Afro-pessimism

I am enjoying reading (slowly) Okwui Enwezor’s short introductory essays in Snap Judgments: Contemporary African Photography. The first of three essays concerns “Afro-pessimism,” the constructed view of Africa through pictures (mostly) as grim, on the precipice of disaster, deficient, retrograde — a place where “nothing good happens.”

It’s quite the provocative, fascinating essay asserting that contemporary “Western-made” images of Africa dehumanize it, pushing the continent to the “margins of life,” where it ceases to be a concrete reality in the perpetuation of the “colonial fantasy.” Enwezor rightly argues that “these stories are no longer plausible.” The photographs in Snap Judgments strive to change the discourse; Enwezor wants to return Africans from their image-bound “spectrality and transience.”

This is another example of “the West versus the rest,” in which Africans are treated as the “other,” living in worlds of myth and image that are different than how Africans experience Africa. Enwezor considers these images to be an extension of the early history of photography where wealthy Europeans and Americans took their cameras to appropriate the images of Africa in a kind of photographic sport. The Westerner’s camera becomes a “vampire machine,” sucking the life out of the continent. This sort of cultural appropriation for purely selfish reason continues 150 years later in tourist and Western “fine art” photography: “Why would anyone want to photograph people with whom there is mutual estrangement?”

Enwezor writes that Westerners photograph Africa the way they do — appropriating disasters such as famine and genocide — because the press (and by extension the public) prefer images of African suffering. It enables us to fulfill a white knight fantasy, where we attempt (infrequently and half-heartedly) to save Africa . . . if not Africans. Which begs two questions: What is the photographer’s ethical responsibility in reaction to what they see? And, what are the viewers’ responsibilities? There’s a paradox that he acknowledges: images of African suffering perpetuate that suffering. If the continent is lost — if it’s perpetually in danger, if we can’t help these living ghosts — what’s the point of trying to save it.

In the exhibition and catalogue, Snap Judgments attempts to bring Africa back from the brink that non-Africans believe it is at. He wants to add a new layer of criticism to looking at imagery, to present “multiple ways of representing African life and space,” to bring African photography (and Africa) into the now. The photographs don’t necessarily present a new “African aesthetic” (though they may for all I know). They aren’t exactly photogenic, and they aren’t antiphotogenic either (in the way of Robert Adams). But what he wants to is to show African urbanization, transformation, and self-expression.

It’s worth a look.

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