Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Some African Photos

I present to you two bodies of work from Africa! Taken, in both cases, by white Africans. Obviously white people can be Africans, that's not my point at all. I think it's pretty likely that I share more cultural touchstones with these artists than I do with, say, Peter Magubane, with whom in turn I suspect I share more than I do with many other African photographers.

Both bodies of work are the sort of thing which, I regret to say, we see too goddamned much of from Africa, especially from white artists. Both are pieces of the "Africa is so poor and screwed up" narrative, and neither one offers any solutions. That said, I like one of them, and I dislike the other. This might be simple prejudice on my part, or perhaps I can make a case. Let's see!

First up we have the Greylingstad series from John Barrow, who shared the link in a comment a few items back. Thanks, John! It's a pretty effective body of work, essentially documentary but with some real visual appeal. John provides us with a lot of background, without thrusting a large bolus of words upon us. We always know what we're looking at; we're never swamped in text.

It is a familiar story to us in the USA, the small town passed by and slowly sliding back into the earth. It is a familiar story, but with a decidedly not-USA flavor. Notably, there are photographs of what appeared to me to be distinctly derelict businesses, a shoe repair shop that was obviously long defunct. And then, weirdly, another one. But no, they're the same one, with a paint job and an expansion between photos. At the time the photos were taken the shop was very much a going concern.

What to me were clear "tells" of a long-closed shop were in fact merely the indications of a business being run on a very small budget. Africa versus the USA. Without the text, I wouldn't have noticed this.

The second body of work appeared on PetaPixel, here or you can find what I think is identical material (less one picture, I think, but with the artist's statement more clearly demarcated) on the artist's web site here.

This is a substantially more enigmatic collection. Much smaller, for one thing, and much more "obvious" in the sense that photographing hard-luck cases is a well mined out area of photography. We're looking at street kids, 13 (14 on Petapixel) photographs, giving some depth. We see kids having fun, kids of various ages. We see what it presumably a pile of trash of the sort the kids pick through, we see light through trees for no reason I can discern (is the foreground fog coming off a trash pile?). We see a few pictures of kids looking impoverished, but weirdly enough the kids seem to be surprisingly well dressed. Their clothes, while neither sterile nor new, often appear fairly clean and in decent repair. My kids are often dressed more shabbily.

While the artist's text paints a grim, and no doubt accurate, picture, I find her photographs to almost contradict the text. There are three or four pictures in which the kids look particularly impoverished, at best. In some of those they could simply be sleepy.

While I applaud Jern's desire to show us depth, to show us that these children are more than miserable cases for charity, I'm not sure she's succeeded even in that. The collection is too sparse, too open to question.

Where do these kids come from? Are they orphans? Kicked out of the house? Runaways? Where do they go when they grow up? Why do these particular children all look essentially healthy, is that an illusion, or are they in fact oddly healthy and neatly dressed?

The question I have to ask myself here is Is there something inherently African, inherently Kenyan, which I am missing and which would unlock this puzzle? Or is this just a kind of lousy little portfolio?

Without the text, I would assume that most of these pictures were not of homeless kids. I would assume that there were a few pictures of homeless kids, a few pictures of children who were substantially better off, and a picture of some attractive trees with the sun piercing the leaves.

More importantly, though, I think that Jern is explicitly political and yet offers no guidance to the viewer. This is a terrible state of affairs she seems to say, but while she implicitly demands that I take note, she gives me no guidance as to what I might do. In contrast, Barrow is not trying to make any political statement, as far as I can see. He seems to be saying that Greylingstad is simply something that happens and, while sad, there's not much to be done about it.

If I am prejudiced against Jern, and I probably am, it is because I am sick to death of having my consciousness raised and then left to dangle. Educating me, or really anyone, on the point of the world has some terrible things in it is beside the point these days. How many more times must I be told this before someone gives me a tactic I can use to actually do something to make the world less terrible? Or is it hopeless? If it's hopeless, why don't we just say so, rather than willfully trying to stimulate my in-built guilt to no apparent purpose?


  1. Hi Andrew,
    I agree with the summary of both collections.
    Jern's photographs, while individually interesting in their own right, left me a little cold when viewed as a collection. I'm not sure I to what 'the message' was or is.
    John's I enjoyed.
    No matter what country, it seems that these small, run down. poor tows exist. You have them in USA, John in South Africa, and we sure as heck do over here in Australia.
    It's almost a universal theme, and therefore possibly easy to relate to than other more location specific issues.
    Perhaps that is why the cultural aspects of photography from remote places, by local photographers, sometimes doesn't resonate with us as it should.

    Without guidance or some sort of back story to inform us, perhaps they never will resonate.

    As an aside I am particularly fond of the work of Peter Beard, an American who spent so much of his life photographing and making his art in Africa.

    His 1960s work 'End of the Game' is an insight into a continent which was changing at a rate which was unsustainable. How much more so today?

    The Taschen collection of his work from a few years ago is simply magnificent.
    His work may not be to all tastes, but surely it is an example of a western artist showing his love, concern, and deep interest in African issues.


  2. "White African photographers" reminded me of mr Juhan Kuus about whom, sadly, I only heard about after his death.

    Here's some background: http://estonianworld.com/culture/juhan-kuus-unknown-estonian-photographic-genius-south-africa/

    And here's a big collection of photos, ranging from what can be called raw to really weird and disturbing, seemingly in no particular order, some are duplicates, etc: https://www.flickr.com/photos/kuusjuhan

    Without ever being to (South) Africa, I can't tell if these photos have any specific African flavour, but they sure are different from the usual Western stuff and what is coming out of post-soviet block (my own main interest).

  3. People wear so many lenses, no? That African town, from the pictures at least, doesn't seem 'screwed up' at all to me. In my locale, here in the suburbs of Mumbai, most people are like that; They run their enterprises with pride, and live off whatever they make... I fail to see what's so screwed up and terrible about it. As the economy strengthens, so will they, or perhaps they'll be displaced into factory work or something, whatever. Still, isn't all that just life?

    Although, I do wonder if that's only my perspective because I've grown up here. I think, for example, that Aleppo is a horrid nightmare. However, would a child born there during the civil war just think of it as the way of things and accept it as it is? Maybe there's a measure of a civilization: A rising standard of disgust.

    1. Thank you very much for commenting! This is exactly the sort of thing I think we need more of. I had a sense that what to me looked like one thing was another (I saw dereliction, but the caption suggested something else) and evidently from Mumbai it just looks normal.

      My American eyes did indeed deceive me, but perhaps now they are slightly more open.

  4. It is very interesting how we perceive things differently. I myself did not at all get the same impression of Jern's portfolio. To me the pictures portray the hopelessness in combination with the hopefulness that the children probably feel. I have been to Africa many times, Kenya one of the countries, and recognise the reality in Jern's pictures. Her ability to capture the hidden moments of the lives of these children is striking to me.

    I guess the beauty of photography is the way we all perceive different things.

    1. It is interesting, isn't it?

      My distance from Africa makes it much much harder to "reach" me. I suspect that Jern, and anyone else equally close to that world, will read her little portfolio the way she intends.

      Thank you for your perspective!