It is nearly unheard of to visit Paris and return sans at least one photograph of the Eiffel Tower; you would have a lot of explaining to do were you to travel to Egypt and fail to capture a pyramid; folks would doubt the validity of a claim to have seen the Grand Canyon, or the Great Wall of China, were that claim not accompanied by the requisite snapshots. The fact that thousands of people have the exact same photograph in their possession does little to deter the next thousand from wanting to replicate it for their very own album or mantelpiece. Pictures have become badges of sorts; maybe they’re proof that you truly were where you say you were, and that you really saw what you say you saw.
There are obvious drawbacks to viewing a world wonder or an architectural masterpiece entirely through a camera lens, but photography sometimes presents other, more troubling implications. Specifically, what do we turn to when there are no wonders or masterpieces to photograph?
I spent last semester in Kenya doing a study abroad program which focused on health and development. This was my first time visiting Africa.
Oh, Africa. We’ll never stop talking about Africa. Say it loud and there’s music playing, say it soft and it’s almost like praying, say it at all, and before you can pronounce “Darfur,” you’ve conjured up images of bloat-bellied, malnourished children covered in flies, machete-wielding tribal bushmen, half-naked women carrying water on their heads and babies on their backs, and probably an elephant and a zebra or two. I blame National Geographic, though maybe blame is the wrong word, and maybe someone else deserves the credit for the perpetuation of these icons of Africa.
Now, I don’t deny that such images are, to a great extent, visually representative of certain aspects of a certain Africa. At the beginning of the semester, I was asked by one of our Kenyan professors what the most ludicrous thing said to me was prior to my departure. The list of answers that ran through my head was at once embarrassing and insulting (from my uncle, “Make sure to triple wrap!” and from my father, “Don’t sleep with anyone”). But beyond the cautionary “Don’t get AIDS” reminders, a lot of my friends and family had made the only slightly less offensive assumption that my semester would be spent living among the very collage of African stereotypes listed above.
Needless to say, this was not the case. There were, however, many moments which did, if only visually, fit a National Geographic cover story.
Quite early on in our trip, a group of my peers took a walk through Kibera, the largest slum in East Africa. A friend of mine took out her camera, and was promptly lambasted by another classmate for daring to “exoticize the culture” by attempting to capture people’s real lives on film. The surface implication of her comment was that my snap-happy friend was letting an inappropriate level of voyeurism direct her experience. The deeper implication, however, was that by snapping a picture or two, this friend was perpetuating the mutually held perception of Otherness between us as white Westerners and the people whose country we were visiting.
I want to emphasize our “whiteness” with no intention of racializing the issue, but because the colour of our skin hugely impacted many of our experiences and interactions merely as a fact of difference. While I would like to believe that it was our status as foreigners, or the fact that we dressed differently, or spoke poor Kiswahili, none of these were the real reasons it felt impossible to fit in. However hard we tried, the colour of our skin gave us away. As obvious outsiders intending to be respectful visitors, and as students entering into another culture, we had all committed to ourselves, and professed to each other in earnest, how sensitive and careful we intended to be, wanting to avoid any measure of ethnocentrism or exploitative tourism. We were perhaps hyper-aware of our outsider role in Kenya, and always erred on the side of cultural caution. That is, as long as it didn’t stop us from taking pictures of everything and anything that was unfamiliar and interesting to our Western eyes.
At first, we were all very cautious about where and when we took out our cameras. Taking pictures of giraffes was acceptable, sure, but we were collectively mortified when one of our peers dared to ask if she could take pictures of the babies at an orphanage for children living with HIV. But, slowly, people became less careful about what and who they were photographing. First there was a strange period when we felt we needed to provide justification: “Apparently they don’t mind as long as you ask beforehand and show them the picture after,” or, “I’m not going to show anyone; these pictures are for myself.” Then we began to take our appropriate-picture-taking cues from each other, rather than from what the situation dictated. Then we all but forgot ourselves and began snapping as many pictures as our memory cards could hold. We were unabashed and too often the photos bordered on exploitative. But hey, we had come to Africa, and we wanted the pictures to prove it.
I include myself in this “we,” because I was admittedly just as much at fault as my peers for the way we conducted ourselves. As far as my awareness and dedication to maintaining cultural sensitivity carried me, I certainly snapped a few of my own National Geographic-esque photos. And while I have perhaps exaggerated the extent of our camera-wielding brazenness, it was an issue that brought up a number of questions.
Firstly, and perhaps most importantly, what are the implications of white, Western foreigners taking pictures of Africans living in Africa, just because they were, well, Africans living in Africa? And secondly, what are the real intentions behind our desire for photographs?
The answer to the first question demands a long look at colonial legacies, the effects of Western presence in parts of Africa today, and an examination of how these have affected many African’s own perceptions of the role of foreigners in Africa. It is also necessary to consider how being the subject of so many photographs affects people’s self-perception, especially in cultures where photography may not mean the same thing it does in the Western world.
To answer the second question we must turn our lens inward and take a look at ourselves. Is the desire to capture what we are seeing a product of innocent voyeurism? Is it merely that there is an inherent exoticism in observing a culture so vastly different from our own? Or is there a twisted sense of gratification in owning pictures of things that appear in global aid campaigns and human rights pamphlets? As if to somehow drive home the fact that we were there, that we were witness to, and, by extension, a part of, the images that represent an entire continent to the rest of the world.
I am not professing to be able to truly answer any of these questions, and it’s possible that I am being too hard on the numerous students who visit Africa who do so out of a real sense of connection to these cultures; I am maybe even placing too much value on the effects of their (our, my) actions. Who knows. Perhaps we did no harm. Perhaps the Facebook albums of smiling Kenyan children will send positive messages of hope and change. Perhaps the photographs of slum life, taken not by distant professionals, but by myself and my peers, will spark conversation and become a catalyst for a new world order. I hope so. But I will continue to grapple with the questions I have raised above as long as I see picture after picture of “Africans” be represented with no deeper association to specific situation and culture. We must recognize how our drive for documentation – or whatever it may be – serves to perpetuate stereotypes of more than an entire people, but an entire continent full of peoples.