Track Changes: What is Seen in African Photography

We at The CIHA Blog from time to time highlight problematic representations about Africa and Africans. We were initially heartened to see this story in New York Times, until we read it. The article, by Whitney Richardson asks, “Who is telling Africa’s stories?” Richardson explains that African photojournalists have a hard time being featured in that newspaper, neither does their work appear in most news sources throughout North America and Europe. Both photographers and photo editors are interviewed for the article, and many of them assert that the professionalization of African photographers is not of the same “standard” as photographers from other regions.

We at The CIHA Blog, however, agree with M Neelika Jayawardane in “The problem with photojournalism and Africa: Why African photographers don’t get to tell African photo stories in Western media” (in AlJazeera.com), who questions both the standards and the ethics of photojournalism on Africa that the New York Times piece describes. In particular, while editors ideally want to hire African photographers because of lower costs and increased diversity, they also expect the photographers’ work to conform to what The Times and similar papers see as “African.” These expectations still, all too frequently, require de-contextualized shots of migrants in the Mediterranean, women and children in conflict, hunters and warriors in “traditional clothing” that reinforce stereotypes and negative images.

Jayawardane points out, moreover, that talk of “professionalization” comes with the intention of teaching African photojournalists “the ethical standards of the industry.” The supreme irony here, of course, is that such “ethical standards” reinforce assumptions and stereotypes whose perpetuation is itself unethical.

We ask The Times and other non-African news organizations to look again at their own standards, ethics, and expectations. In the process, as Jayawardane asks, they should ask how African photojournalists can help them capture the intertwined legacies of ongoing European and U.S. interventions and destabilizations into African welfare and well-being, as well as the ways in which Africans themselves are narrating their own stories.

For photography by professional African photographers, follow the Instagram account @everdayafrica.

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