Getty Images and photographer Stefano de Luigi have teamed up to create a brilliantly hillarious parody of the worst journalistic stereotypes and cliches about Africa, something that they call (with tongue firmly planted in cheek) "T.I.A -- This is Africa."
The project's description opens with ominous lines from Dante's Inferno, slyly alerting us that we're about to descend into the tragedy that the Western imagination assumes defines Africa:
"Through me you pass into the city of woe:
Through me you pass into eternal pain:
Through me among the people lost for aye.
Justice the founder of my fabric mov'd....
Before me things create were none, save things
Eternal, and eternal I endure.
All hope abandon ye who enter here."
And, sure enough, Getty and de Luigi deliver a spot-on parody of journalistic cliches about Africa:
She’s [ed: Yes, indeed, Africa is a Woman!] like a descent to netherworld, a series of circles that follow one after the other, alternating and overlapping. Every human tragedy here is well represented. Internal fights, as well as religious and tribal conflicts, frauds and prostitution, hunger and water shortage, betrayal and any kind of affection’s relativity. And yet, as the Phoenix, life always prevails, revives and goes on.
I’ve chosen Africa, not as a single story but through different tales, several years and many travels. I want to describe part of the mysterious, darken and multi-form puzzle that this continent is. It’s often impossible not to hate her, and yet she goes straight into your heart, red cells and soul like one of the incurable and fulminating viruses that are typical of these lands. Africa blues like malaria.
The obvious inspiration for this merry-making is Binyavanga Wainaina's by-now-legendary spoof, "How to Write About Africa," which appeared in Granta magazine, in 2005. Wainaina skewered Western writing about Africa by offering such helpful advice as...
In your text, treat Africa as if it were one country. It is hot and dusty with rolling grasslands and huge herds of animals and tall, thin people who are starving. Or it is hot and steamy with very short people who eat primates. Don’t get bogged down with precise descriptions. Africa is big: fifty-four countries, 900 million people who are too busy starving and dying and warring and emigrating to read your book. [ed: Oh, those malaria blues!]
Throughout the book, adopt a sotto voice, in conspiracy with the reader, and a sad I-expected-so-much tone. Establish early on that your liberalism is impeccable, and mention near the beginning how much you love Africa, how you fell in love with the place and can’t live without her. Africa is the only continent you can love -— take advantage of this. [ed: Getty and de Luigi were clearly paying attention here!] If you are a man, thrust yourself into her warm virgin forests. [ed: Here, too! Africa as Woman!]
Taboo subjects: ordinary domestic scenes, love between Africans (unless a death is involved), references to African writers or intellectuals, mention of school-going children who are not suffering from yaws or Ebola fever or female genital mutilation.
A big part of "This is Africa's" genius is extending its satire beyond the text to the photographs. The project's website displays beautifully composed photos of human misery and environmental degradation. Wainaina will surely appreciate the humor (and the homage). After all, it's his recipe:
Never have a picture of a well-adjusted African on the cover of your book, or in it, unless that African has won the Nobel Prize. An AK-47, prominent ribs, naked breasts: use these.
* * *
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.
PS, 18 November 2010: I've returned to the question of stereotypes and cliches in a post about South African photography. You can read it here.