Reality through Lenses

Photo Essay by Ana Nechifor, Niya Seklemova, Alexandra Tothova

I: Wide-angle: Introduction

If we were to think of a country randomly, or even a whole continent, one we have never been to, one we have never seen in our lives, we would still have an image that would pop-up in our head immediately. That is how big the influence of media is. When it comes to representations of Africa in Western media there has been an established consensus around the view that they are “essentialised, racialized, selective and ethnocentric”, with the main issues to the attention of journalists being war, poverty, corruption and death[1]. This widespread negative coverage of the African continent was named “Afro-pessimism”[2]. However, Martin Scott has recently taken a controversial turn in the debate, pointing to our attention that representations of Africa in the media are mostly mythical[3]. He claims that they have become to constitute a common-sense assumption not grounded on empirical evidence. In fact what Mel Bunce has shown in her analysis is that the international news coverage of Africa has actually become less negative, as humanitarian issues are less reported and business and sports are increasingly more covered[4]. However, she also adds that we shouldn’t rush to conclude that the era of Afro-pessimism is over[5].

Regardless of whether representations of Africa have become more positive in the recent years or not, it seems that these Western media representations are still limited, forming a single way of seeing. David Campbell has perfectly noted in this regard that “in terms of what ‘we’ outside of ‘Africa’ see, the overriding concern needs to be less the presence of particular pictures than the absence of all the alternative possibilities”[6]. And while the media photographs representative of Africa do show an existing reality, it is a singular one. The latter is also greatly emphasized by the Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Adichie in her inspiring TED talk, who says that the problem with stereotypes is “not that they are untrue but that they are incomplete.”[7]

This is why we have taken up the challenge to go beyond the single story and beyond the stereotypes, and aim for a re-visualization of Africa. We will attempt to do this by showing an alternative story through the eyes of a few Europeans who have experienced various African countries themselves and have seen something that the media doesn’t reveal. However, it is important to note that these photos do not stand for the whole of Africa, they represent specific parts the people’s experiences, specific countries, specific communities and even specific moments.

As for the other part of this project, Western Europe through the eyes of few Africans, we have not encountered any literature on representations of Europe in African media, and we have not been able to make claims of whether the media image reflects the one seen from the eyes of the Africans themselves. Regardless, this is not the purpose of this project either. The photos which the Africans have taken will be interpreted in reference not to what they reveal about Europe, but what they reveal about the Africans themselves. Since their choices for taking the photograph have been made on the grounds of these people’s own background and since they have been asked to show the differences between Africa and Europe, the photos of Europe speak strongly about Africa.

II: Close-up: What we have discovered

With the help of photo elicitation and discourse analysis as methodological tools we have analyzed their pictures and words in order to create a panoramic view and indicate different categories within it, one that is relevant for the respective culture and one that is irrespective of the stereotypes found nowadays in the media.

To begin with, in order to arrive at a panoramic view as objective as it can be, we have asked the participants to provide us with photos they found as representative of Europe/Africa. Subsequently we interviewed firstly European persons that have travelled to Africa and then African people that have travelled to Europe. All of them have received the following question: What is Western Europe/ Africa in your eyes and what do you see as being representative of it? Could you also see any differences as opposed to your home country? and afterwards we analyzed both their answers and what they have depicted in the pictures chosen as representative.

Africa through the European lenses

Young people travelling to Africa might expect to encounter poverty, corruption, lack of high standards regarding health, starvation and illiteracy. This is the big cover offered by media. While we are not trying to say that this is not part of the reality, the story we offer here sheds a different light and shows an alternative outlook. Young people with or without expectations have offered us their “reality” concerning Africa. Thus, with the help of photo elicitation, we managed to arrive at the main themes that form a pattern concerning Africa:

  • Diversity
  • Connection with the nature
  • Community
  • Mobility
  • Acceptance and openness
  • The joy of little things in life
  • Resilience

We attempt to go beyond the negative vs. positive classifications, since they are very subjective categories, by simply showing what the people have seen and have taken as relevant. It highlights elements that are rooted in the African culture and lifestyle and that are almost non-existent in the mainstream panoramic picture.

Europe through the African lenses

This is the other side of the story that we are telling through this project. The people we have interviewed originate from a few African countries and they have been exposed to a culture and an environment different from theirs, which makes it easy for them to indicate the differences.

They have talked about and photographed:

  • Organization
  • Priorities of the society
  • Social welfare
  • Surviving against the odds of the nature
  • Security
  • Safety
  • Environmental protection and sustainability

Going more into depth, we can even say that they photographed and talked about some elements that are more or less missing in their cultures and their home countries. They have seen as relevant to talk about and see elements that are not that visible and even not existing in their homes, or are limited to the more affluent parts of the population like the case of recycling (environmental protection).

III: Portrait – What we have shown

Whereas the Africans have depicted elements that are part of the mainstream image of Europe such as environmental protection, safety, social welfare, and security, things that they see as lacking in their own countries, this shows us that the mainstream image of Africa is not wrong in itself, but it is not the whole story. In the meantime: the Europeans have depicted elements almost nonexistent in the mainstream picture. This shows us the relevance that pictures have in creating widely accepted truth. Jacques Ranciere talks about the notion of the “distribution of sensible”, our seeing of the world which has become so obvious that we don’t recognize anymore that it excludes as much as it includes.[8] As images influence the distribution of the sensible by either reinforcing or challenging the existing configurations of seeing and thinking, we wanted to redraw the boundaries between what can be seen and not and thought and not by showing the unseen face of Africa in the eyes of Europeans.

Media uses pictures that show only one type of “reality” and tends to throw shades on the other parts. Thus, when these people have visited Africa they have seen something that the “audience” would not expect, they have seen communities that have fun together, communities that embrace each other and accept each other, they have seen people enjoying their time, and they have seen the acceptance and openness in front of diversity.

 These are the main reasons that give relevance to this photo essay, namely, that it highlights where media shadows. As in pictures, everything is a “shadow and highlight” duo and it depends on the “lens” you use which part you would like to put into the main plan.

Lastly, we would like to give special thanks to our participants who agreed with the publication of their photos for this research project. The sample included four Germans, a Dutch, who travelled to African countries and a Nigerian, a Tanzanian, a Ghanaian and one Ethiopian person who currently reside in Netherlands.

Bibliography:

Bunce, Mel. “The international news coverage of Africa: beyond the single story.” in Africa’s Media Image in the 21st Century, ed. Bunce Mel et al. Routledge, 2017.

Campbel, David, Visualising ‘Africa’: moving beyond ‘positive versus negative’ photographs, https://www.david-campbell.org/2010/03/16/visualising-africa/

Ranciere, Jacques. The Politics of Aesthetics: The Distribution of Sensible. Cornwall: MPG Books Ltd, 2004.

Scott, Martin. “The Myth of Representations of Africa.” Journalism Studies 18.2 (2015).

TED Global 2009, The Danger of a Single Story narrated by Chimamanda Adichiehttp: https://www.ted.com/talks/chimamanda_adichie_the_danger_of_a_single_story#t-813494

[1] Scott, Martin. “The Myth of Representations of Africa.” Journalism Studies 18.2 (2015): 1

[2] Ibid

[3] Ibid

[4] Mel Bunce. “The international news coverage of Africa: beyond the single story.” in Africa’s Media Image in the 21st Century, ed. Bunce Mel et al. (Routledge, 2017)

[5] Ibid

[6] David Campbel, Visualising ‘Africa’: moving beyond ‘positive versus negative’ photographs

https://www.david-campbell.org/2010/03/16/visualising-africa/

[7] TED Global 2009, The Danger of a Single Story narrated by Chimamanda Adichiehttp://www.ted.com/talks/chimamanda_adichie_the_danger_of_a_single_story#t-813494

[8] Jacques Ranciere, The Politics of Aesthetics: The Distribution of Sensible (Cornwall: MPG Books Ltd) 12-15.