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.
The collapse of sustainable rural economies across much of Africa has driven a massive population shift to urban centres and authorities have struggled to cope with the challenges of providing services, housing and infrastructure. Seawright’s work explores the topography of these urban spaces and examines the reality of people’s lives within them.
I will discuss this work in the context of a number of questions relating to documentary photography practice. The first of these is the problematic issue of a photographer from “outside” a particular environment, trying to make meaningful work about, or within, it. The legacies of colonialism make this problem particularly acute for a white European working in Africa. I then address the issue of the role of aesthetics. Photographic representations of Africa have often been at the centre of heated debates regarding aestheticisation of suffering and I consider to what extent Seawright’s work does, or does not, negotiate this successfully. Finally I discuss viewing context. This work is clearly designed to be viewed on the wall of a gallery and hence exists as part of the art, rather than the photojournalistic, world. I reflect on the implications of this with respect to its likely impact, and ask whether such an approach constitutes a new form of documentary, or is simply an assimilation of documentary into the Modernist tradition of art photography.
Seawright is a Belfast-born photographer who has previously tackled subjects such as the aftermath of military operations in Afghanistan and the effects of the Troubles in Northern Ireland. His approach is a slow, contemplative one: producing large-scale detailed photographs that encourage extended appraisal. His focus is often on the hidden details of a landscape, on the overlooked but telling features that speak of the long-term effects of events, rather than the instant gratification of “in-the-moment'” photojournalism. Often, his photography takes place after the event has happened, an approach referred to as late photography by David Campany. Invisible Cities applies Seawright’s signature style to an examination of life in urban Africa.
The fact that living standards right across Africa have been dropping over the last few decades, and poverty levels rising, has been well documented (for example Martin Meredith’s book “The State Of Africa“). Many causes are put forward for this: poor governance, unfair trade conditions, neo-colonialist economic exploitation, destabilizing effects of war and disease, over-reliance on aid. Undoubtedly the real cause is a complex combination of these factors, but what is inarguable is that a massive demographic shift has occurred, whereby large segments of the population have moved from the countryside to the cities to try and escape from this poverty, and to forge a better life. John Reader offers some sobering statistics in his introduction to the book version of Seawright’s project:
In 1970 only three cities – Tokyo, New York and Shanghai – had populations of more than 10 million; in 2000 there were nineteen, all but five in the developing world. And the trend is set to continue: by 2020 at least twenty-three will have passed the 10 million mark, nineteen of them in developing countries. By then, Lagos and several others are likely to have populations of more than 20 million.
This rapid urban expansion does have historical precedent: the major cities of Europe and North America experienced similar growth, albeit on a smaller scale, during, and after, the Industrial Revolution. However, this was driven by a process of economic growth, with the necessity of feeding, housing, and providing services to the expanding urban population fueling the industries that were employing that same population. Ironically, another major driver of the economic growth of many post-Industrial Revolution cities was the fruits of colonialist adventures, with resources being pillaged from many of the same countries currently struggling to cope with their own urban growth, a century or so later. The contrast with contemporary urban expansion in Africa could not be more stark. In this case the urban expansion takes place against a backdrop of relative economic stagnation, or even decline: with no jobs, no housing, no services and no infrastructure available to the city-dwellers.
Seawright’s photographs document these new urban spaces. The focus is not on the large monuments, landmarks, or signature buildings that would often be used to characterise a city. Nor does Seawright give us the bustling markets, chaotic street-life, or overcrowded transport systems that are so much a part and parcel of the visitors experience of urban African. Instead he concentrates on the edges of these cities: the spaces through which the residents navigate their day to day lives. We get deserted lane-ways, apartment buildings, motor-way overpasses, roadside billboards and parking lots. His camera moves into interior spaces to show us hospital waiting rooms, non-descript offices, bars and classrooms. When people appear in the photographs they are either alone or in small groups. They seem to be in states of suspended animation: waiting, staring, sometimes sleeping.
Untitled (Man Sleeping) contains several of the motifs that re-occur throughout the work. We see the interior of a printers office. The overall atmosphere is one of decay and neglect: the paint is peeling from the discoloured walls, the floor is unswept, and seemingly unattended papers are piling up at the back of the room. A clock on the wall tells us that it is half two in the afternoon yet a man lies sleeping on a bench: we don’t know whether this is because of the overwhelming midday heat or simply because there is no work to be done – either the way impression is one of lethargy, of life temporarily deferred, of waiting for something to happen.
Underpass is a typical example of an outdoor scene. It depicts an elevated road junction on the outskirts of Lagos. On the land underneath the road we see evidence of a makeshift urban life: a woman is washing and drying clothes on a wooden fence-like structure, rubbish covers the ground, a fire burns, farm animals are feeding, and men sit and converse. What would normally be a deserted space has become a living space. The motor-way bridge passing over the heads of the people contrasts with their own lack of movement. Another motif that occurs frequently is the apartment block: these once pristine Modernist edifices now appear battered, blackened and neglected, as if designed for a future that never arrived. Elsewhere we see unidentified crumbling interiors, large billboards with warnings about malaria, and more images of idle workplaces.
Many of these pictures, and indeed much of Seawright’s previous work, can be thought of as dealing with the idea of territory. It is worth quoting Jean-Francis Chevrier on this (quotation from this book):
This notion, which pertains to geography and political science, is not strictly artistic; it is related to the idea of landscape, but, unlike landscape, it first refers to a material reality, an activity area and an object of political and socioeconomic conflict or competition. Nevertheless, the cultural and imaginary dimensions of this phenomenon cannot be ignored.
This definition of territory seems particularly apt as it makes explicit the political and socioeconomic aspects of Seawright’s urban landscapes. The areas he has chosen to photograph in are often strongly contested territories. The massive influx into the cities is not something that was planned for, or approved of, by the authorities, with the result that many of the settlements on the outskirts are deemed to be illegal, and hence the authorities are under no compunction to provide even the most basic facilities such as running water. The result of this official neglect is often networks of self-sufficient and self-organising communities who manage, against the odds, to feed and provide for themselves and each other. When these communities begin to seek and exert power, they threaten the hegemony of the ruling authorities, with the result that increasingly we see political resistance and insurrection not coming from rebel movements in the countryside, but rather from within the political cauldron of the city itself. A case in point here would be the recent history of Zimbabwe. Increasing political opposition emanating from within the capital, Harare, led Mugabe’s government to initiate “Operation Murambatsvina” (or Operation Drive Out Trash) in 2005. This purported to be an initiative to crack down on illegal housing for health and sanitation reasons, but was really a massive effort to relocate people out of the city, and in doing so, disrupt the power bases of Morgan Tsvangirai’s MDC movement.
Chevrier’s identification of the “imaginary” dimension of the notion of territory is also apt. Invisible Cities takes its title from a book of the same name by Italo Calvino, in which the explorer Marco Polo recounts tales to Kubla Khan of imaginary cities that he has encountered on his travels.
To be continued …