World Press Photo
June 2005 | Edition One     

There are many styles of photography and Emmanuel Daou Bakary, a photographer from Mali, wants to know if there is such a thing as African photography.

He asked Mark Sealy, director of Autograph-ABP in the UK, whether, if it does exist, how does it differ from other styles of photography.

Mark Sealy says:

Is there such a thing as African Photography? Well yes, in the sense that there is European Photography, North American Photography, Dutch Photography, Women’s Photography and every other type of photography.

If we are talking about an African aesthetic then that, of course, depends on one’s relationship to one’s own culture and how an individual wishes to contextualize their work. But it can be variable and loaded with problems.

I would argue that in the wider use of photography by practitioners such as Rotimi Fani–Kayode, the very fact of his Africaness plays an essential part in the construction of his images. Every signifier within the frame talks to his African being. He is inseparable from his culture and global in his ideas. Likewise for the Brazilian photographer Eustaquio Neves.

You could also argue that Santu Mofokeng’s photography within the turmoil of South Africa has had a profound impact on what he chooses to focus on. His indigenous story is unique to his body of work and, therefore his relationship to his Africa is critical and established through location and lived experience.

Geography is a dangerous game. I prefer to look at the situation in a sociopolitical context. Borders, boundaries and economics unfortunately mean that the wider Africa is often much more accessible to those from outside.

When I think of African Photography, I see it as a means of discussing the indigenous situation and photographic history. The idea of an African photographic practice, accepted by major institutions, is a recent one. Prior to the pioneering work of agencies like Revue Noire, there was very little debate or historical reference to the brilliant work being produced in Africa.

We can only begin to understand this situation when we realize that Africa is not a homogeneous experience and that many of the images circulated in the world, addressing this complex continent, have been and are still mediated through European and North American means of distribution. In fact, Africa and curiosity are never far apart. I was reminded of this when Samuel Fosso accepted an invitation to sit in a shop window on display in a major London shopping high street as a reconstruction of one of his actual self portraits. What seemed like a fun idea at the time was in fact incredibly naïve. Cultural amnesia is very much alive and the need for visibility can be equally intoxicating.

The widely-held idea of Africa is still very much one of exotic discovery and the fight from within for visibility unfortunately means that it is still necessary to use the term Africa. It excites those in the West beyond reason. Hopefully it is a small sacrifice for a larger gain. So, as a tool for greater inclusion and recognition for African photographers, I will subscribe, for now anyway, to the term African Photography and continue to argue for its recognition post geography.

Click links to external sites:

Rotimi Fani–Kayode

The Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Santu Mofokeng


Copyright 2005, all rights reserved by the photographers