When I was 5 or 6 years old, a cameraman would cycle around our residential estate to take photographs. He had a schedule — Tuesday and Thursday afternoons, I think. Two of my aunts lived with us, and loved photographs. They would prepare for the cameraman’s arrival by dubbing powder on their faces. They would make me wear my best clothes even if it was the end of the day. They would apply wanja around their eyes. They would squeeze a pea-sized amount of the popular 20-shilling face lotion Fair and Lovely onto their forefinger — small enough so that they don’t waste it but big enough that it has an effect. Then they would stand outside the gate and wait for the cameraman. He would come by; camera slung over one shoulder like a handbag. “Click! Click!” an exchange of 20 shillings per picture as pre-payment for developing them, and a few warnings from my aunts of, “Na utoleshe vizuri.” That is, make sure the photos come out right, as if the photographer, and not they, were in charge of how they looked.
I was always taught, if someone unleashed a camera, you wore your best clothes, and smiled.
When I see photos depicting Africa at Yale though, I look from a distance, afraid. When Yale had an event to discuss immigration, the poster had only a photo of Africans on a boat, never mind that none of the 54 African countries feature among the top 10 sources of immigrants in the United States. For an event to sensitize people to illiteracy, African children graced the poster. Last week, I picked up the Yale Economic Review, and on the cover, representing a wonderfully written article about how Africa was becoming the best place to make investments, was a photo of someone’s feet in beaded ornaments.
I wondered if I was the only one to have this reaction. I sent a Kenyan friend at Harvard a link to the Reach Out spring break service trip info session. She exclaimed, “Is that seriously the photo they are using?” You guessed right — a photo of African children seated on the grass watching a show. None of these photos had “Africa” or “Kenya” or “Congo” labeled on them, but what comes to everyone’s mind when they see these photos of black people in developing countries, is almost definitely African countries.
What is wrong with this? Certain African countries do have high illiteracy rates (although some also have high literacy rates). Certain African countries do have high emigration rates (to Europe, not to the U.S.). Certain people in Africa wear beads on their feet.
But often the content of these pictures does not have any relationship to what it is meant to depict. I love African fashion, but I do not understand why a feature on the economy of Africa has a man’s feet in beaded ornaments on its cover. Don’t investments make you think of highways and technology and city centers instead? I am passionate about education but I do not understand why a picture of African children should make me think of illiteracy. A photo of Africans on a boat is an oversimplified depiction of immigration. And a photo of African children seated on grass watching a show, should not, on its own without a caption or anything, be what makes you think of aid.
Instead of the excitement that my aunts and I had when the cameraman brought us the printed photos, at Yale, looking at pictures of home is an activity I associate with disappointment.
I joked with my sister about how when Humans of New York’s Brandon came to Kenya, he took a photo of a child who said he always takes his sister to the library. Two of the top comments read: “Books are the greatest escape” and “I need to find them and buy them books.” The children had not said they were suffering. They just said they were going to the library, but the approximately 4,000 people who liked those comments assumed that these children needed an escape. A photo of a child from my continent, perhaps my brother or sister, makes people think of a need to escape.
My sister argues with me. She says, “But Africa IS underdeveloped. We do need infrastructure. We are at war.”
And what I say is certain African parts are underdeveloped, certain parts need infrastructure and certain parts are at war. To blanket this as Africa is wrong. My sister understands that when she says Africa is underdeveloped, she means certain parts. But for people who have never been, these pictures are all they have of Africa. Yet I know that because of the media I have been exposed to, even I, as well as people from my continent, am not immune to making insensitive generalizations like “Americans are all about parties and making paper and dieting.”
Mostly, the ‘wrong’ picture painted by the media of the U.S. is often of perfection. America, through the photos we see, is the Statue of Liberty, and Hollywood, and Miami beach.
When the media signifies “Africa” by using stereotyped images, then you think of stereotypes when you think of African countries. You think of illiteracy, and a need for emigration and escape, and a need for aid. On the Humans of New York page, a man from Kinshasa puts it wonderfully: “We don’t like pictures like this. It is not good to deduce [sic] an entire country to the image of a person reaching out for food. It is not good for people to see us like this, and it is not good for us to see ourselves like this.” Congo has an incredible amount of farmland he points out.
Sometimes, when I complain about unfair images of Africa, students argue that Yale is different. People are educated.
“How come you know these songs,” a friend’s suitemate will ask him when he sings along to American pop music.
From the photos this boy has seen of Africa, he cannot fathom how it is possible that my friend knows these songs. How is it possible that you, from the continent of wild game and underdevelopment and disease, have had access to Coldplay?
This generalization is what makes a professor at Yale joke — with no bad intentions —in a lecture, “Maybe prayer is what Africa needs.” Because “Africa,” of all the continents, through the pictures they have seen, needs prayers. This photo-collage “Africa” is where you go for service trips; it is, as a language professor put it, a place “to help poor people.”
“Nairobi, Kenya,” is what I say when people ask me where I am from.
“Oh Africa!” the reply will come, deleting my effort at specificity. “Dude, we gotta get that buffalo meat we’ve been planning to eat,” someone once said.
What is a good photo, then? In my childhood I was an ardent fan of the kids section of the Sunday Nation newspaper. A photo of a celebrity and a caption would appear on the cover page of a magazine, and inside, you would find a whole interview of the celebrity. I liked to read about what they liked, what made them tick, their favorite foods, their history.
If you are going to use a photo, tell its story. Even if the people in your photo are illiterate or in need of foreign aid, a picture of them should symbolize more than illiteracy or foreign aid. Tell their story so that we remember more: what they like, what makes them tick, their favorite food, their history.
As a child, it confused me why my aunts said some photos were bad, and some were good, when the cameraman brought them back after printing. To me, you, not the cameraman, were in charge of what your image was. The cameraman has taken this control from the people of my continent. He does not give us the chance to apply wanja and lip stick, to decide what image the world has of us.
The Yale community is often empathetic towards diversity. Many articles on Africa are well researched and weave in the complexities of people’s lives. I just hope we can give up this monotonous set of stereotypical pictures. There are more countries in Africa than any other continent. When we think of Africa, we should see more than “Africa.”