Want an Accurate Portrait of Africa? Hire Local Photographers

In a Black Star Rising post last month, Paul Melcher beseeched photojournalists to not settle for trite images of “dying Africans” and to instead seek to cover the continent in a richer, more well-rounded way. I couldn’t agree more.

And as a photographer based in South Africa, I have a suggestion for those media organizations that wish to portray Africa more accurately: hire local talent.

Parachuting In

The perfect opportunity is approaching. Next June, the world’s media will turn its attention to South Africa, host of the 2010 FIFA World Cup.

Beyond the action on the field of play, many publications will use the tournament as an occasion to examine other facets of African life. International photographers will arrive in force, and image syndication outlets and picture editors will compete to showcase the most compelling stories.

While I welcome the attention, I’ve found that foreign journalists and photographers often produce a slanted view of my homeland. Africa isn’t all about starving children, AIDS, dilapidated housing, and conflict — but all too often that is the story that the rest of the world sees.

Too often, big media organizations rely on parachuting the same big-name photographers into one part of the world and then another. This limits their capacity to offer a balanced, nuanced portrait of Africa.

Like a Local

Hiring locals to participate in the coverage — either independently or in tandem with foreign photographers and journalists — would help. No one, after all, knows a country like a local.

We know, for example, that the excitement surrounding the 2010 World Cup has been amazing. We’re seeing vast swathes of the country transformed in preparation for the event. We’re watching as colossal stadiums are constructed, jobs created, and communities benefit from new investment.

In other words, we know there are countless positive stories to be told. Foreign news organizations just have to look in the right places to find them — and that’s where local photographers can help.

One organization working to report on the World Cup from an African perspective is Twenty Ten. As its Web site states:

The Twenty Ten project is inspired by the 2010 FIFA World Cup and the media opportunities this has to offer. It will be the first time that the FIFA World Cup competition takes place on the African continent. Football plays a vibrant part in life in communities across the continent. Taking a cue from this, Twenty Ten aims to give African journalists a voice, both in Africa and worldwide, by offering them an opportunity to express their own views of African reality, as opposed to having to depend on foreign news organizations.

Another organization, African Pictures, looks to supply the media with content produced by Africans.

Telling Our Own Story

I understand the instinct of foreign media organizations to go with the tried and true in photographing major events like the World Cup. They think it’s safer because it’s the way they’ve always done things. They know “what to expect.”

But foreign photographers delivering what foreign editors expect is exactly why perceptions of Africa are so skewed, and why coverage of Africa is predictable. It’s time to let the locals participate in telling their own story to the world.

5 Responses to “Want an Accurate Portrait of Africa? Hire Local Photographers”

  1. great post daniel.

  2. Thanks for this post. Your argument seems like 'common sense' - perhaps explaining why the media moguls have not figured it out?

  3. @Jim - I guess because most of the time what you call "moguls" are not that "moguls" in the end. An interesting article was published on "Internazionale" by Christian Caujolle, about the Rencontres of Bamako, Mali. His fierce criticism was addressed against the installation by a famous photographer of the Magnum staff. Many times we are struck by badges and names, let's look at the pictures, not the allure around the name, the brand, the whatever it is the is so much "old world".

  4. @Jim,

    It is indeed common sense, but we all know that's in short supply over the world, I blame the recession.

    I agree with Daniel, the allure of a brand is often stronger than a local.

  5. Nice post Daniel, local photographers should be given the chance to represent their own land, shouldn't they?

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