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PHOTOGRAPHY IN AFRICA: ETHNOGRAPHIC

PERSPECTIVES
RICHARD VOKES
Q What drew you to put together this book? Can you tell us something about
your own background and experience, and also your personal interest in
photography do you take photographs as well as look at them, for
instance?
The collection grew out of a workshop entitled The Image Relation that was held
at Wolfson College, Oxford, in November 2009. The papers presented at that
meeting developed a particularly rich set of ethnographic case studies of African
photographies, as well as providing a re-appraisal of the history of anthropologists
own use of the camera on the continent. My own interest in the subject traces,
ultimately, to some work I did on the HIV/AIDS epidemic in South-western
Uganda, in the early 2000s. As part of that study, I discovered that AIDS victims
themselves, in the final months of their lives, often produced photographic albums
recording their lives, as a kind of memorial to be (the practice is described in a
paper I published in Visual Anthropology, in 2008). I have since attempted to
locate this practice within the wider photographic traditions of this region. I do also
take pictures of my own as an integral part of fieldwork practice which is
something that I also reflect on in my ethnographic chapter in this collection.
Q You state that one of the purposes of the book is to trace the contours of a
distinctively African photography. What do you think it is that makes
African photography African?
This is a very complicated question. As I trace in the introduction, academic
interest in African photography (or photographies) stems from a number of
different disciplinary traditions, and each emphasizes slightly different things. For
example, historians have always been interested in the totality of images that were
taken in Africa, which would include pictures taken by European administrators,
missionaries, and so on. On the other hand, art historians (as art dealers, art
markets, etc.) have tended to focus more at pictures taken by Africans themselves
either in Africa, or in the Diaspora in an attempt to identify their distinctively
African characteristics (which may be defined in terms of subject, form, aesthetics,
or something else again). Meanwhile, visual anthropologists have tended to look at
both types of pictures, but to particularly emphasize the shifting contexts within
which all of these photographs have been (and continue to be) produced,
circulated, stored, and viewed. Moreover, in much contemporary writing, elements
of all of these approaches may typically be combined. Therefore, it is today useful
to understand African photographies in the broadest possible sense, as referring
to all photographic traditions that engage with the continent, or its people, and/or
all that involve photographers of African descent.
Q What are the principal themes or questions that this book addresses?
The eleven ethnographic case studies presented in the collection examine a wide
range of themes, and address a broad range of questions. Some of these are
relevant to African photographies in general, others to particular photographic
traditions, as emerged in specific times and places. However, across all of this
material, certain key concerns certainly do emerge, in particular around the
changing relationship between photography and ethnographic research methods in
Africa, around how studio photographs circulate, and become key artefacts of
material culture, and around the different ways in which colonial and post-colonial
states in Africa have used photography as a means for establishing, and extending,
their authority.
Q Is there a divergence between representations in photography in the
different regions in Africa, and is this attributable largely to cultural and
religious differences?
Regional differences can be distinguished, reflecting the different histories of
photographic practices and technologies across different parts of the continent,
and between, for example, coastal and inland areas. These differences do
sometimes follow the contours of cultural or religious boundaries, yet so too they
may reflect alternative national histories, different intellectual traditions, or
something else again. In addition, we must also recognize the key role that
photography has played in the forging of various sorts of cosmopolitan imaginary,
including ones associated with various types of pan-Africanism. A key point,
though and one that emerges in many of the chapters collected here is that
when attempting to delineate alternative photographic traditions in Africa, it is
often necessary to move beyond a focus on only representation per se, to also look
at differences in the way in which photographs are, for example, perceived,
exchanged and displayed.
Q How do you find African photography integrates into photography as a
whole? Are there mutual influences at play between photography in Africa
and that practised elsewhere?
The chapters collected here, like much of the recent scholarship on this subject,
reveal just how complicated the connections between African photographies and
other photographic traditions have always been. This partly reflects the way in
which photographic technologies are practices that were originally introduced to
the continent by all manner of (European and Africa) merchants, administrators,
missionaries, travellers, and others. It also reflects the fact that photographs
produced in Africa have always been shaped by wider visual economies, and
located within global circuits of exchange. For example, we now know that the
early photographic traditions of West Africa cannot be understood independently of
a wider Atlantic visualscape, the key tropes of which appear to have been already
well established by the sixteenth century (through the circulation of earlier visual
forms, such as drawings, oil paintings, and so on) and through which photographs
taken in West Africa were soon conveyed to Europe, North America, and elsewhere
(see especially Haneys chapter here). Thus, many of the processes that we refer
to as globalization may not be quite as new as is sometimes imagined.
Q How have the new media and the rapid and relatively easy circulation of
digital images impacted upon the perception of photography in Africa?
It is clear that the advent of digital technologies is beginning to have a profound
impact upon the perception of photography, across the continent. For instance, to
take my own field site of South-western Uganda, it is interesting to note that
although digital technologies have only become available in significant numbers
since 2009, they have already begun to generate keen discussion, across a wide
variety of social contexts. Thus, even in settings in which people are not yet
entirely familiar with digital imaging technologies, people are already beginning to
debate, for example, what impact pre-natal scan images will have upon concepts
of personhood (in a context in which practically any reference to an unborn child is
regarded as strictly taboo), what effect digital portraits will have upon exchange
relations (in a context in which photographic image-objects play a significant part
in many types of exchange relationships), and what impact the advent of Facebook
and other social networking sites will have upon relations between people back
home and those now living in the Diaspora.
Q Were there any real surprises that the book revealed regarding the
ethnography and anthropology of African photography?
The collection is full of surprises. Firstly, through examining the photographic
archives of four major twentieth-century Africanist anthropologists (Edward Evans-
Pritchard, Max Gluckman, Paul Baxter and Wendy James) it reveals the many, and
complex, ways in which photography remained central to ethnographic fieldwork
practice even after the disciplines faith in Victorian-era scientific photography
had largely waned. Secondly, through a series of historical and ethnographic case
studies taken from across Anglophone, Francophone and Lusophone Africa it
reveals the especially wide variety of ways in which photography has been (and
continues to be) employed as a tool for statecraft, and as a mode of resistance to
this. Finally, additional ethnographic studies reveal how in other ways besides,
photographic practices (or in some cases, their avoidance) have become a central
feature of social life across a vast array of contemporary Africa contents.
Q And, finally, do you have a favourite photograph of Africa, and if so why?
What does it say about Africa to you?
My own chapter in the collection begins with discussion of one particular
photograph that I was given during a somewhat unusual encounter which occurred
early on in my original doctoral fieldwork (in late 2000). I have since come to
regard this photograph and the manner in which I was given it as indicative of
broader photographic practice in rural South-western Uganda, as this has
developed over a century or more. Im afraid that youll have to read the chapter
in order to find out how and why I have come to regard this particular photograph
as quite so interesting.
Photography in Africa: Ethnographic Perspectives
40.00 / $70.00, June 2012, 978 1 84701 045 2, 110 b/w illus.; 288pp, hardcover
James Currey