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.

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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.