At the edge of sight

A review of one of the few books to come out of the continent about photography and the majority of contributors are African.

Cover image of Ambivalent: Photography and Visibility in African History. Used with permission of the publisher.

For years, a number of colleagues and I have been exploring our shared interest in visual material produced about and within the African continent. We read a lot while pouring over our respective historical image collections. Reading became a crucial part of the process of looking, mediating one’s own contemplation in order to find the language to weave narratives about the images at our disposal. Such images had granted themselves to our scrutiny, allowing us to develop a profound intimacy with them. And, while existing literature occasionally provided crucial frameworks to make sense of practices by which Africa has been looked at, mapped, surveyed, measured, and displayed, at times the images appeared unruly when placed squarely within this vast scholarship. Some even seemed weary of analytical closure, insisting we become comfortable with holding conflicting viewpoints, hinting to us that photography in Africa “is doing much more labor than imagined and this labor is more ‘strange’ than anyone expected.”

Ambivalent: Photography and Visibility in African History is a result of our collective effort. It is an edited volume whose contributors inhabit that space of ambivalence through their long-standing engagements with visual material, particularly photographs, but extend these conversations to other historical material that pertain to visibility, on the continent. The editors write that photographs perhaps, “draws us to the edge of sight.” They make us aware of a world that lies beyond that which we see without fully disclosing it. For a number of scholars on the continent, including me, this has been an important meditation to hold on to in that dual process of looking and reading. Indeed, in this volume, essays by Isabelle de Rezende, Patricia Hayes, Vilho Shigwedha, Drew Thompson, and Napandulwe Shiweda, in different ways, go beyond the confines of what is visible by reflecting critically on photography’s attachment to language and the very repositories in which such collections often reside. The authors consider the dialectics of visual interpretation and the manner in which imagery can inhabit non-visual texts. They remind us that while photographs carry an immense capacity for display, they can eclipse important histories that often emerge through oral engagements as well. They also suggest that photographs can exceed the parameters of discursive frameworks that scholars and institutions impose on them, including narratives of (de)colonization.

In conversations with individuals at Omhedi who recall native commissioner Carl Hahn and Alfred Duggan-Cronin’s photographic expeditions to the region in the 1930s to record the “eroding traditional way of life,” Shiweda is surprised at the oft-positive responses to such images that at once fix and contain. In their re-circulation, they allow for re-fashioning and can transform as signifiers. If ambivalence implies a degree of immoderation, several authors in the volume are concerned with precisely that. Essays by Ingrid Masondo and Gary Minkley draw attention to bureaucratic photographs that lend themselves easily to critic Allen Sekula’s widely cited dictum on repressive photographs. Both authors, however, suggest that such photographs are unstable in their very composition and in their capacity to circulate for re-purposing, thus calling us to question the dichotomy of the repressive and honorific.

One of the most striking images in the book is a digitally retouched photograph by Nigerian photographer Mbadimma Chinemelum who inserts a young woman into what appears to be a sea of textile. In his essay, Okechukwu Nwafor writes about the practices of digital reworking and re-contextualization in Nigeria and questions the assumption that “photography is a spatial-temporal phenomenon that must follow a narrative consequence.” In my own work on East London based photographers Joseph Denfield and Daniel Morolong in South Africa, I found it productive to think about both photographers’ work oceanically in order to allow two sets of collections that are separated by time to speak to each. Looking at Denfield’s Victorian-era photographs through Morolong’s apartheid-era photographs at the beach allowed me to unstitch the former from settler historiography.

“We have to constantly worry about what photographs do and don’t do, not just what they are seemingly or ostensibly of,” writes Minkley in his concluding remarks. This is precisely George Agbo’s concern in his essay on the production and circulation of Boko Haram imagery on the internet. Such images precipitate violence and simultaneously, are put to work to undo that very violence. Nwafor, Ago and I foreground technology as the means by which such resurfacing and transfiguration takes place. Jung Ran Forte’s essay, which concludes the book, is thus, a welcome challenge to those of us whose accounts hinge on such technologies. She reminds us of other forms of transfiguration through spirit possession on the continent that predate photography, and the reliance on non-photographic imagery to mediate those processes. What camera operators do digitally in Nigerian cities in the 21st century to shape-shift, manipulate, excite, and celebrate, it appears that the water spirit Mami Wati has been indulging in for much longer.

Does location matter? I think a great deal. Most of the contributors are based on the African continent. This is where we live, work and play. And all the contributors—whether as research fellows or professors—have drawn on interlocutors across institutions on the continent. I can’t say with certainty that writing about African photography from “within” chips away at perspectival distance with its promises of illumination and clarity, but I suspect something of the sort. Perhaps a different kind of viewing takes place, one that is translucent but attentive to the mist at the corner of one’s eye. Daniel Morolong’s subjects in East London in the 1960s on the cover of this volume are framed tightly on the train and transport us to visibility’s edge. Yet, the train’s mobility has been suspended, however briefly, and deferred as well are the rhythms of black labor, so intimately tied to the train, with its predestined routes. In front of us, instead, is a captivating energy. Perhaps if we allowed ourselves to respond in kind, photography in Africa could take us to unexpected destinations in the most regenerative fashion.

Further Reading

Colonial Photography

“Somalis” (undated) from the website for the Humphrey Winterton Collection of East African Photographs: 1860 – 1960, an expansive collection of 7,610 photographs organized in 76 separate albums, scrapbooks or loose collections assembled by the …