Is This Africa?

How Western photography reinforces negative stereotypes about the African continent.

Photo : Stefano de Luigi.

Surely photographs are presented to convey a message, and if there’s anything I remember from my introductory photo classes as a youth, is that a photograph is all about the “frame.”  In a post called “How to Photograph Africa“, John Edwin Mason, a photographer and history professor at the University of Virginia, plays with the framing of a photo essay on Africa to question the types of messages that are continually portrayed about the continent.   Mason criticizes Getty Image grant winner Stefano de Luigi’s photo series “This is Africa” by offering the essay up as an example of satire, in the vein of Binyanvanga Wainaina’s “How to write about Africa,” and shows that the way the images are presented reinforces negative stereotypes.

Here’s an extract:

Getty and de Luigi, like Wainaina before them, have done all writers and photographers who work in Africa a great service.  Using humor, they’ve called our attention to the cliches, stereotypes, half-truths, and pseudo-scientific bunkum that constitute a large portion of Western reporting from Africa.  In doing so, they’ve reminded us that Africa and Africans, like all other places and peoples, must be seen whole and in context.  Yes, suffering is a part of the story.  But it is only a part.

I have to admit Mason had me fooled at first, so if there’s still any question: Stefano de Luigi’s photographs aren’t meant to be a satire, they’re serious, but John Mason’s re-framing is satire, and a brilliant critique of the photo essay.

For more examples of the re-framing of images from Africa in photography, see this post at the Africa.Visual_Media Blog.

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