OAKLAND, Calif. — Those of us who study photography are familiar with the notion of the photographer’s gaze. The photographer, as the one who gazes and captures that gaze, necessarily has some measure of power over those who are photographed. This power dynamic has shifted somewhat in the age of ubiquitous cameras. Fellow Hyperallergic writer Alicia Eler noted this recently in the realm of the queer selfie, “To clarify, in this case I am not using queer to suggest a non-normative sexual or gender identity; rather, I am referencing the idea of a photograph that engages with power dynamics in relation to the socially networked self.”
This past September, one of my favorite blogs, Dynamic Africa, began highlighting African photographers from up and down the continent and working in different periods of time. There’s the expansive oeuvre of Nii Obadai, a Ghanaian photographer who grew up in England and Nigeria, as he navigates Ghanaian society as an outsider and insider. Samuel Finlak, the sole photographer in the Atta village of Cameroon, has been taking black and white portraits of the wide variety of ethnic groups in the village. Mozambican Mario Macilau looks at traditions of revering the elderly, an issue made more complex by mass migration and the devastation of HIV and AIDS. And Ranjith Kally tells the lives of the South Africa’s Indian community in the 1950s. Others, like the work of Lakin Ogunbanwo, are influenced “by all things African with a hint of the west here and there.”
I would have loved to see more women photographers, but the series has introduced me to some great new blogs to follow. InLagos chronicles street life in Lagos, the former capital of Nigeria and one of the busiest urban centers on the continent, and Humans of Accra, modeled after the popular Humans of New York, shows portraits of people throughout the Ghanaian capital. Instagram also plays a role as an online gallery; I’ve begun following the Instagram of Kenyan-born Somali Abdi Latif Dahir as he chronicles his travels throughout East Africa, and the work of #OneTouchLive, a group of photographers traveling from Kenya around the continent. The potential of the internet in bringing out more diverse voices shines through in these examples, though I’m curious how diverse the followership is.
That we in the developed world are more likely to see Africans photographed by Westerners is a given; I recently looked at images of mine workers in the Democratic Republic of Congo that fall along the common tropes of portraying the continent as one rife with misery and disease. Many of these images, while not untrue, tell a single-sided story about a rich and diverse continent, one that is the fastest growing region in the world next to Asia.
In addition to being a fantastic collection of both contemporary and historic African photographers, Dynamic Africa’s series shows the possibilities of digital media like Tumblr and Instagram in not reversing the gaze–these photographs are still about the continent — but showing the possibilities of a more local gaze, a gaze that is relational rather than othering. As Funke, the curator of the site, noted in respect to Brian Nyongesa’s work in Kenya, “ Despite being documentary in nature, one doesn’t get the same outsider or ‘other’-ing feeling that is often produced in this line of work. It’s hard not to fall in love with every single one of his photographs.”
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