N.B.: I've updated this post with a new final paragraph.
Hang out with African artists or activists long enough and sooner or later the conversation will turn to the ways in which Africa is represented in the western media. The last time that I had this conversation was with the South African photographer Paul Weinberg. We decided, in a Vietnamese-owned sushi joint in Cape Town, that the top three Africas in the western media’s style book are Romantic Africa, Exotic Africa, and Broken Africa, with the last one being the most popular.
I was thinking about this when I was watching a slideshow of George Steinmetz’s aerial photos of Africa at Look 3, the Festival of the Photograph. You could squeeze many, even most, of Steinmetz’s photos into a box labeled Romantic or Exotic Africa. Or you might want to invent a new box called Wondrous Africa. You could do it, but you’d be doing Steinmetz’s photos (and yourself) a real disservice. No ten categories could contain the all nuances in these surprisingly complex images.
I look at a lot of photos. It’s a professional obligation; one of my courses is in the history of photography. And I tend to have one of three reactions to photos that I really like: I wish I’d made it; I wish it were hanging on my wall; or it taught me something that I didn’t know. All of these apply to Steinmetz’s photos. (Well, mostly. I’m not sure that I want to have made the ones that he shot from a motorized paraglider.)
The photos are beautiful--light, shape, color, all gorgeous. But, for me, that’s just a starting point. A large part of my life revolves around Africa. I’ve been traveling there once or twice a year for 20 years and lived there for two. Nevertheless, in that Look 3 slideshow, Steinmetz explained things about the continent that I had never fully understood.
Two quick examples... An aerial photo of shanties ringing apartment blocks in a poor township outside of Cape Town showed me just how densely packed with human habitations every square inch is. I visit friends in that township every time I’m in Cape Town, and I’ve been in those shanties. But I didn’t appreciate the shanties’ tremendous extent and density until I saw that photo.
Steinmetz’s aerial photos of Rwanda taught me something else about density. The soil is rich and the rain is plentiful, but the relatively large population strains those resources. In the photos, it seemed as though every possible square inch of the country is given over to farming or herding. Population density and competition for land are two of the things that I always talk with my students about when they’re learning about the Rwandan genocide. But, once again, visual information deepened my understanding. I hadn’t appreciated the creativity of the Rwandan people, nor had I realized how intense the competition must be. And, yes, I’ll show Steinmetz’s photos to my students.
I’m about to moan and groan about James Nachtwey’s Look 3 exhibit, "Struggle to Live -- The Fight Against TB." This strikes even me as an insanely heartless thing to do. Extensively [sometimes, Extremely] Drug Resistant Tuberculosis (XDR-TB) is a grave health crisis, especially in the developing world and in poor and marginalized communities in wealthier nations. As for Nachtwey, his accomplishments speak for themselves. No one can doubt his commitment to bettering the lives of the poor and the oppressed or question his consummate skills as a photographer.
And, yet, I left the exhibit troubled by the photographic decisions that he made in telling this story.
Conjure in your mind a Nachtwey photograph. It will be in black and white, even though he often shoots in color. The subject will be a suffering person, usually black or brown, with sunken cheeks and hollow eyes, naked or clothed in rags, clearly on death’s door, and just as clearly unable to help himself or herself. It's true that not every photo in the exhibit fits this description. A few show whites with XDR-TB. A few show black and brown people as care givers. But the great majority do.
So, what’s the problem?
The story is incomplete in a couple of different ways.
First, the overwhelming majority of these photos depict people with XDR-TB as abject and helpless victims. They barely have the strength to lift their heads, let alone confront the disease that’s killing them. Many people with XDR-TB fit this description. But many others do not. Many are struggling valiantly against the disease, fighting to secure access to treatment, not waiting for outsiders to save them. They are the heroes of their own lives, to use Linda Gordon’s marvelous phrase.
It’s not clear to me why Nachtwey has only chosen subjects who are powerless, defenseless, and dependent. Yes, the photos can evoke pity, and pity can lead to the writing of checks, which is certainly one of the responses that Nachtwey and his sponsors hoped to achieve. But this story deserves more nuance and greater complexity.
Aid alone cannot solve this crisis. Nations, communities, and individuals need to be empowered to fight for themselves. Outsiders will only understand that this is possible if they see it beginning to happen. Checkbooks would surely open for people with XDR-TB and care givers who are battling bravely--as they are right now--in the face of overwhelming odds.
In addition, photos that show people with XDR-TB, most of whom are black or brown, solely as helpless victims reinforce stereotypes about the inability of Africans and Asians to solve their own problems. Sadly, many foreign governments, corporations and NGOs have a vested interest in perpetuating this stereotype. As many Africans point out, it’s easier for the West to offer aid than to open its borders to African trade.
Second, I was also troubled by what Nachtwey’s photos don’t show. XDR-TB is a preventable disease of poverty, as is well known and as the pamphlet that accompanied the exhibit makes clear. That is, the root cause of XDR-TB is poverty. In his photos, however, Nachtwey takes poverty for granted, as something that simply exists and is as natural as the sun rising in the east. But poverty is by no means natural.
Poverty is man-made. People make decisions that shape the way in which power and wealth are distributed within societies and across the globe. For instance, neo-liberal economic policies foisted on developing countries by the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank have exacerbated poverty in many African countries while enriching western corporations and financial institutions. Farm subsidies often allow American producers, including giant agricultural corporations, to undercut African farmers, father impoverishing them.
The point is this: XDR-TB isn’t just happening "over there." It’s happening here. We--you and I--are implicated.
Addressing root causes of XDR-TB requires an understanding of the ways in which particular histories, institutions, and ideologies have created poverty in particular places. Yet Nachtwey hasn’t applied his undoubted gifts to finding a visual language that would link illness and death at a local level to decisions made by government officials and corporate executives in Washington, New York, London, and Paris.
What I’m asking for isn’t easy, but people have done it.
Consider Ed Kashi’s work on the terrible effects of oil production on the people of the Niger delta, in Nigeria. His images to create a panoramic view of what oil has done to the delta. Yes, he shows viewers the poisoning of its environment and the impoverishment of its people. But he doesn’t stop there. He shows the efforts of the delta people to make things right. Crucially, he also demonstrates ways in which Americans and other westerners are involved.
We see that western corporations, such as Shell, and their partners within the Nigerian political elite are principally responsible for having created this situation. But ordinary Americans’ insatiable demand for cheap gas is part of the problem, too. Kashi’s words, and those of the Nigerians and American academics and human rights activists with whom he worked, complete the picture.
It’s disappointing that Nachtwey, who had significant resources at his command, didn’t seize the chance to do equally compelling and comprehensive work.
Update: I urge everyone to read duckrabbit's comments on this post and to follow the links he provides. They'll take you to some thoughtful and well-informed remarks on the way Africa (and, by extension, the developing world as a whole) is represented in the western media. On one of the pages, I was especially intrigued to find a link to this gallery of portraits of refugees that the photographer Rankin made in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Sending someone best known as a high-end fashion and celebrity photographer to the DRC might seem silly, but, as duckrabbit says, what Rankin produced is "in many ways a hell of a lot more real then most of the cliched misery guts photography that comes out of Africa. There’s no doubt that Rankin’s photos have a great humanizing effect, these people, despite their circumstances, are clearly a part of the world, not apart from it."