How Local Photographers Can Create Better Representations of Africa

How Local Photographers Can Create Better Representations of Africa

How Local Photographers Can Create Better Representations of Africa

by Linathi Makanda

Local photographers and cinematographers are breaking historical stereotypes by creating positive representation from within.

Broad western representations of Africa in mass media have affected its culture, people, and how the world views and engages with them. Henry Stanley, for example, referred to Africa as "The Dark Continent" in his 1878 travelog and remarked that it was “poorly developed.” This term has prevailed ever since, shaping a narrative of anarchy, poverty, and countless negative stories suggesting Africa's backwardness.
Deborah Lader shows in a 2007 article that 47% of the British media's knowledge of Africa is attributed to the UK, demonstrating the extent to which the United Kingdom shapes the perception of Africa in mass media.
▲ In 2018, National Geographic came to terms with its own history of racist coverage across Africa and other non-western regions, offering an apology and promise to do better. Since then, the magazine and brand has begun turning things around- shifting how photographers and writers address race and indigenous cultures.
We often see Africa through the Western lens of hopelessness – as a place with a single set of culture, experiences, and beliefs. And consequently, many people cannot distinguish African regions– the perception is that there is one whole “African” experience.
In a recent Twitter thread, food enthusiast and storyteller Jay “Mukase Chic” details an experience where she was asked to acquaint a fellow YouTuber from Dubai with local Ghanaian cuisine. He chose a place that the YouTuber, upon arrival, complained was “too posh,” and did not line up with his expectation of eating at a chop bar where food was served on the floor.
According to Jay, although they held the opportunity to film an authentic experience of the landscape, they were not interested in doing so since it did not align with the established narrative of Ghana.
So how can we break this cycle of inauthentic representation and what are some potential solutions?
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Intentionality and Storytelling

Travel photography is a powerful tool of storytelling that creates awareness about the places we have been and those that others are still going to experience. When attempting to reimagine storytelling within this type of photography, intentionality is critical.
As a photographer, creative director, brand, or publication developing a story, it's important to look beyond just wanting to tell the story itself. One must think about the How, the Why and the Who.
These questions influence ways in which visual artists can tell stories to best represent the place and its people. A large part of this is rooted in connection. How are you as the photographer engaging the place and topic, meeting the subjects and stories where they are, and ensuring that you are closest to the experiences in order to understand them enough to document?
If, for example, you were to capture the cuisines of different tribes in Kenya, you would first need to have specific questions that would help you engage with and learn from the people in those regions. 
▲ Photography for by Saaleha Idrees Bamjee for Naqiyah Mayat X Instant Pot South Africa
These include: what are some main ingredients and staples commonly used? What type of preparation and dishes are available? What do a tribe’s eating styles look like? Paying attention to questions like these can help the story go deeper.
What's most important for photographers is understanding the story they are trying to tell.
Luupe photographer Taesirat Yusuf speaks to the importance of close representation. In just a few years, the Lagos, Nigeria-based photographer has thoroughly and empathetically documented and collaborated with her community.
The hairstyle shown is known as “Ile gogoro” a style peculiar to the Yoruba tribe which depicts a highrise building/skyscraper and this is done with a rubber thread(irun kiko). The hairstyle was born in the 80’s as a result of the designs of houses the Yoruba people saw in their environment. © Taesirat Yusuf. Collaborate with her HERE
"My work is deeply inspired by teling the Nigerian stories and spotlighting the unknown parts of my country, our culture, and most importantly, the people," writes Yusuf.
From the series "Boys Wear Pink Too" © Taesirat Yusuf
From portraits showing the process behind Nigerian hairstyles to staged photos recreating the 90s Nigerian party scene and its bold Yoruba fashion, Yusuf’s images celebrate joy, culture and a wide range of gender expression.
▲ © Taesirat Yusuf

"I always try to project my creativity through my work while making sure whoever my muse is understands what exactly we are trying to create and what it stands for."

Tanzanian born photographer, cinematorgrapher, and filmmaker Kerage Kamuli's documentary work exemplifies the “How” and “Why” of intentional storytelling. Kamuli sees this as a way to "deconstruct society and to rewrite cultural scripts."
Her project VIATU PSA (made in collaboration with writer James Gayo, director Deepesh Shapriya, 1st AC Humbphrey, and costume designer Agatha Marley) is a perfect example of how one can communicate with intention while also challenging stereotypes. As a story that takes place both in an urban and a rural setting, VIATU shows the day-to-day events of a housewife.
Here, we see how themes of gender roles, patriarchy, and domestic abuse intersect, despite the differences between urban and rural life. Kamuli continues to explore these themes by visually reversing roles. All of this is done with intimate cinematography that is careful to avoid creating new traumas.

Consent as a travel photographer is important, as these experiences, although at your disposal, are not yours. Clearly communicated consent forms are vital to this process, especially when sharing works on public platforms. Beyond the legal impications, it shows you care about the “who” part of your story and how best to create a safe environment for those whose stories you want to tell.

Reimagining The Landscape

No culture has a singular experience. We exist in a large ecosystem of ideas, thoughts, opinions, and day-to-day occurrences that permeate our lives. Visual travel stories need to address not just the ‌existing narrative, but the potential for new and unexpected experiences to emerge.
From here, the visual artist can move on to explore such moments that are not isolated from either struggle or happiness – they ‌are interconnected to form a larger life story.
▲ Photos from Tracy Keza's "Jab" series. Brands: here's how you can collaborate with her!
Tracy Keza's project Jab, which documents a local girls boxing club in Rwanda, perfectly illustrates this. Because of her own interest in boxing, Tracy explores other girls similar to her who may be interested in the sport.
Her photographs are thoughtfully constructed to raise awareness about socio-economic issues such as scarce funding. It brings the voices and stories of a group of girls to the forefront.

The Importance of Collaboration

One of the biggest threads going through all of this work is the focus on collaboration. Through collaboration with or as local brands and photographers, new visions are combined with lived experiences so that messages are clearly communiated and everyone involved – from the creative director to photographer to the person being photographed, has a stake in the final story.
▲ In 2021, Saaleha Idrees Bamjee, a photographer and multidisciplinary creative who ‌works with food-focused businesses and entrepreneurs, worked on the #HearHerVoice campaign for Standard Bank South Africa that sought to amplify the voices of ordinary women in South Africa.
"As for reimagining the African landscape," Bamjee says, "I don't know if it's so much a re-imagination that's needed or a concerted move to document; the excellence that already exists, and the banality of the everyday."
As a writer and photographer, Bamjee can tell stories in two creative languages, which she meticulously uses to highlight inspiring stories and stories of personal self-actualization on a commercial level. Perhaps when we think about how collaboration can be used for re-education, there are more of these types of projects we should explore.
"Photographers quite literally hold the tool of representation in their hands," she says, "I feel image-making comes with a measure of responsibility, especially with what we choose to assign value to or frame as important." 
Linathi Makanda
Linathi Makanda is a writer and artist based in South Africa.
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