, document everything around her. That is what Ghanaian photographer Teresa Meka does. “The changing times, the joys, the pain, the highs and lows”, she explains, “I capture it all. I’m a detail-oriented person driven by the philosophy that photography, thus the photographer, is a tool of change, a tool to inform and question.” For her photography is a way of showing people the little things that we ignore everyday, the beauty that’s all around us, including the issues that affect us. “It’s an agent of change and discovery, it helps change stereotype about the continent and its people one image at a time. I seek to document my relationship with the society and how that evolves with time.”



Teresa’s love story for photography began with her uncle’s camera at the age of ten. “He lived abroad and every time her came over he let me use his camera”, she says. It fascinated her, but didn’t imagine herself a photographer. After high school however it was clear for her: she needed to do something with a camera. “I got a job at a small photo studio in Accra and there I got to work with cameras every day. Meeting so many photographers also inspired me. Eventually my uncle paid me a course in South Africa about the fundamentals of photography and from there I just started photographing everything I saw.” Apart from that basic training, Teresa is completely self taught. To earn a living she does commercial photography: weddings, funerals and the like. But it’s her personal projects in which she can show the Africa through her own eyes.



“Time is going so fast – everything is constantly changing”, Teresa says. “There is always something happening and I feel the urge to document that. I see it as a preservation of memory. Therefore I consider myself as a documentary photographer; I want to draw attention to aspects of life that people missed out on.” Teresa admits that she is always capturing her journey, especially because there is always a part of her in the image. With that she also shows that she is part of the society she lives in; part of the bigger picture. “Before I went out with any specific idea though, now I work more and more within a concept. I have goal with what I’m photographing now and that requires some research. It’s a constant learning curve for me.” She sees that photography is becoming more and more popular in Ghana, especially on the commercial side, but rather looks to Nigeria or South Africa for inspiration. “The art photography scene is much bigger there. There are a lot of photographers from other countries that inspire me, that’s why I participated in the Invisible Borders project as well.”



While photographing with the goal to educate her audience, Teresa also learns a lesson herself. Whether it be cultural, economical or political aspects, she always discovers something new that changes her opinion or view. “During the ‘Bed’ series for example, I learned that in Sudan beds are part of the furniture. They’re not just used for sleeping like in Ghana, but to sit, eat and chill on. It’s those aspects that can change your view and what I try to show.” She does admit that what she photographs is just what she sees, a very subjective vision. Yet it’s what she sees through her lens and not what sells, tells a story already told or keeps stereotypes alive. Her work is what she can relate to, without an agenda. “Ghana is not like this or like that, Ghana is what I see”, Teresa explains. “I don’t have a quest per se, but do want to let my audience into my world. It’s what they do with it afterwards that matters, but that’s all up to them.”

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A place of dreams, hope and resilience

African photography is on the rise. Following decades of photographic misrepresentation by observers from outside the continent, African photographers are now showing the world what they see through their lens. This is Africa spotlights them in a series of interviews.

Having recently worked in Kenya -his home country-, Uganda, Tanzania, Ethiopia, Angola, Burundi, Congo (Brazzaville) and South Africa, it’s fair to say that photographer Felix Masi  is a good example of a professional that knows what’s going on in his continent. He is an award winning independent photojournalist who has seen the challenges and big changes of his country and continent; a child born in poverty who faced his fears and decided to point his camera towards them. “I’m confronting the social ills that has been the face of this continent only known for it’s tragedies”, Felix explains. Through my photography I try to divert from what in commonly known in foreign eyes as the 3Ds: death, disease and despair.  Africa is so different than that.”



Felix understands that telling an unbiased and truthful story is by no means easy, but he accepts that challenge gratefully. “Most of the stories about our continent have been told by foreigners; first journalists flying in for a news story and nowadays more and more by tourists who have no idea or understanding of Africa and it’s country’s they transit through while on vacation. The problem is that they all have a blog, social media and smartphone for instant updates – which is fine – but the problem is that their stories are not a true representation of reality and are mostly one sided. Yet they get send into the world and judged by others who know even less.”


Big steps

His international experience has enabled Felix to stand up and walk tall and tell the African tale from a personal point of view, as he holds his motherland close to my heart. Many countries have a fast growing economy and are booming, a subject he likes to capture and emphasize. “Countries like Kenya and Nigeria are ahead when it comes to technological advances and Nairobi and Lagos count as hubs for international photography. We’re making big steps forward, but also still have a long way to go. That’s why it’s important to photograph a ‘New Africa’ and instead of going to the slums in those cities focus on the banking, IT and other progressive businesses. Positive stories, though it’s easier to sell a negative images. That is the part which needs to change and what I’m fighting for with my photography.”



The African story can perfectly be told by Africans themselves according to Felix. Those who have lived to see the change of their continent and would wish to see the same on every screen, in every paper and every magazine. “It’s time we told our own tale, but I have to admit that photographing in some African countries isn’t easy. In Angela or the DRC for example – where I currently live – it can be a painstakingly exercise. People are paranoid for cameras because of memories from old regimes; think you portray the wrong thing and want to harm them. That’s one of the reasons it’s also hard to show the change and hope in photography there. And then I’m not even talking about areas of north-east Africa where rebels are in power and it’s practically impossible to photograph without risking your life. However, those untold stories are just as important and can give a balanced view of the continent.




Felix recently was surprised when an NGO asked him to shoot a positive series about his home country, but it’s the way forward he says. “All these success stories are due to modern technology which has ignited the (mostly) young and old in living the African dream and confronting the cliches painted by foreign media.” Having taken thousands of images and traveling all over the world throughout his freelance career Felix sees the African continent as a cradle of hope for humankind. “The awakening continent where all it’s people, of all shapes and sizes will rise up and be respected wherever they go because they are united and carry the pride of being the success story of the soil”, he says. “I’m a strong believer in the growth of our continent and I’m not turning back. I want to be part of this success story. Through my lens I have seen and captured amazing dreams, hope and resilience. Africa is making huge leaps forward, so if you thought Africa was a poor place: think again.”

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South Africa through personal experiences

African photography is on the rise. Following decades of photographic misrepresentation by observers from outside the continent, African photographers are now showing the world what they see through their lens. This is Africa spotlights them in a series of interviews.

“It can be considered that as a South African growing up within a changing political and social environment these transitional facets are influential. Upbringing, tradition, religion and family can all play a role in ones own identity and conscience when exploring various societal dynamics through photography”, Ilan Godfrey says. The photographer from Johannesburg is born is 1980 and lives in Cape Town at the moment, but most of his photographic series still evolve around his hometown. His focus is mainly on subjects transpired out of personal experiences and life events, like ‘Louis Botha Avenue’ and ‘Living With Crime’.

Living With Crime Living With Crime

Cross section

“It was on initiation of these projects that social, economical, geographical and historical themes began to surface”, he explains. “They bring to the fore various elements that engage with South Africa on multiple levels and that shift in relation to the narratives I am compiling. With most of my personal work I strive to reveal a more contemplative and honest explorations of life within the seams.” Ilan strives to focus on a cross section of South Africa, all classes, races, religions and cultures. “So I am ultimately bringing together all South Africans through new avenues of story telling where possible.”

Living With Crime

Living With Crime

‘Living With Crime’

The untold stories that don’t make the headlines, those deserve supplementary exploration and expansion according to Ilan. Drawing together various layers that reveal the good and the bad sides of South Africa. “My brush strokes are broad and tangential incorporating characteristics of our changing society in one-way or another.” His first series, ‘Living With Crime’, reflects back to the decade of the 1980s; one of the most violent periods in South African history. “This period was characterized by the extensive use of force by the South African state and those opposing. By the 1990s, the term ‘culture of violence’ was frequently used to describe the conflict that shrouded South African society. The nature of this violence bled into all parts of public life, undermining the ethical, and social fabric of society.

“What the images in this series represent are various communities in South Africa that have been affected by crime, who have survived a horrible ordeal or have had to live with the loss of a loved one due to crime. And through my work they will have the opportunity to express their feelings of sadness and anger as they struggle to come to terms with the psychological and emotional impact of their loss and that much in their current structural situation remains unchanged for instance the architectural environment they live in, with the constant threat of recurring crime.”

Louis Botha Avenue Louis Botha Avenue

‘Louis Botha Avenue’

After this series Ilan was concerned with photographing Louis Botha Avenue, a major street in Johannesburg. Botha however believed in maintaining black traditions and in totally segregating black and white, except where black people were needed as workers. “In post-apartheid South Africa, divisions and historical facets are transforming within a new urban democracy. The council announced its intention to replace apartheid street names with names that reflect the country’s democracy, freedom and cultural diversity. This series can be seen as a time-line of change that represents the reconstruction of what is old into what is new. Reflected are the subtle and extreme changes that diversify and alienate me in a place I once knew and now try to understand. ‘Louis Botha Avenue’ reveals a chapter in my life as a youth but also a microcosm of Johannesburg as a city of extremes.”

Louis Botha Avenue

The mine

More recently Ilan focussed on South Africa’s demand for gold, diamonds, coal and platinum, that for more than a century has gone from strength to strength, often shifting in accordance with the political economy and the availability of foreign markets. Mineral exploitation by means of cheap and disposable labour has brought national economic growth, making the mining industry the largest industrial sector in South Africa. “The mine”, irrespective of the particular minerals extracted Ilan explains, “is central to understanding societal change across the country and evidently comparable to mining concerns around the world. This enabled me to channel my conception of ‘the mine’ into visual representations that gave agency to these forgotten communities. The countless stories of personal suffering are brought to the surface and the legacy of ‘the mine’ is revealed.”

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A second reading

African photography is on the rise. Following decades of photographic misrepresentation by observers from outside the continent, African photographers are now showing the world what they see through their lens. This is Africa spotlights them in a series of interviews.

“Prejudices motivate me”, says Joana Choumali. The photographer from Ivory Coast wants to change opinions of people who have a wrong view on the African continent in general and her home country in specific. “I cannot force a person to change his or her views, but I can take it to reflect, interact, draw conclusions by herself. I like the answers to my photographs to come from a person who sees my work. Living and working in the capital Abidjan, where she also studied at an art school and before worked as art director for an advertising agency, she is now fully focussed on photography. “It allows me to express myself, talk about my country, my generation and my continent ‘from the inside’. I often speak about identity because it is a subject close to my heart; it often comes to my mind.”



Joana gets her inspiration from conversations, the news and life in general – the past, present and future. She likes to have a ‘second reading’ of what is happening around her. “How an event affects those around me, how to translate that into my work, ask questions, seek answers” she explains. Her latest photographic series ‘The Last Generation’ for example shows portraits of the ‘last generation’ of scarified people in Abidjan. The series questions identity in a contemporary Africa torn between its past and present. “In the Kô language of Burkina Faso the word Hââbré means both writing and scarification. Scarification is the practice of performing a superficial incision on human skin. This practice is disappearing due to pressure from religious and state authorities, changing urban practices and the introduction of clothing within tribes. Nowadays only the older people have scarifications. While conducting my research, the majority of images I could find were from the beginning of the 20th century, and only a few contemporary images. I also had trouble finding scarified people to photograph because of their rarity.”



This series of portraits leads us to question the link between past and present, and how self-image shifts depending on environment. The sometimes conflicting opinions of our witnesses illustrate the complexity of African identity today in a contemporary Africa torn between its past and its future. This ‘last generation’ of people bearing the imprint of the past on their faces went from being the norm and having a high social value to being somewhat ‘excluded’. “They are the last witnesses of an Africa of a bygone era”, Joana says. It’s a prime example of her work being imbued with sensitivity and emotion.

The series might have been about immigrants from Burkina Faso, but there is certainly a link with Ivory Coast. “They lived in Abidjan for so long that they consider themselves as Abidjanese. But these scarifications kept telling them that they are from another place, another time.  My point was really to collect of the testimony of these persons who have left their village and who are settled in this city to work. Ivory Coast is a country of immigration, yet several people told me that they had been the target of bullying, mocking the fact of their scarring. These people had to integrate as they can to the Ivorian society and more specifically Abidjan which is recognized as being one of the largest African metropolises.”




Even if the subject is delicate and can create discomfort around her , it does not stop Joana to keep on shooting. She works in Ivory coast as well as abroad and doesn’t questions herself about the location. “If I feel the need, I work wherever I can. I have no preference, it just depends on my subject.” She explains that more and more young Ivorians are interested in photography and the market therefore becomes more busy. “I think the first reason is a desire of expression, of recognition through this form of art. Next to that the internet allows young African photographers to access more information on photography and art in general. This definitely opens possibilities, but the access to professional equipment is still limited. Hopefully this will change in the future, to help more upcoming talent reach the audience they deserve.”

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Creating conversations

African photography is on the rise. Following decades of photographic misrepresentation by observers from outside the continent, African photographers are now showing the world what they see through their lens. This is Africa spotlights them in a series of interviews.

What do you do when you actually want to draw, but are not very good at it? You become a photographer. At least that’s what Ghanaian Michael Newlove-Mensah did. It felt like photography came natural to him, because he was fascinated about speaking without words since a young age. Keeping an open mind while working is very important to him, because he’s ‘always looking to help bring understanding to issues’. “I aim to tell a story from both sides, so all parties van appreciate it. Experiences and backgrounds normally dictate how we see things and react to them, but I try to look further, not influencing the stories but capturing them as they are.”

Portal life

Happy pains


When shooting people in their natural setting, Michael just snaps – everything has to happen spontaneous. According to the photographer we see a bit of ourselves in every frame, because they act like a mirror. “In this I try to capture the essence of the action. As long as it informs, educates and/or changes perceptions, I’m happy. Even better though is when the image actually confronts you and makes you think. In my perception every person is unique and I want to show that even though everybody shares certain similarities each person has their own tasks and their own ways of handling things. Yet we’re all affected by everything that happens around us; it’s that synergy that makes live so unique and interesting for me to capture.”


Hope, kindness and culture

Michael never suffers of a lack of stories to tell since there is always enough going on in Ghana. “The stories are always there”, he says, “I just tell the ones I’m drawn to for whatever reason.” He wants to present his country as it is; ‘a country of beauty, warmth and love’. “Filled with people full of hope, kindness and a very rich and diverse culture.” He does understand however that they also have their bad days and faults just like any other society. But according to Michael these aspects bring forth their strength. “You will know this if you have ever interacted with a Ghanaian”, he laughs. His agenda only beholds portraying Ghana as he sees it, hoping for an effect, a reaction or a conversation at best. In the future he hopes to show his work around the world, being able to draw parallels with stories from all these different parts of the globe. “Hopefully leading to conversations that can heal and create understanding.”


Friendly waters

High speed

Capturing so many different aspects of society requires Michael to be able to quickly adapt to any setting. He never knows where the story might take him. The most important thing for him is the story and like said before, there is no short supply of that. “We are in a very interesting time where information flows constantly at high speed and as photographers we have to jump in to that. For years a negative perception has been created of life in Africa and with all the technology that has become available over the past years we are able to change that perception. Things are getting clearer now and our photographs are the missing frames to a better view. The Ghanaians are here now, with our cameras.”


Dusty Silence


With that it also helps that the photography scene in Ghana is constantly improving according to Michael. Not only the photographers skill set and technical know-how, but also the understanding of more accomplished photographers by taking workshops and looking at others work. “We are fortunate to be home to some of the most legendary photographers with international exposure, like James Banor and Chris Hesse. They motivated a new generation of photographers like Nii Obodai who again hold the doors to upcoming artists like myself.” He sees the same happening in other African countries with people like Emeka Okereke. “All in all, there is a positively conscious movement that produce photographs that represent Africa in it’s own light and glory and it’s done by African photographic talents. That’s a very good thing.”

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100 years of photographic misrepresentation

Africa is on a quest to reclaim the continent from over 100 years of photographic misrepresentation by outside observers. Local photographers are looking for a balance in a continent portrayed by it’s extremes. Charles Okereke is one of them and just like professor James Michira has an outspoken opinion about a case close to his heart. 

“Let me start of by saying that most photographic series, reports or documentaries about Africa are in fact not truthful or presenting clear-cut facts. No, they are either captured in a sensational way or depictions of partial, one-sided half-truths with a mostly political aim. It’s these misrepresentations as barometers that form the basis for subsequent viewpoints which situations were weighed upon.” Nigerian photographer Charles Okereke could write a whole essay about how his country and continent have been misrepresented by outside observers of the past century. “These barometers have deeply dug their talons into the fabric of our nation as notions which have become rigidly accepted. There is no objective photographic examination which could call forth a fresher regeneration of a true concept of our continent.”



Of course the experiences of foreign photographers is not at all the same as their African counterparts. To be situated in one’s own country is to be grounded in all happenings, being able to give a firsthand report and understand the issues that otherwise come as a second, third or fourth hand report. This situation is slowly shifting as many foreign photographers now settle in the continent, but that wasn’t the case over the past decade. They would encounter obstacles and barriers – which Charles rather called ‘challenges’ – of which it is unavoidable that they would sometime be considered man-made either through ‘ignorance’ or ‘certain sentiments which may seem to be one-sidedly tribalistic in certain respects’, as Charles explains. “These festoons of colonial indoctrination still have their roots deeply embedded in the strata of our modern day society.”

Western image

In James Michira’s 2002 paper ‘Images of Africa in the Western Media’ he provides a crude seven point summary of the western image of Africa:

Africa as homogenous entity;
‘The dark continent’;
‘The wild jungle’;
Hunger, famine and starvation;
Endemic violence, conflict and civil war;
Political instability, flagrant corruption and incompetent leadership;

Reason for this portrayal can be traced back by the general lack of knowledge about the continent, the fact that most never visited and the most important factor: photographic misrepresentation. “They possess these images courtesy of the Western media through it’s (mis)representation of Africa”, writes James. “The African continent is depicted as ‘dependent, crisis driven’: hopeless or pitiable. Without exception, the images have been negative and then sensationalize the ‘dark’ side of Africa. Ever since colonial times, such images of Africa have persisted in the West and they still permeate the perspectives taken by the powerful Western media”, explains James. Photography plays a big role is this, painting a biased, subjective presentation of inaccurate, fallacious images of propaganda about the continent.


Starvation in the jungle

As an example of Africa as the ‘Wild Jungle’, James asks the question when a drought that threatens millions of lives become news that fits the front page of The New York Times? The answer: When animals die. “In 1992, the New York Times, while covering the drought and starvation that ravaged multiple Southern African countries like Zimbabwe, Botswana, Lesotho, Swaziland and South Africa, published five substantial stories in eight days. Three of the stories were very prominently displayed and they were about the elephants, the rhino and other endangered species while the other two shorter ones appearing deep in the inside pages were on the African people themselves.” Next to that is the fact that most Western media for years only published images of Africa featuring famine and starvation, therefore being the once the permeated the most consistent and persistent. Moving images of poor, emaciated and malnourished children who sorrily look stare into the camera. No matter which country they’re from, they tell the same story – no distinction in Africa as a homogenous entity.


When not covering misery, photographers focussed on various forms of violence “ranging from “tribal” clashes, armed conflicts, and civil wars to genocide”. Those images have a high premium in Western media and usually make the headlines. James: “While it may be difficult to achieve total objectivity in photography, it is not lost to many observers that reports in the Western media about war and conflicts in Africa are often crisis-driven in such a way as to imply that Africans are naturally savage, warlike, violent and steeped in primordial tribal feuds.” Just add a portion of political instability to that mix and photograph a few corrupt dictators, coups and military rulers to paint a completely disturbed image.



Is there a simple reason why this photographic misrepresentation has been going on for so long? “Misinformation about Africa has become a growth industry in the West”, Ama Biney, a lecturer in West African studies at Middlesex University and Birkbeck College, University of London in the United Kingdom, says. But why? “Commercialization, monopolies, foreign policy and schools”, James adds. In case of the first it’s because media corporations need to make profit for their shareholders, therefore commercializing the portrayal of Africa. Images of starving babies sell, just like violence and despair; not quality, professional, objective and balanced reporting. The second reason is explained by the fact that Western corporate giants own media outlets, read: what is photographed in Africa. They determine about what is being reported. By ‘foreign policy’ is meant ‘western interests’ in Africa. Minear, Scott and Rienner put it like this in their book ‘The News Media, Civil War and Humanitarian Action’: “Pictures of starving children, not policy objectives, got us (the United States) into Somalia in 1992. Pictures of US casualties, not the completion of our objectives, led us to exit Somalia.” James adds: “When terrorists attacked Kenya and Tanzania in 1998, the US and Western media in general gave it abundant coverage because US ‘interests abroad’ were targeted.” Last but not least, schools, because, so explains James “Unlike the average African high school student who studies not just African but European history, American history, among other world histories, the average American student either is not exposed to the history and geography of Africa or is exposed to materials that contain inaccurate information.”

Proper representation

According to Charles the limitation is the lack of broadening points and opportunities not created, which could have expanded the photographic scope. “It is noteworthy that in our environment many of the basic instruments of photography have been highly neglected, especially when it comes to representing our own continent. These are relegated as been unimportant or not viable commercially, but should be the guard which as complementary factors adds to a nation’s development and her presentation of visual history. There is an urgent need for the development of these aspects if Africa is to achieve a proper and fair photographic representation of itself.”

For James it doesn’t matter if the photographic misrepresentation of the African continent is a result of biased, unbalanced and subjective reporting, or is a consequence of a new way of perceiving reality where few corporate giants are creating commercialized representations of the continent in order to maintain their own businesses and ideological agendas. “The issue here, it seems, is that these representations are always focused on the negative, the awkward, the weird and the absurd, the wild and the exotic. The fact remains, however, that these images are not all that Africa is about and, moreover, some of those images are not unique to Africa.”


Both agree that all effort must be undertaken to change these misrepresentations however. Photographers need to uphold the professional ethics of journalism that call for the highest possible level of objectivity, neutrality and balance in reporting, “even as they operate in the cut-throat atmosphere of Western competitive media.” And there is a chance for African photographers to show a different continent as well. Not depending on Western media, but to establish their own outlets. This way they can show their own image, or in the words of Patrice Lumumba: “Africa will write its own history, and it will be a history of glory and dignity.”

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Life is about beauty

African photography is on the rise. Following decades of photographic misrepresentation by observers from outside the continent, African photographers are now showing the world what they see through their lens. This is Africa spotlights them in a series of interviews.

4.Red alert [2009]

“I have always recognized photography as a means of evoking a powerful language which words cannot convey. I’m therefore interested in the medium as a form of self-expression.” Nigerian photographer and multimedia artist Charles Okereke moved to the capital of his home country right after his graduation from the University of Port-Harcourt just for that reason. “Lagos is recognized as the active, artistic and creative hub of Nigeria”, he explains. “I actually didn’t want to concern myself with reportage or documentary photography, but had a deep sense of the state of the environment in a mega city like Lagos and felt that I had the responsibility to use photography in a constructive way to make a positive contribution.” Until this day that’s what Charles is concerned with: creative conscious images that avoid the cliché of environmental photography that elevate the concerns to a dimension which is too ‘artistic’ in it’s representation. “So I opted for a use of metaphors as a personal way of expression.”

Black Star [2009]

Evil Signs [2011]

Making impact

It wasn’t an easy step for Charles though. He studied visual arts – majored in sculpturing – and his internship with a publication company gave him the opportunity to work in a darkroom in which he developed a sense for well-defined images. “Which complement a quality print publication and can be used as a veritable tool for mass awareness and information dissemination. Together with a few colleagues, among which Uche James Iroha, we started using photography in a different context by using our own bodies as subjects while exploring the technicalities of analogue photography.” Right after his graduation however, he ventured into designing metal, wood and fiberglass sculptures and furniture, but although economically lucrative, it did not challenge his creative input. “Hence my move to Lagos.” In this city he aims to identify himself as a Nigerian artist with one purpose: to make an impact on society using photography as a circular platform. Motivated by the consciousness of the needs of his environment and the responsibility to the overall development of his country.

Merged [2011]

Charles Okereke - Self Portrait

Collective responsibility

Charles does not believe in the notion of representing his continent and country in a derogatory fashion, because life for him is about beauty. Even though it’s a hard environment to live and work in – “what is easily achieved in more developed countries can take years to accomplish in Africa, especially Nigeria” – he wants to transpose how outsiders view his country. “This is not an individual effort, but a collective responsibility. We have to create awareness, because there’s a lot of unconsciousness among the majority of people. I would like my work to be seen as an expression for a valid and candid representation of my country and Africa as a whole.”

There are a lot of colleagues that Charles admires for already doing so, like Uche Okpa Iroha with his Nlele Institute, Uche James Iroha with Photo Garage and Emeka Okereke’s Invisible Borders. He also mentions Photofest from Aida Munuleh as pushing the frontiers of photography, Ananias Leki Dago and Senegals Koyo Kouoh Raw Material Company for promoting emerging artists.

Paradise Utopia [2011]

Collective responsibility

Within this representation however, Charles does not back away from critiquing it’s own leaders and the west. According to him Africa has been the dump site for foreign waste; multinationals committing atrocities and destroying the productivity of a continent in which this far exceeds it’s consumption. “This creates ripple consequences which could be termed socio-political in their effect. Just like saying there is a rising economy in our continent when infrastructure and basic necessities haven’t even been provided to the majority yet. It’s a misrepresentation, a falsehood peddled by capitalists seeking investors to create a false hope in the place of despair. Rather, saying there is a rising economy is a delusion and for me as a photographer issues that I aim to expunge.” Using photography as a platform Charles also wants to seek conscientious leadership amongst the youth, because that has been the bane for the new generation of Nigerians. Together with other arts, photography has shown to be the only activity that has raised the standard and value of contemporary youths in the country and luckily there had been a fast acceptance of the media. “Yet more effort is needed in a thorough and proper education of the use of it as a veritable tool in appropriating and disseminating factual information which does not distort reality.”

The dark side of the boat man


“With my photography I try to create awareness by elevating the mundane, the ordinary and the discarded from the common place to a valuable state which thereby incites a discourse. Shooting the usual with an unusual approach which defamiliarizes the known to an artistic level which in its duality instructs and at the same time enchants.” The future for Charles is now and now is the time to create this future. For this reason he started the Alexander Academy of Art, Design and Alternative Methods, training young, talented Nigerians and other Africans in arts-related subjects and design. “They are the future and guiding them encourages me to put more effort in realizing my own objectives as well.”

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Masters of Our Identity

African photography is on the rise. From street to art photography, conceptual and documentary to fashion photography, homegrown photographers (not only in the Francophone-African countries) are increasingly stepping up to show their world what they see when they look through the lens, following decades of photographic misrepresentation, or reduction, by observers from outside the continent.

‚Fashion and street culture are a dynamic everyday method of expressing oneself to the world in the form of clothing’, according to South African photographer Anthony Bila. As founder of the picture blog ‚The Expressionist’ he focusses on showing his country on a day to day basis. ‚I’d like to think of myself as a creator who uses photography to express my thoughts, opinions and feelings to the world. Since especially for the youth of South Africa fashion and a personal style have become an important way to show who you are and what you stand for without ever having to say a word, he wants to capture it’s evolution as it happens. The autodidact goes into townships (for his series ‚The Township Diaries’) to include a cultural aspect in his work. ‚A personal project in which I went deeper to show the fascinating aspects of a continent that deserves a more balanced photographic coverage then currently present in international media. I’m tired of the misconceptions and prejudices about my continent. and even though clothing can be worn as an illusion – a projection of who we would like to be instead of who we are – when I contemplated this I wanted to conceptualise this in a more authentic representation of my country and continent.’


While his daily work mainly consists of street/fashion photography – ‚simply because it chronicles personal styles as I see it’ – he also has ongoing projects for which he revisits certain themes in his work. In general, with all his photographs, he want to show the possibilities and potential of (South) Africa. ‚In contrast to what is mainly shown about our continent, we are youthful, creative, intelligent, talented and have a lot to offer to offer the world. I want to capture those beautiful and hopeful aspects, even though South Africa is a complex country to work in. We are anything but lost and can tell our own story in our own way’, Bila emphasises. His country and continent are a place full of possibilities according to him and by putting both in a new perspective, he tries to offer a fresh, new and honest look. With the hope of encouraging people to visit South Africa themselves and see the places and people that he captures, their is even a marketing aspect to be found in his work. ‚There is something uniquely South African to my images that I cordially invite people to experience for themselves.’


By showing the ‚young, liberated SA of the future’ Bila wants to bring Africa to the world and the world to Africa. For him photographing his people doesn’t actually feel like work, but merely like self-expression. He usually works alone for the sake of speed and convenience, making it possible for him to move around relatively unnoticed. ‚That way I can capture moments and images others are not able to. Trying to do so is exciting and because of our diversity in people and cultures it forces me to be creative.’ South Africans have an indomitable spirit, says Bila, and posses a conviction to prove themselves. In his opinion a good photographer has got to have a good understanding of human beings and their nature. ‚If your subjects are comfortable, their ease translates in the image and works as a window to see who they are. Being self-taught all my photographs are shot purely instinctual; I see the image in my mind and capture it.’


Through his photography Bila has the opportunity to capture real moments and real people in a real context. By representing different people from different walks of life he honestly represents the Africa trough his own eyes. ‚I simply have to answer to myself and show my own perspective, without caring for what other think’, he explains. ‚Through social media I can share my view with a lot more people, just like al lot of other young photographers in the country do. Internet has made photography accessible to everybody and in combination with advancing technology and a growing subculture it’s understandable that photography has grown in stature, relevance and importance in South Africa and the continent.’ Having said that, there are still barriers to entry for professional photographers in South Africa, especially younger photographers, and more specifically, black photographers in South Africa, according to Bila. ‚The plight for female photographers, especially those of colour is even more dire.’ He feels there is a lot more in terms of developing new young and talented photographers, male and female in the country. ‚The limitations are there and likely will always be there, but I do believe thanks to the internet and social media, we can showcase our potential, bypass agencies and agents and get to see the work young photographers are capable of producing.’

Even though the photography scene in South Africa is of world standard, there is still a lack of skill when it comes to sharing and developing, which hinders the further proliferation of the industry from the continent to the world. ‚The scene in South Africa has gained incredible momentum and there are superbly talented young talents emerging all the time, but just like in the rest of Africa, they face similar challenges.’ Bila is positive about the future though, making plans to work extensively in Europe to bring his African perspectives into an international context. He thinks that South African photographers are the next big thing on the international stage. ‚I believe the more other Africans and foreigners alike see our work, increasingly they’ll believe that we are the masters of our own identity.’

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