On the Depiction of Africans in Photo Contests

On the Depiction of Africans in Photo Contests

As a child during the 1980s, I grew up with a weekly diet of TIME magazine and the evening news. The famine in Ethiopia during the decade generated an endless stream of news filled with images of Black bodies, so much so that my entire conception of the continent was built off the tragedy of a single nation. To me, Africa was a desert wasteland of starving people – a thought conceived through photos.

Of course, Africa is hardly that. The second largest continent with the second largest population boasts beaches, deserts, mountains, fertile farmland, pyramids, and wine country. And yet, images of abject poverty – particularly those of children – continue to perpetuate visual stereotypes of a place that inherited the racist moniker of “the dark continent” in the 19th century by Europeans seeking to justify imperialism and slave trade.

For many years, the photo contest industry has contended with accusations of racism and classism for awarding and promoting “poverty porn.” Although many contests have worked to diversify their juries and tried to attract a broader field of entrants, barely a year goes by without a major issue or scandal.

This month, Antonio Aragón Renuncio won £10,000 and the Environmental Photographer of the Year 2021 award for his image of a toddler lying in the ruins of a dilapidated building in Ghana. His image along with other winners were published on the BBC and The Guardian, causing a ruckus on Twitter. 

UK-based director and frequent photo critic Benjamin Chesterton initiated a long discussion thread, starting with three important questions about the winning photo: 1) Why is the child sleeping in the sun? 2) Why is the child sleeping in an abandoned house? 3) Is it because the child is Black that the judges don’t ask these questions? He went further to question the work of Renuncio, whose portfolio is filled with images of African children in scenes that raised questions of child safety, scene staging, and race. 

Among the various threads, I came across tweets by two Black photographers, UK-based Shaun Connell who runs TheBlkGaze and Ghana-based Nana Kofi Acquah. Both were outspoken on negative depictions of Africans and the way the contests and the media continue to award photos that perpetuate colonialist stereotypes.

I reached out to them via e-mail to hear more.

This interview has been lightly edited.

PhotoShelter: How did you become aware of the photo, and what was your initial reaction?

Shaun Connell: I first saw the photo after it was published by The Guardian on 8 November. My initial reaction was one of deja vu. Here we go again, another major prize won by a photo that uses an African child as a prop to tell a story that no African would tell in that manner. I understand that the photo was made for impact. 

Nana Kofi Acquah: When I first saw the photograph, my immediate reaction was: “What kind of irresponsible parent will leave their child to sleep in the sun?” In sub-Saharan Africa, the sun gets uncomfortably hot, and if you spend too much time in it, you’d quickly dehydrate, get a headache or develop a temperature.  I have never seen any parent put their child in the scorching sun. Am I saying it is impossible? No. I am saying because it is so uncommon, I’d like to know the back story, and even more importantly how that has anything to do with climate change. The few times I’d see some child attracted to the sun is when they have malaria, and even then it will only make you sicker so no parent places their child in the sun. Because of what I know the sun can do to a child who’s laying in it at that time of day, my first instinct would be to move the child. To think that someone thought it was a great time to make a photo for a competition is just disturbing.

You made reference to “visual violence” in a tweet. Many people are aware of physical and emotional violence. Could you expand on the definition of visual violence as it relates to photography and documentary/photojournalism?

SC: Visual violence is the impact caused by the constant, unrelenting and dehumanizing way Black and Brown skinned people are depicted visually. If it’s not poverty, it’s plight. If it’s not plight, it’s pain. If it’s not pain, it’s poverty. It is a circle of confusion that reinforces tropes and stereotypes that have been around in photography since its inception.

Visual violence is the impact caused by the constant, unrelenting and dehumanizing way Black and Brown skinned people are depicted visually. If it’s not poverty, it’s plight. If it’s not plight, it’s pain. If it’s not pain, it’s poverty.

– Shaun Connell

In many instances, there is a story to tell. The key is how it is told. The excellent TED Talk by novelist Chimamanda Adichie warns us about telling a single story about another person or country. She rightly states that we risk a critical misunderstanding. This really hits home when looking at photos like this.

The contest jury seems to be both race and gender diverse, but I was also surprised to only see one photo professional with significant photojournalism experience (i.e. Josh Haner from the New York Times). Is this a case of a lack of visual literacy on the part of the jury?

SC: Juries can look diverse, that doesn’t mean that diversity has the voice it should have. All too often diversity is not invited into the room as an equal. Yet when decisions like this are made, I see little or no evidence to suggest this is true. 

There’s definitely a disconnect with respect to the lack of visual literacy which could be addressed by adding more photojournalism experience. There seems to be a default position of rewarding photos that embrace the visual language of 20th century Europe and America. For many, this is the de facto standard by which all photos should be judged. It’s the 21st century and time for the sector to make space for, and accept, alternative visual perspectives.

Many critics (photographers included) have decried the awarding of images that they refer to as “poverty porn” in photo contests for decades. Africa and African children have been the subject of such images for years. What is needed to improve the situation?

SC: Let’s start by not awarding prizes to photos like this. Let’s look for different ways to represent Africans and tell their stories.

I’d like to see the sector embrace how Black and Brown people represent themselves and their stories visually. There’s a real need to see Africa and its diaspora as visioned by themselves. I work to address this with TheBlkGaze, an online platform dedicated to celebrating Black perspectives in photography. Over the last year, we have published compelling Q&A that illustrate a very different gaze and narratives that should be understood and appreciated as other gazes are. There’s room for all of us.

For me, these changes would make the sector more equitable, more accountable and more democratised.

NKA: If you google “African Child”  and compare it to “British Child” or “American Child” you’ll immediately get a clear sense of the predominant images out there. The world needs to know that our children are not always starving, they are not always being eaten by vultures. They are not always malnourished or dirty or sick. 

What is your position on “international” photo contests? Do they provide great marketing opportunities (especially for African photographers who might not otherwise get exposure), or are they systemically flawed?

NKA: I’ve been jury for the World Press Photo Contest, The Bartur Photo Award, and a few others in recent years. The competitions are opening up. They are becoming more inclusive, so it’s now common to find both jury and competitors coming from all over the world but this hasn’t changed much because how we see hasn’t changed. The average American or European grew up thinking photojournalism and documentary photographs must be all doom and gloom or at least risqué. If you don’t want to photograph like that, your work won’t make it in the competitions. If our appetite for dark images doesn’t change, I will get worried when more Africans start winning in these competitions because it will mean they have taken over the job of exploiting Africans and African communities to win awards.

[Contests] are becoming more inclusive, so it’s now common to find both jury and competitors coming from all over the world but this hasn’t changed much because how we see hasn’t changed.

– Nana Kofi Acquah

When I think of non-African photographers working in Africa, I think of photographers like Alice Seely Harris who exposed Belgian violence in the Congo to James Nachtwey covering atrocities in South Sudan or Rwanda. What, if anything, makes their work different from Renuncio’s image?

NKA: I won’t be surprised if Renuncio actually considers himself a disciple of Nachtwey or Harris. The type of photojournalism they practice(d) may have drawn attention to war or catastrophe but not much else. In fact, most of the time, all their viewers remember are the dismembered bodies or pensive faces but life is much more nuanced than that. People are people first, before they have issues. We cannot sacrifice human dignity in the name of drawing attention to atrocities.  The people in Harris, Nachtwey and Renuncio’s photographs have names, lovers, dreams, stories, hopes, aspirations, fears. They are whole human beings going through difficult times, not just caricatures of pathos. Good photojournalism must be interested in full characters, not flat ones.

Note: The Environmental Photographer of the Year Awards told PetaPixel, “We are having discussions internally and with industry experts regarding the specified guidelines and queries raised, and will give these discussions the time they require and deserve. Next, we will act to ensure that our policy on ethics in photography is clear, effective and that we have the processes and safeguards in place to support it.”

Cover image by Antonio Aragón Renuncio.

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This article was written by

Allen Murabayashi is the co-founder of PhotoShelter.

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