The Most Contested Photographic Images of 2012

Invisible Children founders Bobby Bailey, Laren Poole, and Jason Russell posing with guns in 2008 in northern Uganda. Image: Glenna Gordon.

Remember that little video campaign called #Kony2012? Yeah, we wish we could forget too. Few videos have reached the magnitude of pestilence that the non-profit Invisible Children’s video achieved this year. By transforming a complex regional crisis involving the Lord’s Resistance Army into a simple, manufactured (and in some ways factually false) narrative about the forces of good and evil, Jason Russell and his team at Invisible Children mobilized overeager teenagers like never before. Sharing the Kony 2012 video on Facebook and Twitter became akin to saving vulnerable African children from certain abduction. Activism had never been so easy. Amidst the cauldron of outrage, shock and disappointment stirred by the Kony 2012 video, Glenna Gordon released the photo above that further damaged the efforts of Russell and Co. to appear serious and altruistic. Invisible Children tried to embrace the image, calling it a joke, but the damage was done. The furor caused by the video mutated into deeper scrutiny and critical backlash, exposing IC’s ties to evangelical Christian organizations and leading the heroic Russell to have his infamous breakdown.


Marissa Lindberg De Geer’s image of Makoda LindeIn April, Swedish artist Makode Linde decided to bake a cake for an exhibition commemorating the 75th anniversary of the Swedish Artists’ National Organization. Linde, however, neglected to mention to the exhibition’s organizers that his gollywog-style cake, crafted in the shape of a black body would be alive (with Linde himself inside it). As soon as the exhibition’s guest of honor, Swedish Culture Minister Lena Adelsohn Liljeroth, cut into the cake it began to wail loudly. Finding humor in the cake’s pained cries, the Culture Minister proceeded to feed the cake to itself, leading to this image by Marianne Lindberg De Geer.

Few if any of the event’s guests seemed to be troubled by the writhing, shrieking cake and on the contrary many reveled in cutting slices for themselves. The Minister was soon accused of racial insensitivity by the National Afro-Swedish Association, which called for her resignation. An interview with Makode Linde later revealed that the cake was intended to be part of his “Afromantics” series on black identity and cultural representation in Sweden and not a trap intended solely for the Minister. Whatever the artist’s intention was, Lindberg De Geer’s image bears testimony to that fact that sometimes an artwork can acquire greater social resonance than its creator ever intended.


Siphiwe Sibeko on Marikana: Tension between mine workers, their employers and unions boiled over in South Africa this August as police were called in to quell miners striking against low wages and poor working conditions in a mine in Marikana owned by the London-based firm Lonmin. Toyi-toying for better living and working conditions is not uncommon in South Africa, but this time, when the dust settled, 34 miners lay dead, ridden with bullets. Many in South Africa were outraged at the horror of the police officers’ actions, many blamed the recklessness of the miners, many more barely batted an eyelid. The violence at Marikana presented South Africans with an opportunity to confront issues of lingering economic injustice, yet instead of embracing dialogue, the South African government thought it prudent to charge miners arrested in the unrest with the murder of their comrades.

With few lessons learned from the tragedy at Marikana, black economic empowerment business tycoon and Lonmin board member, Cyril Ramaphosa, was elected to the position of Vice President of the governing ANC at the party’s recent conference in Mangaung. Was Ramaphosa’s connection to the deaths of the miners not a red flag? Without meaningful efforts to address South Africa’s woefully unequal wealth distribution, sadly, there could be more Marikanas to come.


Akintunde Akinleye on Occupy Nigeria:  On January 1st 2012, the Nigerian government wished its citizens a happy new year by eliminating a subsidy on fuel prices dubbed “unsustainable” by the Governor of the Nigerian Central Bank, Sanusi Lamido Sanusi. The subsidy’s removal, favored by Nigerian president Goodluck Jonathan and Finance Minister Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, caused fuel prices to jump by 120% practically overnight and led to increases in the cost of other essential goods. Fed up with the high cost of fuel in Africa’s largest oil producer and disillusioned with fiscal policy favoring elites, Nigerian citizens staged massive protests and strikes across the country. Angry protesters demanded a reinstatement of the subsidy and an end to corruption and financial mismanagement on the part of the Nigerian government. After two weeks of widespread protest, which became known as Occupy Nigeria, the Nigerian Government realized its maladroit political manoeuvering and reinstated the subsidy.

A postscript: In April 2012 American Jim Kim beat out Nigerian Finance Minister Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala in the contest for the World Bank presidency. Some Nigerians were dismayed not by Kim’s victory, but because Okonjo-Iweala’s defeat meant she would continue to be in a position to implement fiscal policy that could be damaging to the lives of Nigerian citizens.


Olivier Morin’s image of Mo Farah: In 2012, the Summer Olympics came to London. And while the Americans and the Chinese raced to the top of the medal tables, the British hosts struggled to win major events on their home turf. Enter Mo Farah, a Brit of Somali heritage, who represented Great Britain’s greatest hope to take gold in the high profile track races. With magical endurance and speed to match, Farah walked the walk and delivered gold medals in the 5,000 and 10,000-meter races to a roaring home audience. For this moment, the British people rejoiced in the victory they shared with Farah.

Yet this revelry ignored the questioning of identities that African immigrants routinely endure in British society. Following the events, renowned Somali author Nuruddin Farah was quoted as saying, “I wish [Mo Farah] were wholly ours; that we, Somalis had invested in him and given him all that which have made him a winner.” Does Mo’s victory mean the British are ready to embrace Mo Farah along with immigrants and their descendants as wholly British? What of those who cannot run so fast?


Baz Ratner on Israel’s treatment of African immigrantsBesides its unabashed attacks on Palestinian civilians, the state of Israel severely tightened its immigration policies in 2012, deporting hundreds of African immigrants (like the man in the photo below), threatening to repatriate thousands more and coercing female Ethiopian immigrants in particular to accept birth control injections. In comments laden with white supremacist rhetoric, Prime Minister Netanyahu even went as far as calling African immigrants living in Israel “infiltrators”.

Many immigrants of African origin have lived in Israel for many years, some seeking greater economic opportunity and others fleeing from conflict. More than a few African immigrants subscribe to Jewish beliefs themselves, though perhaps even the converts don’t fit into the constructed vision of what Jewish people are supposed to be. But hey, at least European Jews have never migrated to other countries in search of refuge and economic prosperity. Oh, wait.


Jerome Delay’s image of damaged painting of Jacob Zuma:  The illustrious life of South African President Jacob Zuma has been so inspiring to his citizens, that in 2012 Zuma was the muse for a provocative painting by artist Brett Murray. The piece in question, titled “The Spear”, depicted Zuma in a pose that mimicked propaganda images of Lenin in the Soviet Union, though with Zuma’s penis exposed. “The Spear,” along with other works in Murray’s exhibition (called Hail to the Thief II), represented a pessimistic commentary on governance under the African National Congress while portraying Zuma’s controversial lifestyle rooted in Zulu cultural tradition as misogynistic.

As the South African public debated the freedom of expression, two men entered that exhibition’s gallery and defaced the painting (the unequal treatment of the two defacers, one black, one white, by gallery security is another issue entirely). To the dismay of the Zuma camp, this act only further elevated the portrait’s notoriety in the annals of South African art history.


Eskinder Debebe’s image of Teodoro Obiang and Ban ki Moon:  After a few years of dithering, the UN’s science and cultural organization UNESCO finally embraced the abandonment of its dignity by awarding a science prize sponsored by the unscrupulous president of Equatorial Guinea, Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo. It mattered not that the longest serving president in Africa, in power since 1979, has been accused of corruption and human rights violations of epic proportions. Nor did it matter that his son Teodoro Nguema Obiang Mangue aka Teodorín, Minister of Agriculture and Forestry in his father’s government, has somehow amassed a fortune that has afforded him multi-million dollar estates in California and Paris on a modest government salary. The young Obiang’s questionable finances have led authorities in France to issue a warrant for his arrest and seize his $100 million dollar French estate (which had a $2 million wine collection). Based on the smile on UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon’s face in the photo and the dissatisfaction on that of the elder Obiang, perhaps the dignity of the UN wasn’t worth as much as it was sold for.

Just prior to presidential elections scheduled in Mali for April, soldiers staged a coup against the government of President Amadou Toumani Touré. Once in control of Bamako, the soldiers, led by Captain Amadou Sanogo, cited failure by the Touré regime to adequately equip them to confront the attacks by nomadic Touareg rebels plaguing the north of the country as their reason for taking power. Exploiting the moment of political chaos in Bamako, the nomadic Touareg rebel groups began seizing greater expanses of land until they had carved the country in two. This new territory, which included the city of Timbuktu, was to be called Azawad. Members of the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad wave the new territory’s flag in the image (by Jemal Oumar) below.

Since the creation of Azawad, non-Touareg ethnic groups have fled the region as pro-Azawad Islamist forces have attacked dissenters, banned non-Islamic music and destroyed mausoleums containing historically valuable, centuries-old texts. The Touaregs claim Azawad as their traditional pastoral grazing lands, yet other ethnic groups contest that they have lived there for generations. Regional body ECOWAS and the UN have threatened military intervention to reunify the country, yet so far no troops have been mobilized. How will the disputed nation of Azawad fare in 2013?

The battle for LGBT rights continued in Uganda in 2012, where the legislators vowed to pass a law criminalizing homosexuality with severe jail time. Supporters of the legislation maintain their claim that homosexuality is a foreign import that is contrary to “African tradition,” while critics of the bill have questioned just how the sexual orientation of gay Ugandans somehow prevents them from being African. Despite the threatening environment, brave Ugandans turned out for a gay pride rally that took place in August.

Meanwhile, legislators have promised that the anti-gay bill has a 99% chance of passing. (Photo by David Robinson.)

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