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Archive for March, 2010

This post is part two of an essay on Paul Seawright’s Invisible Cities project. You can read part one here.

Invisible Cities clearly must be considered as part of a tradition of documentary photography and as such it raises a number of interesting questions that I will now turn to. The first of these is the problematic issue of a photographer from outside a particular culture or environment trying to make meaningful work about, or within, it. Martha Rosler has been deeply critical of the documentary tradition, particularly when it involves a privileged outsider shedding light on marginalised or disadvantaged communities. She would see this practice as merely reinforcing existing power relations and doing little to address any of the root causes of the situation. Similar difficulties are identified by Stuart Hall: he describes how stereotyping is used to maintain power in a society or culture by marginalising certain groups, and how photographic representations, whether intentionally or not, play an important role in this (Edward Said has also written persuasively of how Western representations of the Orient  have played a pivotal role in maintaining the power relationships between East and West). As a white European working in Africa, with its historical and contemporary difficulties with colonialism and post-colonialism, Seawright runs the risk of falling into this trap, a situation he is by no means unaware of:

Until I accepted the Imperial War Museum commission in 2002 to respond to the war in Afghanistan, I’d never considered making work that extended beyond my sphere of direct experience. I wrestled with the problems that making work in another country presented, not least that I have been critical of non-indigenous practice in Northern Ireland

(Paul Seawright quotation from interview with Russel Roberts)

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This post is something of a departure from the usual business on this blog. It is an essay I wrote on Paul Seawright, focusing in particular on his Invisible Cities work. This work comprises of photographs taken over a three-year period in sub-Saharan African cities. In many senses the work goes against the grain of common photographic representations of Africa. I describe the work and deal with a number of issues that arise from it. The essay is quite long, so I’ll split it into two parts. This is part one.

Photographic representations of Africa tend to be dominated by certain well- worn themes. We have the photo-journalistic images of war, disease and famine – portraying a continent riven by seemingly intractable problems and a living hell for its inhabitants. We have the ma jestic grandeur of the landscape and the animals – suggesting a timeless, Edenic paradise. We have the National Geographic style portrayals of indigenous tribespeople, often accompanied by well-meaning articles describing how their “way of life” is under threat. A pertinent illustration of this can be had by typing “Africa”‘ as a keyword into Google’s image search facility. The majority of results returned are maps of Africa, but if we exclude these, almost all of the rest fit into the categories mentioned above. Those that don’t form minor categories of themselves: smiling schoolchildren; white aid workers or volunteers interacting with Africans; and most interestingly, images illustrating the growing influence of China in sub-Saharan Africa. None of these do much to expand the outsiders knowledge of, or insight into, the continent.

Paul Seawright’s Invisible Cities comprises of photographs taken in the sub-Saharan cities of Lagos, Addis Adaba, Lusaka and Johannesburg, and goes very much against the grain of these common representations. Seawright is, of course, not the only photographer working in this manner. A close parallel would be the work of Guy Tillim who has carried out similar projects on urban Africa. In fact, there is a growing body of contemporary African photography that challenges the common representations – for example, the Snap Judgements exhibition held in New York in 2006. I do suggest however, that such work is the exception rather than the rule. (more…)

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