Essays

The (Im)possibilities to Shoot as a White Photographer on the African Continent

By The ASX Team on November 3, 2015

Now, it’s hard to defend yourself if you are in possession of the ‘white privilege’, as I am, and are being accused of photographing in a way that directly originates from colonialism and therefore has racist aspects.

By Jan Hoek

In an article on Aperture.org (http://aperture.org/blog/lives-others/), Stanley Wolukau-Wanambwa wiped the floor with the work of artists Vivanne Sassen, Cristina de Middel and myself. The conformity between us is that we are all western, white and make work on, or about the African continent. Apart from these similarities, our work isn’t alike at all and Sassen and De Middel are world famous artists, while I am still a newbie. But, according to Wolukau-Wanambwa there is one more similarity: all three of us reduce the black body to an object and thus reflect colonial balance of power.

Now, it’s hard to defend yourself if you are in possession of the ‘white privilege’, as I am, and are being accused of photographing in a way that directly originates from colonialism and therefore has racist aspects. When (the other) the critic is black, you are behind immediately. Every attempt to get even/equal will always make you look as if you don’t want to admit you’re in this privileged position and want to shrug off the feelings of anyone who feels offended by your work. As if you’re saying: “Does my work hurt your feelings? Well, that may be, but my intentions were right, so good luck with that!” I really think it’s important to listen to criticism. What is seen as racist, exploitative or stereotyping is not a fixed notion, but comes in different forms depending on time, space and person. The only way to make sure you don’t find yourself guilty of doing it is to continuously be as receptive as possible to all criticism.

Wolukau-Wanambwa is right in many ways. In Sassens work, the black skin is sizzlingly sensual and entices a sense of wonder. De Middel’s work gets you to laugh at the idea of a Zambian moon-expedition (haha, imagine, Africans going to the moon!). In my work, the public is left with questions about the freedom and involvement of the Masai-models featured in my book. The three of us do make objects of our models, although I don’t think that is problematic, as it’s inherent to photography. As soon as living person gets photographed, he or she changes into pixels or static photo paper afterwards. A model always becomes an object in that sense. That we, as white photographers put black people in front of our cameras, does indeed make objects of black models.

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@ Cristina De Middel from The Afronauts

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@ Cristina De Middel from The Afronauts

The first step in my opinion should be more room for the non-Western view in photography. Africans themselves should be the ones to determine the imaging of Africa and should be able to photograph white people too.

I do believe there is a big difference between colonial photography and the work of De Middel, Sassen and myself. In colonial times, photography was being used as a way to show and confirm the superiority of the West over that of the lands they visited. Africans were portrayed as stereotypes without any nuance. And above all, photography in colonial times was unambiguous. Photographs were to be seen in one way only and would be explained in text. Black people being portrayed primitives (or even as a missing link between human and ape) had a practical nature: to prove black people were inferior creation of god, a plea that was used to, among others, excuse slavery.

Fortunately, the colonial era is over and now is the time to find a way to heal the hurting wounds this era has inflicted. One aspect is that we have to reinvent a way to deal with photography and the disturbed intercommunications between Africa and the West. Opinions on how to do that vary enormously. The upcoming concept this day seems to be the comparison of all images related to Africa or depicting black people (especially when made by white photographers) to colonial photography, or other work that stereotypes black people. As soon as similarity has been found, the work automatically is filed under the same tradition and marked as ‘wrong’. I agree it’s important to look at the pictures of the past, but at the same time this does create a problem. As history went by so many black stereotypes were created, if all were erased from photographic tradition, there won’t be much left. We all know these stereotypes: the laughing black one, the serving black one, the poor black one, the black one in nature, the musical black one, the sensual black one, the athletic black one, the funny black one and even the smoking black one is a well-known stereotype. There are few options left to portray what I call the ‘contra-stereotype’, of which the African with a mobile phone is the most well known.

Max Weiß - Physique and Stature1 (1908) (Custom)

Max Weiß – Physique and Stature (1908)

Max Weiß - Physique and Stature2 (1908) (Custom)

Max Weiß – Physique and Stature (1908)

That’s the reason why we, despite of what Wolukau-Wanambwa would very much want, don’t write prologues in our books about our intentions and with precise instructions on how to interpret our work.

I believe in something else: that we should not only focus on similarities between photography projects about Africa, race and colonial photography, but on the differences as well. In the colonial era, photography gave a very limited view of reality and I think we want to work towards a point where photography represents a colour pallet that is as broad as possible. I don’t believe in a taboo on stereotypes, because taboos create impoverishment in the photographic colour pallet. I believe we have to bring more nuances into the stereotypes, that we have to blend stereotypes with new images and conceptions until they aren’t clichés anymore. A lot of people were upset about my series ‘Sweet Crazies’, in which I’ve photographed homeless people from Ethiopia as kings or emperors in local photo studios. “Another white one who photographs the poor blacks”, people would shout, while my aim was to create a new view on this group, one that shows the individuality and pride of these men.

We have to be aware of the fact that intercommunication between Africa and the West isn’t equal yet, and from this knowledge we should grow closer together. The first step in my opinion should be more room for the non-Western view in photography. Africans themselves should be the ones to determine the imaging of Africa and should be able to photograph white people too. Fortunately, this is slowly, yet steady developing. Attention is aimed more and more to photographers from African countries and their diaspora. African photo festivals are growing and getting consideration, as the success of Lagos Photo proves. At Venice Biennial, more and more African pavilions are present. Also in media, next to the likes of BBC and CNN there is now Al-Jazeera, which shows the news from a less western point of view. We’re not there yet, but I am optimistic.

That being said, I think the previous is only half the solution. My position is a western one and the consequence of the solution above would be me saying: “Now it’s the African’s turn, I’m not touching any subject regarding Africans or people with another skin color than mine” which I would find immensely cowardly. My work is about the relation between photographer and model and the awkwardness this produces. When I photographed my mother in the dark room of a sex shop I used to work at during art school, the photographs were about this awkwardness. When I photograph Paul and Kim, two Amsterdam heroin addicts, it is about that same awkwardness again. How far can one go as a photographer? Is it possible to give your models a say in the way they are depicted? In what ways is the photographer allowed to distort reality to avoid clichés? When I work in African countries I look for the same awkwardness as usual, I just happen to find it on the border of relations between black and white.

In general, I think Western photographers and artist should get into dialogue on how they should behave to our history, inequality and how to deal with that. Fact is that because of the complexity of the situation it isn’t possible to do this undisputed as a white, western photographer. The only thing to do is accept this, make work you stand for and open your eyes and ears to critics.

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@ Viviane Sassen, from Ultra Violet, Flamboya and Realm

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@ Viviane Sassen from Parasomnia, 2011

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Viviane Sassen from Pikin Slee

The most important difference between photography from the colonial era and the work of Sassen, De Middel and allright, also mine, is that our projects aren’t singular, but interpretable in many ways.

The most important difference between photography from the colonial era and the work of Sassen, De Middel and allright, also mine, is that our projects aren’t singular, but interpretable in many ways. That’s the reason why we, despite of what Wolukau-Wanambwa would very much want, don’t write prologues in our books about our intentions and with precise instructions on how to interpret our work.

Take for instance Vivianne Sassen’s photo of the silhouette of a girl with a blue scarf that Wolukau-Wanambwa wrote about in his essay. We don’t see the face of the girl and the emphasis on the shape of the skull might suggest ‘ethnographic photography’, as was done in colonial times. From the way she is photographed, you are disposed on thinking that this indeed has to be a primitive girl. That isn’t what happened to me when I saw the photograph. Instead, I actually started thinking about why that should be the first association. After a closer look, you see her clothing is actually quite modern and the white background isn’t a background you’d quickly find in a rural African village. In my head I rather see an image of a clever student living in the city than that of a poor African without personality.

The work of De Middel might be seen as ridicule, but if you are familiar with her oeuvre, you know her work is about reviving people with dreams bigger than reality, much more about the human kind than about continents and race. Although, it did make me think about why there has never been an African country that made an expedition to the moon. It made me think about the role of the West and history being the cause, rather than thinking Africans are too stupid to pull of such a venture, which was the only possible meaning of Wolukau-Wanambwa’s words. I don’t say these are the ways everybody would read it, but just to say that people read these images in different ways.

Godlisten web

@ Jan Hoek

Masai as on Google web

Massai as on Google

I believe in something else: that we should not only focus on similarities between photography projects about Africa, race and colonial photography, but on the differences as well.

I find it difficult to powerfully defend my own work, but as Wolukau-Wanambwa would have liked to see my motives in the book (something I intentionally did not do to avoid ambiguity as was custom in colonial times) I want to give them here, especially for him. My most important incentive to make the series ‘New Ways Of Photographing The New Masai’ was curiosity. I’ve lived in Dar-El-Salaam in Tanzania for a while, a huge city with millions of citizens. I saw lots of Masai there, but when I got back to the Netherlands I found the people I met never looked like the Masai I saw portrayed in pictures. Instead, I saw only totally exchangeable pictures of groups of Masai jumping in the woods and never saw the Masai as how I knew them: blending elements of traditional Masai-culture with an urban lifestyle. I was curious if the city-Masai knew about this imaging, if they would mind being framed like that and what kind of images they would want to put across.

Of course, I knew that again I would still be a white guy going to Tanzania to photograph Masai according to my own rules and views. To tackle that I decided to interview every model extensively about how they wanted to be photographed, what his or her dreams were, what colours they liked, their hobbies and how they absolutely didn’t want to be portrayed. To prevent me from filtering my personal favourites out of this, I decided I would take three pictures of every model, all three inspired by their own stories. Then they could choose which photo they thought was best, second best and worst, so that they could judge my attempts at fulfilling their wishes. Because the pictures only showed the preferences of seven individual Masai, I decided to organise an ‘election’, where fifty different Masai from the city could choose which ‘number one photograph’ of every model depicted a (modern?) Masai best.

It is hard to say whether I did every Masai a favour with this series. I spoke a Masai-professor who wrote a lot of books about the Masai culture and also helped making Masai-documentaries for National Geographic. He got angry with me because in his opinion I was not showing the ‘real’ Masai in my project. According to him the most important quality of the Masai is that tradition is always more important than individuality; the group is always more important than the individual. The Masai I photographed were deserters, according to him. And Godlisten, who wanted to be photographed as a spider, was nothing less then a ‘freak’.

Then, there were Masai-businessmen who almost started to cheer when I told them about this project. They told me that sometimes when Western people found out they were Masai they started shouting things like “Oh, can you jump like a Masai for us?”, while these businessmen were in function as CEO of several hotels. The ‘Spider’ was film student Godlisten who, through his education, understood that photography could make (weird) fantasies come true. Apart from that he had an extremely original mind, I mean: who wants to be photographed as a spider? I found a soul mate in Godlisten and we became good friends. I thought his picture was the most special, whilst at the election no Masai liked the photo. I just want to say: there is no clear verdict to make.

With this piece, I don’t mean to say all the points Wolukau-Wanambwa makes are mistruths. I hope that this piece emphasizes there are different ways to look at our work and that we slowly, without forgetting the past, can get to an era where curiosity for ‘the other’ will be seen as something good and that this curiosity will create a multiplicity of projects in which the world and its residents are being shown in as many ways as possible. And in which photographers of all parts of the world feel free (and have the economical possibility) to photograph each other as they want.

More to read on Aperture: http://aperture.org/blog/lives-others/

More to read on ASX: http://www.americansuburbx.com/2015/06/a-conversation-with-pieter-hugo.html

Jan Hoek: New Ways Of Photographing The New Masai

(All rights reserved. Text @ Jan Hoek, Images @ Jan Hoek, Viviane Sassen, Cristina de Middel and the Estate of Max Weiß.)