Beschermende olifanten


In Zuid Afrika ben ik een opleiding tot fotograaf gaan volgen, die ik onlangs heb afgerond. Mijn mooiste foto’s van natuur en mens in zuidelijk Afrika deel ik graag op deze plaats!

Onlangs waren we op safari in Madikwe Game Reserve – een cadeautje voor ons 15-jarig huwelijk – en daar zagen we deze groep olifanten bij een watertje. Olifanten beschermen hun jongen goed – zie hoe hier de grote dieren om het kleintje heen staan!


The aesthetics of African diaspora

Lawson - Woman with child

Deana Lawson – Mother and Child, 2017

An image of a woman holding a crying baby in her living room, while another child seems to be flitting in and out of the frame. The sparse interior, the cheap curtains and the slightly dirty walls speak of poverty. The woman, however, looks into the camera with a challenging expression, as if she wants to say ‘yes, this is my life, what of it?’.

Photographer Deana Lawson has been hailed as a champion of the unpacking of the complexities of race and identity. She has taken photographs of African women and men in their homes in the US, but also in Jamaica, the DRC and South Africa. A recent profile in The New Yorker rejoices in Lawson’s portraits, because they are, for a viewer in the African diaspora, so recognizable. “One of the things many people in the diaspora have shared – unavoidably – is the experience of poverty, but Lawson’s work suggests other, deeper vectors that may also connect us: certain gestures and interpersonal attitudes, strategies of escape, modes of defense or display, pleasures and fears, aesthetics, superstitions, and, perhaps most significant, shared fantasies.”

How to portray people without turning them into stereotypes? For me, this is one of the greatest riddles of photography. Especially when it comes to photographs of black people, the story of the photographer often takes precedence over the stories of the people portrayed. In this blog I have discussed a number of these cases: National Geographic confessed that much of their photography in the history of the magazine has been tainted by racist or ethnocentric ideas. Other photographers, like Diane Arbus, have been criticized for fetishizing the otherness of her subjects. Even Apartheid photographer Omar Badsha can be said to use his photography to advance his own ideology instead of giving a true representation of the lives of his subjects.

On the other hand, giving that true representation may be an impossibility. Every photograph is at least two steps away from the lived experience of its subject. First, the photographer chooses a frame and in doing so a particular perspective on the person portrayed. Second, the viewer of the finished photograph sees it from their own context. The viewer gives meaning to the photograph from his or her own history and experiences. These layered interpretations give plenty of opportunities to shift away from the reality of the person portrayed in the photograph.

Deana Lawson’s photographs seem to portray life as it is. We see black people at home, in their own space, with their own mess and their own objects of beauty. An uninformed look at the photographs would lead the viewer to conclude that we are given an insight in these people’s world: the aesthetics of African diaspora, as Zadie Smith labels it in The New Yorker. Smith feels empowered by these photographs: “Outside a Lawson portrait you might be working three jobs, just keeping your head above the water, struggling. But inside her frame you are beautiful, imperious, unbroken, unfallen.” This is a great testimony to the strength of Lawson’s pictures. But reality, as always, is more complicated.

Lawson - Brother and Sister Soweto, 2017

Deana Lawson – Brother and Sister Soweto, 2017

A young man in a bedroom, looking fearlessly into the camera while making a sign with his hand. A young child is half hiding behind his back, looking away from the camera. Lawson is not bashful about the way her photographs came about. They are staged portraits, in which Lawson had control over everything the viewer of her photographs sees. About this photograph, taken in Soweto, she says: “I wanted to represent him claiming his space and holding up the West Side symbol, like brothers in California and New York. So I’m collapsing this distance of the young black man in Soweto, and his relationship to young black men in the U.S. This is his little sister and I wanted him to protect her in a way, but I also wanted her body and her face to almost refuse the camera, so I asked her to turn away — to create sort of a dynamic relationship between his forward confrontation with the camera, and her looking away.”

The gesture of the young man and the posture of the girl are all prompted by Lawson. In other photographs she rearranges interiors. The baby in the photo at the top is not the woman’s child. So whose world are we seeing in Lawson’s photographs? Are the similarities between photos taken in different countries an expression of an African diaspora aesthetics, or are the similarities due to Lawson’s choices in what to include in the frame, and how to pose the subjects? What gesture would the young man from Soweto make in his daily life, hanging out with friends? Maybe it would have been this West Side symbol, maybe he wants to claim this global connection his brothers – but because the photograph is staged we will never know.

“As a photographer, I’m also making choices to include or exclude certain things that make [this photo] appear like reality, but it’s not,” Lawson says. She doesn’t claim to give a true representation. The dissonance between real and staged is a central theme in her work. It is what makes Lawson an artist, and not an ethnographer of the African diaspora aesthetics.

Changing the world through photography

“Photography is not a photocopy of reality” my lecturer in photography said in our first class. A photo is not necessarily an accurate duplicate of the world, because it adds subjective feelings and opinions. Africa and Africans have been subjected to many othering discourses that add negative feelings and are based on unfavourable opinions. This is especially visible in the history of South Africa. Omar Badsha is a Seedtimes 2018f_simpleSouth African photographer who lived through the era of Apartheid. In a recent public debate on occasion of the launch of his newest book Seedtime, he explained how he uses photography to change the world.

Badsha is a self-taught photographer, who started out taking pictures of the work circumstances of chemistry workers to assist the advocacy of their trade union. He also photographed people in townships and protest actions against Apartheid. “I use photography like an author who uses words, or a painter who uses paint,” he says, “to express what happens in a community.” This does not mean showing only the problems and misery in the townships. “I photograph their everyday rituals. I use the camera to explore the space they create, and the dignity they have.”

The point of Badsha’s photography is not creating art, or purely documenting life. He uses photography to agitate for change. This change should happen not only in actual living circumstances, but also in the way people think. The people he captures in his photographs are the major actors in changing society, and in his photography, Badsha aims to empower them and change their mindset. Being black in Apartheid times meant being worth less than a white person, a notion that penetrates and diminishes the sense of self and personhood. The goals of Badsha’s photography is to tell a different story. “We are human, not just black”, Badsha says. “The central concern in our art was to articulate what it is to be a black person.” Photography is a strong tool to do this. Instead of portraying black people in a stereotyped way, as exotic individuals or as inferior beings, Badsha’s photography shows them as humans. “In the book you see relationships. You see a father and a son, a mother and a child. You see lovers. This is a different narrative than the stereotype.”

Photography should bring people together in a common humanity, instead of enforcing the stereotype of the exotic or inferior other. Seedtime is a valuable retrospective on the work of an inspiring photographer who uses photography as political activism to change the world.

The eye of the beholder

One of the most renowned photographers of people on the margin was the American artist Diane Arbus (1923-1917). She took pictures of those who were deemed ‘not normal’: dwarfs and giants, circus performers, nudists, and transgender people, trying to show worlds that other people do not see. But whose world is pictured in a photographer’s work?

I really believe there are things nobody would see if I didn’t photograph them”, Diane Arbus once said. She saw the misfits in society that others closed their eyes for. Rather than voyeuristically taking their portraits with a hidden camera, as some street photographers did, Arbus interacted with her subjects. “Actually, they tend to like me”, she said.

Child with a toy handgranade in Central Park

Diane Arbus, 1962, Child with Toy Hand Grenade in Central Park

One of her most famous photographs shows a boy in a park, playing with a toy hand grenade. With his hands clenched, the boy looks into the camera. He appears about to explode. The striking pose of the kid has been interpreted as symbolizing the closeness between child’s play and primal violence. It is a photograph of something that we would not ordinarily see. It is a disturbing picture that triggers our emotions. It allows us to access – or at least be aware of – a different world.

But whose world are we experiencing in the photograph of the boy with the toy hand grenade? Critics of Arbus’ work have pointed out that in the contact sheet that shows the whole series of images Arbus took of the boy, this is the only disturbing image. On the others, we see an ordinary boy fooling around in a park. The choice of printing this image of a disturbing and disturbed kid is Arbus’ own.

A Jewish Giant Home with his Parents in the Bronx, 1970

Diane Arbus, 1970, A Jewish Giant Home with his Parents in the Bronx

Another Arbus image shows an extraordinarily tall man visiting his parents. Their faces are slightly shocked as they look up at him. According to one commenter, this image shows Arbus’ devotion to represent the underrepresented. “A viewer may not infer that this is a family photo without the help of the title. Yet, at the very core of Arbus’ photo is a picture of a mother and father with their child in a typical family home”, writes a contributor on The Art Story website.

I wonder if this is what we see. Do we see in this image how a giant has a normal family life, just like we do? Or do we see a freakish man who would fit better in a circus? To put it boldly: Do we see the man or the monster? The answer to these questions lies in the viewer of the photograph, of course. But it is also influenced by the photographer who takes the picture. Does Arbus help us to experience and share the world of the people she portrays, or is she enforcing stereotypes?

The philosopher Susan Sontag would say it is the latter. According to Sontag, Arbus is not an empathetic observer, but a pessimistic anti-humanist. She writes: “Arbus’s work does not invite viewers to identify with the pariahs and miserable-looking people she photographed. Humanity is not ‘one.’” Her images do not make Sontag feel compassionate about the life and fate of Arbus’ subjects.

Arbus is not like the ‘poverty porn’-photographers who excel in portraying people in the most horrid circumstances with the aim to raise pity that can be bought off by giving a donation. But avoiding that pitfall does not raise her photography beyond dispute. On the flip side of poverty porn there is an equally objectionable place of othering, where people are reduced to freaks.

What does this mean for my quest to be an ethnographic photographer? Navigating between the undesirable poles of poverty porn and freak shows might be a tough challenge for a photographer portraying the lives of ordinary people in Africa.

Imagine Africa

Recently, National Geographic asked a historian to examine the photographs about Africa and Asia in its archives. “For decades, our coverage was racist”, was the conclusion that made the headline.

The voices of black Africans did not feature in articles, and photographs pictured them in a stereotypical way: doing tribal dances, or staring enthralled at the modern equipment of the photographer. In this way, Africans are (quite literally) portrayed as not on par with the Western reader. They are traditional where the reader is modern; they live in villages instead of cities; they have not reached a Western level of development.

The ways in which Africa and Africans – or, better: Zambians, South Africans, Kenyans, Nigerians, etc. – are portrayed is an issue that receives increasing attention. In National Geographic, the stereotypical African is the ‘noble savage’, someone who is still in touch with nature, with their roots and with the community; unspoiled by the rationalizations, disenchantments and individualization of modernity. Another stereotype is triggered by charities and by media covering disasters. We all know these images: African children with flies crawling on their faces and bellies swollen with hunger oedema.

This image of Africa has been labelled as ‘poverty porn’. People in these photographs are portrayed when they are at their most vulnerable. The objective is to generate pity or sympathy, and subsequently to increase donations to the charity. The donations are for a good cause, but these images keep telling us that Africans need to be saved. They are victims. They are not able to help themselves. In a Ted-talk, Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie says: “The problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.

There really are pitiable children suffering from famines – photos portraying them are not staged. But there is more to Africa than this. More than noble savages and beautiful nature; and more than suffering victims and “shithole countries”. Photographers, wherever they come from, and whoever pays them, should be aware of the power of their images in enforcing harmful stereotypes.

Why am I writing this? I am an anthropologist and photographer living in southern Africa. It is my aim to picture the people whom I encounter in an honest way. The issues addressed in this blog sometimes make me feel I am traversing a minefield. I hope to use this blog to plot my course, avoiding the pitfalls mentioned here, and reflecting on a number of issues related to imaging (or imagining) Africa.

Ons nieuwe boek!

Alles anders, alles hetzelfde – Leven en geloven in Zambia

Het nieuwe boek van Hermen en Johanneke Kroesbergen-Kamps is verschenen.

Op vrijdag 5 januari is het nieuwe boek ‘Alles anders, alles hetzelfde – Leven en geloven in Zambia’ van Hermen en Johanneke Kroesbergen-Kamps verschenen. Dit boek over geloofszaken wordt uitgegeven door Uitgeverij Boekscout.

Alles anders, alles hetzelfde - Leven en geloven in Zambia - Facebook promotie-bericht


Ze waren nog nooit in Afrika geweest, maar toch reisden Hermen en Johanneke Kroesbergen zes jaar geleden naar de Zambiaanse hoofdstad Lusaka om daar te werken als docent. Met een open blik ontdekken ze het leven in Zambia. Ze zien armoede van dichtbij en worstelen met de vraag hoe daarmee om te gaan. Ze maken kennis met de geloofsbeleving van gewone Zambianen en denken met hun studenten na over het

idee dat geloof welvaart brengt. De foto’s in het boek, gemaakt door Johanneke, geven een bijzonder inkijkje in het Zambiaanse dagelijks leven. Op het eerste gezicht lijkt alles anders in Zambia, maar uiteindelijk zijn er meer overeenkomsten dan je zou denken.

Over de auteur

Hermen en Johanneke Kroesbergen hebben de afgelopen zes jaar gewerkt als docenten op een predikantsopleiding in Lusaka, Zambia. Hermen (1977) is theoloog, Johanneke (1981) is godsdienstwetenschapper en fotograaf. Samen houden ze ervan nieuwe werelden te ontdekken en te leren begrijpen, en daar vervolgens over te schrijven.

Fragment uit het boek

Het is mis. Al van verre hoor ik het geluid van weeklagende vrouwen uit de richting van de studentenhuizen. Er is iemand overleden, hier op de campus. Geschrokken vraag ik me af wie het zou zijn. Toch niet het schattige zoontje van Sarah? Of de pasgeboren baby van student Ben?

Tijdens de regentijd zijn de studenten vaker ziek. Het regent veel, maar zodra de zon schijnt lopen de temperaturen op. Poelen met stilstaand water zijn dan al snel bronnen van ziekte, vooral in de arme wijken waar iedereen buiten leeft en de sanitaire voorzieningen niet overal even goed zijn. Vanwege hun weekendstage komen de studenten veel in deze wijken. Op de campus is er wel aandacht voor deze problemen. Regelmatig is er een doktersspreekuur, en soms zijn er presentaties over het herkennen en voorkomen van ziektes als tyfus en cholera. Op weg naar mijn kantoor zie ik studenten stapels stoelen naar de studentenhuizen brengen. “Wat is er gebeurd?”, vraag ik. De zus van een student blijkt die ochtend overleden te zijn. Maria was 29 en verbleef sinds een paar maanden bij ons op de campus om voor de kinderen te zorgen terwijl vader en moeder allebei lessen volgen. Misschien was het malaria, misschien iets met de longen, het wordt niet helemaal duidelijk. Hoe kan iemand van 29 zomaar overlijden na een ziekbed van twee dagen? Zou dat in Nederland ook gebeurd zijn?

Ziekenzorg in Zambia is problematisch. Er zijn klinieken in de meeste wijken, maar tekort aan personeel en faciliteiten maakt dat de zorg van een heel andere orde is dan in Nederland. Heel Zambia moet het bijvoorbeeld doen met één CT- scanmachine. De wachtrijen in de klinieken zijn lang – erg lang. Een steekproef vond bijvoorbeeld een vrouw die om zes uur ’s ochtends aankwam bij de kliniek en na twaalf uur wachten nog niet geholpen was. Het geeft een machteloos gevoel, te weten dat er hier mensen overlijden die in Nederland gewoon beter waren geworden.



Titel:                    Alles anders, alles hetzelfde – Leven en geloven in Zambia

Auteur:    Hermen en Johanneke Kroesbergen-Kamps

Bestel Alles anders, alles hetzelfde hier.