Update, 14 May 2010: I'm happy to report that this blog post has been picked up and reposted by A Developing Story: Media for a Fairer World.
Many of us who work in Africa, but live in the West spend a lot of time thinking about the ways in which the Western media represents the continent. Too often reporting -- whether in print or in images -- reinforces old stereotypes of an Africa that hopelessly trails the West, economically and morally. James Ferguson puts it like this: "It is never just Africa, but always the crisis in Africa, the problems of Africa, the failure of Africa...."
We understand that there are indeed crises, problems, and failures in Africa and that they need to be reported. What we ask for is balance -- for the acknowledgment that most of Africa is not permanently in crisis, that most Africans are neither starving nor dying of Aids. Most are not dodging bullets. Most are not refugees. And even where there are crises, there are not only crises. As the historian Lawrence Levine once said:
One of the more elusive and difficult historical truths is that even in the midst of disaster life goes on and human beings find ways not merely of adapting to the forces that buffet them but often of rising above their circumstances and participating actively in the shaping of their lives. ...human beings [cling] to life, to each other, to those creative acts that [make] it possible to preserve... their culture, their dignity, their sanity.
Enter the photographer Marcus Bleasdale.
Click directly on the screen grab to see a larger version. But, even better, click here to see Bleasdale's photos and hear the Kimbangist Symphony Orchestra.
Bleasdale has done his share of reporting on Africa's tragedies, often brilliantly. He's well aware, however, that there is much more to Africa than this. Just a few days ago, he produced a story on the Kimbangist Symphony Orchestra in Kinshasa, the capital city of the Democratic Republic of the Congo [DRC]. Few countries anywhere in the world have suffered more than the Congo. As I tell my students, it's been a rough 500 years, beginning with the arrival of the Portuguese and continuing through the slave trade, Belgian colonialism, the despotic rule of Mobutu Sese Seko, and the chaos that has followed him. And, yet...
And, yet, in the very heart of what we are prepared to see as darkness is light. Here are 80 instrumentalists and 60 singers who are bringing the music Handel, Verdi, and Mozart to life in a way that very few of us in the West could ever have anticipated. This piece is as important, in its way, as anything Bleasdale has ever done.
The photos, not incidentally, are gorgeous.
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By the way, the orchestra is part of a large and astonishingly creative local musical culture. You can check out popular music from the Congo, here.
PS, 11 May 2010: David Campbell is one of the most thoughtful commentators on questions surrounding the representation of Africa in the western media. This post from his blog, "Famine Photographs and the Need for Careful Critique," is a fine introduction to his thinking.