Wednesday, 25 March 2009

White black people

You need to be careful about creating imagery of sub-Saharan African societies for British audiences. People tend to generalise about the region and often don’t understand the differences between different African cultures, and even different African countries. During my first year at university, I discovered that around half of my housemates were unaware that Africa is a continent, and not a country.

Lazy journalists and television appeals, for their part, routinely refer to Africa as if it were one homogenous society—poor, disease-ridden, unstable, corrupt and undeveloped—with little internal differentiation save for ‘warring tribes’ and rebel armies. Our ignorance is not only embarrassing; it perpetuates stereotypes that are dangerous for those they (mis)represent.

Photographers and filmmakers also have to be sensitive to the centuries of racist representations of Africans produced by Europe and the ‘developed’ world, of which Resident Evil 5 is just the latest manifestation. Treating black Africans as part of the backdrop for a storyline centred around a white, male, protagonist has a history going back at least as far as Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, and undermines efforts to bring about social change based on an understanding of Africans as just as human as Europeans.

A series of photographs centred on Tanzanians suffering from albinism—the congenital condition of being born without the melanin pigment that protects our skin from the sun’s UV rays—therefore has a heavy burden of responsibility to bear. And, arresting as these images by Jackie Dewe Mathews undoubtedly are, I’m not sure they fully acknowledge this responsibility.

There are two main problems. Firstly, while it is the job of the images to tell the story, the captions do play their part in explaining certain information. Who are these people? Where are they? Why is this happening to them? If information is omitted, it can change the way we consume the story.

Explaining these images, the photographer barely mentions the context or the history behind them. She refers superficially to ‘ingrained prejudice’, giving us the impression that this prejudice is something inherent to Tanzanian society. She briefly mentions ‘the killings that have ravaged Tanzania’ as if they were a tornado or some other natural disaster. In fact, the images and their accompanying information provoke more questions than they answer—and not in a good way.

It is true that albinos are stigmatised throughout many parts of sub-Saharan Africa, often being shunned by their communities and relatives, having to drop out of school because of sight problems, and suffering discrimination when they seek employment. They also face a greatly increased risk of cancer and other health problems because their skin lacks the pigmentation that protects against sun damage.

However, Tanzania has become far more dangerous in recent years after Tanzanian witch doctors have increased trade in albino skin, bones, genitals and hair. These are supposed to possess magical powers and bestow luck upon others. This belief has created a demand for albino body parts, and at least 45 Tanzanian men, women and children suffering from albinism have been killed and mutilated since the beginning of 2008. According to Tanzanian police officials, the violence is worst in rural areas where people tend to be more superstitious. Fishermen reportedly weave albino hairs into their nets, hoping that they will catch more fish.

One healer in northern Tanzania denied that albino body parts form part of the witch doctor tradition in the area, saying, “Yes, I’ve heard of it. But that’s not real witchcraft. It’s the work of con men.” Indeed, it is now commonplace to hear albinos referred to as ‘deals’ because of how lucrative trading their body parts can be. Albinos in Tanzania say they are being hunted and fear for the safety of their families. Already more than 90 people, including four police officers, have been arrested on suspicion of murdering albinos.

The cause of this recent resurgence of superstition is unknown, but authorities have blamed everything from Nigerian films to rising food prices. The killings have even spread over the border into neighbouring Burundi, where at least 10 albinos have been killed and dismembered, their body parts then smuggled into Tanzania.

Government spokesman Salvator Rweyemamu has said that the killings of albinos perpetuate “perceptions of Africa that we’re trying to run away from,” pointing to the positive developments taking place in the country that the government is keen to promote.

Of course, I am not advocating that photographers seek to support government propaganda. But statements like this point to another story that is not being told: a story about uneven economic development and education; about the invention of superstition and the point at which it begins to legitimise acts of great violence. According to 49 year old Samuel Mluge, secretary-general of the grossly under-funded Tanzanian Albino Society, the recent killings are a relatively new development. While albinos in his country have long been targets of discrimination, he said, “we have never feared like we do today.”

There is another story to be told here: a story about the way people deal with physical abnormality, about how we deal with it in Britain and have dealt with it in the past, and how we consume imagery of people we find fascinating and a little frightening. This is the second problem. There isn’t anything intrinsically wrong with looking at pictures of Tanzanians with albinism. But you really need to be presented with the context. Often context is all that stands between insightful commentary and pure voyeurism, as this photo essay clearly shows.

I’d like to think that the photographer’s aim was noble; that she was concerned by the stigmatisation of those born with albinism and wanted to convey this to a wider audience. Indeed, this may well have been her motivation. But somehow, I don’t think it was.

We are drawn to the weird and grotesque; the persistence of freak shows is evidence of that. Fascination with disease, deformity and physical abnormality has a history, certainly, but it also has a psychology and a politics. To be able to gaze upon the image of a person deformed by a genetic condition excites the viewer, while conferring upon him or her the peculiar privileges of distance and detachment.

These photographs are beautiful: expertly composed and thoughtfully lit. But the incredible visual appeal of the photographs actually enhances the objectification of their subjects. Tanzanians suffering from albinism are placed under the spotlight, positioned before our curious eyes while we gawp at their condition, simultaneously enthralled and repelled by the pale pinkness of their skin, mottled with sun damage, set against the healthy brown skin of those around them.

We stare, horrified, at the tumours, scabs and sores erupting on their bodies, and without the self-conscious need to politely look away we would experience in a real-life encounter. We stare unapologetically at the strange beauty contained within these images, feeling pity and concern. We probably do not feel guilty.

The photographer’s brief was to cover a story based somewhere else—not in the UK, not in the homeland of the Royal Photographic Society and the Guardian newspaper sponsoring the endeavour—and it was supposed to be a story that suggested connections between British audiences and the wider world. The winning story certainly suggests a connection, but I’m not sure that it’s the kind of connection originally envisaged.

The connection making the greatest impression on me is the connection with our racist colonial heritage; the one where we treat difference as a spectacle and see Africans as objects. I don’t doubt for a moment that this entirely contradicts the stated aims of the photographer, but I want to challenge the idea that we should be forgiven for our ignorance.

To portray people in Africa—anywhere in Africa—you have to recognise the burden of responsibility that your images will bear. At best, a series of photographs like this will tell an incomplete story. At worst, they will reinforce a dangerous and outdated way of looking at the world, gratifying our most base instincts and objectifying the very people the photographer wished to defend.

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